AUBURN — Along the tree-littered mountainous terrain of northern California is the town of Truckee. It is there, less than 15 miles from Lake Tahoe, where Jim Colletto recalls his last experience as a professional football coach.
Colletto, 68, was the offensive coordinator for the 2008 Detroit Lions, a squad forever defined by futility after finishing 0-16.
“You’ve been in a Super Bowl ... you go from all the way at the top to all the way at the bottom,” said Colletto, who was the offensive line coach for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens who won Super Bowl XXXV.
It was 2008 in the Motor City where Colletto’s 40-year coaching career ended with a team dubbed by the NFL Network as the worst of all-time. One of Colletto’s assistants with the Lions for the dreadful 2008 campaign was Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
Loeffler served as the quarterbacks coach for the Lions, leading the group of Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Henson and Drew Stanton.
“He was kind of a breath of fresh air to have around,” Colletto said of Loeffler, who in his first season with the Tigers is part of a losing team for the time since the miserable 2008 season in Detroit.
The only other losing teams Loeffler was a member of was as the quarterbacks coach at Central Michigan in 2000 and 2001.
Loeffler came to the Plains after one season as offensive coordinator at Temple. The Owls went 9-4 in 2011 under first-year head coach Steve Addazio and Loeffler’s run-first offense which ranked seventh in the FBS with 256.5 yards per game and scored 38 rushing touchdowns.
Auburn expected a similar pro-style, run-first mantra but through five games is averaging just 130.4 rushing yards per game and has scored only three rushing TDs. Loeffler’s offense ranks last in the SEC and the bottom-10 nationally in several offensive categories including scoring (15.4), total offense (302.4 yards), pass efficiency (108.4), sacks allowed (17) and interceptions (10).
The lack of offensive identity and consistency from the running game has prompted Auburn coach Gene Chizik to take a more active role in the offense, signaling at least some doubt in Loeffler’s plan thus far.
But Loeffler has said Chizik’s involvement with the offense this week has been no different than the past, chalking some of the frustration with the offense from outside the program as part of the job.
“It’s part of the grind. Whenever things are going well, we wouldn’t be discussing those things at all,” he said. “Whenever things aren’t going well, we’re going to discuss them. I’ve been in situations where one week they say you run it too much. Then the next week you come out and throw for 500 yards and that’s not your identity. When you’re in the fray, you’re going to hear it.”
Addazio, who worked with Loeffler at Florida when they were the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach respectively for the Gators in 2009-10, backed his former protégé.
“I think he’s one of the great young minds in college football,” Addazio said. “First year switching the whole offense, changing the whole deal, I know what that is, that’s hard to do. Like anybody else that’s a quality coach, given the time and the opportunity to recruit to what you’re doing, he’ll have a tremendous amount of success there.”
Colletto echoed that sentiment, recalling his own difficulties as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator under first-year head coach Bob Davie in 1997.
“We started out at Notre Dame my first year 1-4, you want to be under some pressure, go 1-4 at Notre Dame,” Colletto said. “We came back and won six of the next seven games. Bob Davie was very supportive and he knew the transition problems we had.
“It takes a while particularly whenever you transition from one coordinator or one system to another it always takes some time. It takes more than four or five games. … You got to give it time, it just can’t happen overnight.”
After a bad start, uncertainty at the quarterback position, no identity on offense and in-fighting in the locker room, time is not a luxury Chizik and Loeffler have if they hope to save the 2012 season.
Chizik has cited tackles-for-loss and sacks as areas of concern and both he and Loeffler said the Tigers need to reemphasize the running game and play-action passing as they move forward.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things. We’ve definitely got to make sure we narrow down to exactly who we are,” Loeffler said earlier this week. “At times, I think that we tried to take advantage of the teams that we were playing against. At times maybe got away from exactly who we are.”
Colletto, who now volunteers as the offensive line coach at McQueen High School in Reno, Nev., said more often than not it is the abilities of players which can define a coach and a team.
“It gets really difficult in that circumstance where you win a national championship and you’re so good but you have to go back and look at who was playing,” Colletto said. “A lot times that ability as a coach: your knowledge, your teaching ability, has a lot to do with those youngsters that are playing.”