Question: After spending 13 years at Fresno State, what was it about this opportunity that got you to come to USC?
Baxter: A lot of things. Lane talked about the vision that he wanted to have at this program, and man, this is such a strong coaching staff. It has ended up being a tremendous opportunity for growth. I often say, ‘If you’re green there is room to grow and if your ripe all you can do is rot.’ Now I’m not saying that I was rotting there because we were plenty productive. Pat Hill is probably my best friend and I am proud of the program that we developed there. It’s a unique opportunity and a chance for me to grow. I am learning a lot from the coaches that are here, and they are learning from me. I think at the end of the day it’s a chance maybe to help more people. Help some kids in terms of the Academic Gameplan program that we do here. Maybe get this out in the neighborhoods in Los Angeles and help those kids. It’s a big stage and a big venue, and I have always used this stage to help people.
Q: What has Pat Hill meant to your coaching career?
Baxter: Oh man. You don’t have enough ink. We coached together at Arizona, and of course he hired me at Fresno State when I didn’t have a job, and we started that program together. He has been a source of strength and a source of stability. The bottom line is that the guy’s a leader, and that guy is loyal. He is the poster child for consistency and loyalty. If I ever get the opportunity to be a head coach, I just hope I can be one like he is to the coaches and players. He is a great guy. Lane played for him and so did Scott Thompson so he is welcome here.
Q: You are known to be a pretty innovative coach How would you describe your coaching style?
Baxter: I believe in teaching and demanding details. I try to teach the game and all of its complexities by making it as simple as possible for the players. The game is a very intense and complex game, but the best teachers make it simple to the individual players so that they can play fast, and that is really what I am all about. Teaching them what their part is, and teaching them the techniques and fundamentals, and then letting them play really fast. I always say that adults are just people who have mastered the art of making simple things difficult. So my goal is to make difficult things simple.
Q: What is the basic philosophy of your Academic Gameplan?
Baxter: Teaching technique. All games are based on three things: rules, fundamentals and techniques. It is the same thing that I teach with special teams. It’s teaching rules, technique and fundamentals - and getting them to repeat them. Then guess what happens? You get results. I don’t care what they made on the SAT or care what their GPA was. It doesn’t matter. If they can read an English word and do basic math then they can make A’s and B’s once they get in this system. The head coach did it! (Laughter)
Q: Lane Kiffin has the perception of being a controversial figure. Working with him, how is he different than that perception?
Baxter: I don’t even know. I don’t see him being controversial at all. First of all, I don’t really have time to read all that is going on. I don’t read any of it. I am lucky to do my job and get home, so all I can say is what it’s like on the inside. He’s a heck of a coach as far as good offensive mind. He’s obviously hired a heck of a staff and he lets us do our work and doesn’t micromanage us. He has hired great people and he just lets them be who they are. He stands for the right things. We are talking about toughness and discipline and we are getting it in all areas. We are getting it in the classroom and on the field.
Q: On the college level, most coaches think things always have to be serious, but you have a different approach with things like the Survivor Drill.
Baxter: I don’t know at what point it got so serious that we shouldn’t be having fun. When I come out here I am stealing money because I get to come out here and play games with kids. This is just PE. That’s my degree, I am a PE teacher. My goal is to take this game and make it simple and just break it down into little games. See, drills are boring but games are fun. When they are having fun it’s their idea and when it’s their idea it’s the best idea. My approach is two words - guided discovery.
Q: Special teams is an area that gets overlooked at times. How do you get the players to buy in and go all out on special teams?
Baxter: That’s easy. They signed up to play football not MIKE linebacker. It’s just an approach like that, and learning to think differently. I had a quarterback on the kickoff team a few years ago and one of the guys at a booster function says, ‘Hey coach isn’t it dangerous to have a quarterback on the kickoff team?’ So I said, ‘No. It’s dangerous to play football. What is more dangerous, sitting in the pocket thinking your tackle picked up the WILL linebacker and he hits me in the back of the head, or running down (on special teams) and hitting that guy in the face?’
Q: It’s only been a short time but what is your assessment of the kickers?
Baxter: We can win with them. Jake (Harfman) and Joe (Houston) are good players and we can win with them. I know I am going to have one year and then have to replace them. The 2011 year is the one that I am not looking forward to because I am going to have to put two guys in the game that have never played a college game. I have never done that in 25 years.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of being a coach/teacher?
Baxter: Seeing the kind of men these guys become when they leave. I am just a believer in having what I call 'substance behind the smile.' It’s important to me the kind of men that they become.
John Baxter goes through drills with the long snappers.
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