So proficient at identifying assistants with potential when he was the head coach, Frank Broyles zeroed in on Norm Chow in 1996.
If things had gone right, Chow could have been in Fayetteville for the 1997 season. Instead, he is at the University of Southern California, calling plays for the two-time national champion and reigning as the supreme swami.
The assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Brigham Young University, Chow was in Little Rock as a finalist for the Broyles Award in December 1996. Created by former Arkansas linebacker David Bazzel, the award was to go to the top assistant coach in the college game as a salute to Broyles and his long list of successful assistants.
Enamored with Chow’s knowledge of offense and disappointed with Arkansas’s production under Danny Ford, Broyles arranged for the BYU assistant to meet with the Arkansas coach at the Cotton Bowl. Ford was 4-7 for the second time in three years and Broyles was getting antsy. By that time, it had become clear to Chow that he was not going to succeed LaVell Edwards at BYU and he was open to a change.
Officially, Chow backed out because of some family situation. Some people will tell you that Ford nixed the deal. A throwback to the hard-nosed days — ironically, a quality that attracted Broyles to Ford — the former Clemson coach did not care for Chow’s pass-pass-pass offense. Others say that Chow was leery of hooking up with a coach in a shaky situation and, indeed, Ford was fired after another 4-7.
Anyway, Chow hung around Provo through the 1999 season and Ford agreed to hire Kay Stephenson, who had a pro background and was well known by Ford staff members Mike Bender and Joe Ferguson.
Before Chow caught Broyles’ eye, he had coached Jim McMahon, Steve Young — both winners of the Davey O’Brien Trophy — and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
When he left BYU, Chow spent one year at North Carolina State where he worked with then-freshman Philip Rivers. At that point, USC coach Pete Carroll asked for his hand.
Renowned for tailbacks through the years, USC had two All-American quarterbacks in 65 years. During Chow’s four years, quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart have won the Heisman. After Palmer’s 2002 season, Chow won the Broyles Award. Carroll called him a quarterback-maker and said, “I think the guy has as clear-cut a legacy as you could ever want.”
Against Oklahoma, in an Orange Bowl that was supposed to be one for the ages, Leinart made it look easy with Chow calling the shots in USC’s 55-19 win. Twice near the goal, the Trojans lined up sophomore Steve Smith to the left and both times he was alone in the end zone. It reminded of the way Lou Holtz designed a false key to take advantage of the reaction of Oklahoma’s defensive front. It worked so well that reserve tailback Roland Sales became a folk hero in the Jan. 2, 1978, Orange Bowl.
Chow, who supposedly makes about $500,000 a year, is 58 and might be an assistant forever, whether because of the meet-and-greet demanded of a head coach or because of a personal preference. He turned down the Kentucky job a couple of years ago and was recently passed over by Stanford, but you have to wonder where he would be if Broyles had been able to pull off that hire years ago.
Arkansas plays at USC on Sept. 17 and, as long as Chow is on the scene in Los Angeles, it doesn’t matter whether Leinart says yea or nay to the NFL.
Ready and willing are redshirt sophomore John David Booty, freshman Rocky Hinds and Mark Sanchez, a USC commitment considered by many to be the best high school quarterback in the country. To help the QB, the Trojans return running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White and the receivers who caught all five of Leinart’s touchdown passes against OU.