GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike Holmgren had his man. What he did not have was a job title for him.
It was 1990, and Holmgren was the offensive coordinator for the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. He wanted someone who could take Bill Walsh's playbook for the West Coast offense and computerize it. One of the 49ers' longtime scouts had a 27-year-old son working as an assistant coach at the University of the Pacific following an undistinguished career as a backup quarterback at the University of Dayton, and Holmgren set up an interview.
Holmgren liked the kid immediately, so he hired him.
"Mike Holmgren didn't even know what to call me," Jon Gruden recalled last week. "But [49ers defensive backs coach] Ray Rhodes called me 'the Piss Boy.' You know, like in that Mel Brooks movie, 'History of the World, Part I?'
"I kind of like 'quality control coach' better."
Perhaps, but Rhodes' uncouth moniker might be a better description for the entry-level job that launched Gruden's NFL coaching career, and the coaching careers of so many others, including Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo, whose teams will face off Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
"If ever there's a Hall of Fame for quality control coaches, I think Mike McCarthy and I would make it on the first ballot," said Gruden, now the color analyst for ESPN's Monday Night Football after 11 seasons as an NFL head coach. "Is there one yet? I think we should have that.
"They were the greatest years of my life."
Although other coaches also did grunt work in their first NFL gigs, including New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick for the Baltimore Colts in 1975, the modern quality control coach was born when Holmgren hired Gruden that day.
"What it does is, it teaches you football from the ground up," said Gruden, who made $500 a week and slept in his office most nights. "You get to draw the plays, you get to break down the tapes, you learn about different teams' offenses and defenses, you help run the [scout team], you might get to draw the [practice] cards. It's 24/7."
McCarthy describes it similarly. During the offseason, he proclaimed, without being prompted, that coaches who don't serve as quality control coaches during their careers do themselves a "disservice."
"It's the master's degree, it's the doctorate degree, it's the Ph.D. of coaching. It's the highest level of education that you can get to prepare you to be an assistant coach," said McCarthy, who has six former quality control coaches among his position coaches. "In my opinion, it's the best path, bar none. I don't care if you're a former player or if you coached in college football for 20 years. Regardless of your entry into this league, the quality control route, it prepares you the best."
McCarthy should know. A former small-college tight end at Fort Hays State, his first job in the NFL came in 1993 as a quality control coach for head coach Marty Schottenheimer and offensive coordinator Paul Hackett in Kansas City. McCarthy spent two years in that role before being promoted to quarterbacks coach in 1995. And the opportunity to join the Chiefs came, in part, because of Holmgren and Gruden.
"After that first year in San Francisco, Holmgren told me, 'Go get a job. When I get a head-coaching job, I'll hire you again.' So I go to the University of Pittsburgh," said Gruden, who became the Panthers' wide receivers coach. "So I took my computer, and I started drawing the plays up for [then-Pitt head coach] Paul Hackett.
"But Hackett was a morning guy. I was a night guy. It wasn't going to work. I was going to kill myself. Thank God I met this grad assistant coach from Fort Hays State. So I started teaching Mike McCarthy how to draw the plays in the computer.
"So lo and behold, the Packers hire Holmgren [as head coach] in 1992, and I get the quality control job. Mike McCarthy takes my job [at Pitt], and then he gets a quality control job in Kansas City [in 1993] with Hackett. So indirectly, he was trained by Holmgren and Hackett."
In Green Bay, Holmgren not only put Gruden to work in the office, he also made him his personal chauffeur.
"They used to call me 'Driving Miss Daisy.' I took a lot of s--- from the players for that," Gruden said. "When Coach Holmgren needed a ride to do a speech, I'd drive him, and that's when I would update him with all the quality control information -- the tendencies, different thoughts, things he wanted done. And that extra time with him was invaluable."
Holmgren promoted Gruden to wide receivers coach in 1993, then Rhodes hired him to be the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator in 1995, setting the stage for Gruden's head-coaching jobs in Oakland (1998-2001) and Tampa Bay (2002-08), where he won a Super Bowl.
McCarthy's career took off, too. After four years coaching the Chiefs' quarterbacks, McCarthy spent one year as Brett Favre's position coach in Green Bay (1999), five years as the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator (2000-04) and a year as the 49ers' offensive coordinator (2005), before the Packers hired him as their head coach in 2006.
Now in his 11th season, McCarthy, who led his 2010 team to the Super Bowl XLV title, still believes his quality control time was what prepared him the best for being a head coach because of the global view of the game it requires. A game-film addict, McCarthy loved breaking down the Chiefs and upcoming opponents, writing extensive scouting reports that detailed formations, personnel groupings, tendencies and what all 22 players on the field did. He also learned more about computers than he thought possible as he produced his reports and designed plays in digital form while developing close relationships with not only the head coach and coordinators but position coaches, too.
