By Lee Pace
The 2006 LSU football media guide is a 208-page paean to the largesse of Tiger football. Shoe-horned into the book are words and images detailing 91,000-seat Tiger Stadium, head coach Les Miles, the prospects for a team coming off an 11-2 season, the days of yore from Billy Cannon to Bert Jones. There are bios of the offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, and the defensive chief, Bo Pelini, both of whom who would go on to run their own programs at the top of the college football food chain.
At the bottom of page 110 are a dozen postage-stamp size, black-and-white head shots of ancillary personnel. There is a graduate assistant coach named John Papuchis and interns named Mike Ekeler and Terry Joseph.
“That’s pretty cool,” says Papuchis, looking at a print-out of the page 11 years later. “We always said one day we’d work together. Now’s our chance.”
Papuchis, recently promoted to defensive coordinator for the Tar Heels, spent four years at LSU from 2004-07, and three of those were with Ekeler, now the Carolina linebackers coach. Joseph, whose mid-20s were spent playing four years of minor league baseball, was in Baton Rouge one of those years before setting off on a career that included stops at Tennessee and Texas A&M before coming to Chapel Hill in January to reunite with his old LSU mates as secondary coach.
“What I remember most is our youthful optimism of what could happen one day,” Papuchis says. “Sitting around in the off-season after work, we’d talk about one day what kind of jobs and opportunities we might have. Sometimes those goals and dreams play out, sometimes they don’t. It’s really kind of rewarding to look back on it.”
Joseph recalls there being a “hot board” in one of the shared offices for the grad assistants and interns—a map of the United States with notes of potential jobs in college football that were open or might open. The young coaches, all in their 20s or early 30s, most with young families and all getting meager paychecks, closely monitored the comings and goings of the coaching industry.
“We’d throw it out there and say, ‘Hey, one day, one of us will be a head coach or a coordinator and we’ll get back together,’” Joseph says. “A lot of people say it in their careers, but it never comes to fruition. But for us, it has. We always followed each other’s careers. With JP here the last couple of years, North Carolina was a team I’d check every Saturday.”
Papuchis, Joseph and Ekeler handled the myriad of tasks generally the purvey of the G.A. set—coordinate the offensive scout team that runs the upcoming opponent’s plays during practice, break down practice and game tape, handle the grunt work passed down by the nine full-time assistant coaches. The defensive unit run by Pelini in 2006 showed how it’s done—it allowed 12.5 points a game and 242 yards a game. That year LSU posted a 11-2 record and hammered Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The following season, LSU went 12-2 and beat Ohio State in the BCS title game.
“When you have that opportunity be at a place like that early in your career, you get a chance to see what it’s supposed to look like, to play good defense, to playing winning, championship-style football,” says Papuchis.
Adds Ekeler: “JP came up with this mantra, ‘survive and advance.’ Every game was like playing for the national championship. We’d win a game and be coming down from the press box. JP would look like he’d been in a war and say, ‘Survive and advance.’ They were all crazy, unbelievable shoot-outs and tough games in the SEC West.”
The dominoes fell into place this winter for the trio to reconnect in Chapel Hill and join a fourth coach, Deke Adams, in continuing the job of rebuilding a Tar Heel defense that coordinator Gene Chizik started two years ago. Line coach Tray Scott left for Ole Miss (and quickly hopped to Georgia) and secondary coach Charlton Warren took a job at Tennessee. Chizik, after two years of working for head coach Larry Fedora while his family remained in Auburn, decided to leave coaching altogether. Fedora quickly tapped Papuchis, from 2012-14 the defensive coordinator at Nebraska, to take over. Joseph had signed on before Chizik left, saying it was “a no-brainer” to come to Carolina from Texas A&M to work for Fedora, Chizik and with Papuchis, and Ekeler was quick to leave North Texas after one year to get the band back together.
“The opportunity to work with one of your best friends and a quality head coach, it was an easy call,” Joseph says. “I liked the family atmosphere here. JP told me the players here work their tails off and try to do what you want. He said we had some talent in the secondary. Then I watched Clemson win the national championship and said, ‘Why not do that at North Carolina?’”
“JP and I were together at Nebraska and then I went off and did my tour of the United States, so to speak,” Ekeler says. “JP and I talked for a long time about trying to get back together. Things came up but never worked out.
“But he’s a guy I truly respect. Everything about the guy is right in this profession. JP is unbelievably meticulous, extremely organized, a level-three thinker. Nothing fazes the guy. The great ones, nothing does faze them. He’s a very intellectual coach, and with that knowledge comes composure.”
The familiarity that Papuchis, Joseph and Ekeler have with each other and the fact that Adams has history at Carolina and with Fedora and offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic and receivers coach Gunter Brewer (he was at Southern Miss and came to Chapel Hill with Fedora in 2012 before leaving after one season for South Carolina), has made what could have been a major transition relatively seamless.
“They have shared experiences,” says Miles, the former LSU coach and their boss a decade ago who visited the Tar Heels’ spring practice in mid-March. “They know who they’re in the fox hole with. They knew each other forward and backward.”
Certainly more important than all of that are the players on the roster—how many are there, how fast are they, how old are they, how healthy are they? The coaches are getting their arms around those questions, and it’s likely the defense will come out of spring practice ahead of the Tar Heel offense, which was hit hard by graduation and two NFL defections.
All three from the Pelini coaching tree talk about being sound and aggressive and each raves over the others’ teaching ability and skills at connecting with young players.
“Rarely do you have the opportunity to handpick your guys,” Papuchis says. “But it all fell into place. Deke’s a great fit with the three of us and I can’t wait to see what we can do.”
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace writes Extra Points throughout the year and reports from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. Follow him on Twitter @LeePaceTweet.