Just after the New Year, former Cardinals running back coach Johnny Roland was pretty close to hanging up his whistle and returning to St. Louis to run his radio station.
But when Packers Head Coach Mike Sherman called to talk to Roland about Green Bay's vacant running back coach position, Roland decided to return to the city where he started his coaching career back in 1974. "I've kind of come full circle," Roland said of his return to Green Bay, where he first entered the coaching fraternity under Head Coach Dan Devine for whom Roland played at the University of Missouri.
The radio gig would have to wait. "At the time I was out of football, which was 1980-1984, I basically ran that radio station," Roland remembered. "I almost made the decision to go back to it in January but fortunately, I kind of held off and then this opportunity with the Packers came along."
Although Green Bay is known for its small-town feel, it still has blossomed since Roland left the city in 1975 to follow Devine to Notre Dame. "Things have changed here considerably," Roland observed. "It's still a small community but things have grown by leaps and bounds. Obviously the stadium is a beautiful edifice for the city."
There are certain things, however that will never waver. Like the way the people of Green Bay feel about their lone professional sports team. "One thing that hasn't changed," Roland offered, "is how much this city loves the Packers."
Roland spent the last seven seasons as the running backs coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the team for which he played seven of his eight NFL seasons. He remains the franchise's fourth all-time leading rusher with 3,608 yards. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and in 1966 was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But despite his loyalty to and love of the Cardinals franchise, Roland was ready for a change following Arizona's fifth consecutive losing season.
That change meant leaving the staff of Dave McGinnis who Roland had worked with dating back to their time together on Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears staff in the mid-80s. "It was extremely difficult in the sense that we worked so hard to get things turned around," Roland said of his time in Arizona. "We had a little bit of success making the playoffs in 1998 and then after that, it was somewhat of a dog chasing his tail."
In addition to moving to a team a little closer to being a serious contender, Roland now gets to work with arguably, the best running back in the NFL in Packers workhorse Ahman Green. "We played the Packers during the 2003 season and I studied him from the time he came into the league with Seattle and then when he was traded on to Green Bay," Roland offered. "I also watched him quite a bit on television since they were on in prime time a lot. I had admired him and his talents from afar for quite a while."
In fact, Roland, a member of the college football Hall of Fame, believes those that proclaim Green as the league's best all-round running back may be onto something. "There is some credence to that argument," Roland said. "Ahman is a tough, physical runner; he can block and do all the things that are required for a running back. He's also got that great speed that allows him to go the distance."
Working with one of the premiere backs in the league is nothing new for Roland. After all, he has tutored the two most productive running backs in league history in Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith.
Roland and Payton spent five seasons (1983-87) together in Chicago and despite the fact that Payton had already established himself as one of the game's best backs, he still eagerly listened and learned under Roland. "He was the creme de la creme," Roland said of Payton. "Despite Walter's vast talents, achievements and accomplishments, he was one of those guys who really wanted to be coached. We would get into a lot of philosophical debates and he was a real student of the game. He respected me for having played eight years in the NFL and also as a coach for trying to help him see things through my eyes."
Last season in Arizona, Roland worked with Smith, who surpassed Payton as the NFL's all-time leading rusher in 2002. "It was pretty much the same kind of experience with Emmitt last year," Roland commented. "It's amazing how the greatest football players are usually the guys that want to be coached. It doesn't hurt that God blessed them with a ton of talent but they also are students of the game always looking to find an edge."
Showing that he too is a student of the game, Roland picked up things from his pupils and added them to his own teaching repertoire. "It works the other way as well and I learned some things, especially from Walter," Roland recalled. "When you're a student of the game, like we both were, you're bound to pick up tricks of the trade which can help you advance your career further than just doing it on raw ability."
While he will be working closely with Green and the other Packer running backs, Roland still plans to keep an eye on his former Cardinal pupils Thomas Jones, who recently signed with the Bears, and Tampa's Michael Pittman. "I will definitely keep tabs on those guys," Roland stated. "I had them as pups and I'd like to see them go on and mature not only as football players but as representatives of the National Football League."