"You have to grow to be a successful coach, as far as understanding pro football, the ability to learn not only what you're teaching your players but to be the expert of breaking down the other side of the ball, the grind and the volume of work you have to do," McCarthy said. "You've got work ethic, you've got time management, you're connected to every position coach on the staff, you're connected to everything. You become the right-hand man, if you do a good job, to the coordinator. And if you do a great job at it, you have an excellent chance of being a good pro coach. I can't see a better starting point."
But for McCarthy, it came at a price.
"It's a ton of work, and I was married and had a young kid. That's not the best time to do it," said McCarthy, who ended up getting divorced in 1995. "It was an incredible opportunity for my career. But it didn't help [my marriage], as my dad said."
A difficult job
Packers assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley credits his wife, Colleen, with keeping his family together during his five years as Green Bay's defensive quality control coach under Dom Capers. Their sons, Quentin, 8, and Deacon, 6, often didn't see Dad for a couple of days in a row.
"It was extremely rough, having them that young and not being around them," McCurley said. "That's the beauty of Green Bay. You're only 15 minutes away from everything, so if I could go home and sleep in my own bed, I was going to do it. But that's just the nature of it. A lot of work to be done, a lot of hours to put in, and sometimes it is just easier to conk out [in your office] and get right back at it.
"It's one of those things that while you're doing it, yes, you feel blessed for the opportunity, but it's a grind. It's extremely tedious. You're saying to yourself, 'I would just love to be in front of some players coaching, instead of sitting here breaking down tape.' But you're involved with so much. You're involved with the coordinator, how he sets things up, how he organizes. You're involved with the video department, the technology sector. So you know behind the scenes how everything works, how everything runs."
Working under Capers, as McCurley did, was especially challenging. Not only is Capers an early riser and a workaholic, he prefers an old-school approach to play design, which meant McCurley had to computerize binders filled with defensive schemes when Capers fed a steady stream of new ideas to him.
"Every June and July, I go down to Florida," said Capers, a 31-year NFL veteran. "I've got a condo down on the beach, and so my wife goes and runs around and shops, and I've got an office that looks out over the ocean. Scotty hated to see me go on vacation, because he knew when I came back, I'd have a stack of stuff for him. When you get a young, bright guy, with all the thankless things they have to do -- the hours, the charts, everything -- that's what you want. They probably get to know the defense and all the little things better than anybody but you, because they're your right-hand man. They know it all."
Said McCurley: "There's so much benefit to that role -- drawing up playbooks and breaking down tape and knowing how things go -- that you really look back on it, and as tough as it was and as much of a grind as it was, it's all worth it in the end."
McAdoo's big break
McAdoo certainly thinks so. In 2003, he was a 25-year-old assistant at Fairfield University in Connecticut when the program was disbanded. Desperate, he began making calls, including one to McCarthy, who was with the Saints at the time and was on the verge of hiring an offensive quality control coach. McCarthy was also on his way to Indianapolis for the annual NFL scouting combine, and he told McAdoo that he liked the candidate he already had in place but would call back after he returned to New Orleans.
So, McAdoo jumped in his dilapidated Daewoo sedan and drove overnight through a snowstorm to Indianapolis and waited for McCarthy at his downtown hotel.
"I was coming back from the workouts at the combine, and Ben was sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for me," McCarthy recalled. "He drove all night just for an opportunity to sit down and talk football."
Although McAdoo would not immediately get the job, he so impressed McCarthy during their talk that, after his brief stints at Pitt and Akron in 2003, he was hired by McCarthy as the Saints' quality control coach in 2004. He then followed McCarthy to San Francisco in 2005 for the quality control job there, before McCarthy hired him as Green Bay's tight ends coach in 2006. McAdoo shifted to quarterbacks coach in 2012, spent two years coaching Aaron Rodgers and then left to be the Giants' offensive coordinator under Tom Coughlin before his promotion to head coach in the offseason.
And just like McCarthy, McAdoo believes he owes much of his success to his quality control years.
"What it does is, it really lays a great foundation for you," McAdoo said. "A lot of things flow downhill in that job. You get a lot of things that pile up on your desk. And you have to grind through some information and a heavy workload. It teaches you a foundation for offense, defense and special teams that's hard to come by in any other job. And you really have to grind through it.
"No one really cares about how many hours you're working, how you feel or whether you're sleeping on your desk or under your desk. You really get a chance to absorb a lot of football. There were some jobs I thought they were trying to kill me, but I made it through. And it was very rewarding at the end."