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A mind of his own

Times Staff Writer

UCLA’s offensive coordinator leaned back in his chair. On Norm Chow’s desk were two laptops. On the wall, a flat-screen television held the frozen image of Tennessee’s defense. Small scraps of paper were scattered, each with the diagram of a play.

But the man with an obsessive eye for detail was perplexed.

“You want to talk about me?” he said. “You can do that in two minutes.”

Maybe, but what a two-minute drill.

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2:00 . . . 1:59 . . . 1:58 . . .

Chow was on vacation with his family in Europe this summer when, stepping out of the Sistine Chapel, he discovered he was the second-most recognizable person in Vatican City that day.

A tourist shouted “It’s Norm Chow!” then asked to pose with him for pictures.

“Yeah, my kids were impressed,” Chow said, laughing.

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Chow might also be the most famous assistant coach in college football, though one who might need a little divine guidance this season.

Chow was “recruited” by Coach Rick Neuheisel to give a Michelangelo touch to a UCLA offense that was paint-by-the-numbers last season. It’s a mandate that has become difficult with the Bruins already down to a starting quarterback who was third string at the start of spring practice.

Kevin Craft was anointed starter last week but only after Patrick Cowan’s season was ended by a knee injury during spring practice and Ben Olson was lost for eight weeks because of a broken bone in his right foot. Toss into that mix an offensive line that is both inexperienced and already beat up, and the situation at UCLA is far from the Norm.

“I think the challenge here is changing the culture and putting together a situation with Rick to get this place competitive,” Chow said. “I don’t worry about reputation. I’m 60 years old.”

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1:30 . . . 1:29 . . . 1:28 . . .

Chow, fired as offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans in January after three seasons, finds the college life simpler -- something he learned as an assistant at Brigham Young when he added narration to a playbook video for the players to take home one year.

“It was getting long, so I finally made a comment, ‘If anybody is still listening to this tape, call me and I’ll send you $100,’ ” Chow said. “One guy called, the center, who was a 4.0 student and married the cheerleader.

“It taught me a very valuable lesson, that kids are kids. You can’t do too much and you can’t expect too much.”

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He has applied that lesson with tremendous success.

The Chow line forms behind Steve Young, the first quarterback he worked with closely at BYU. He has developed three Heisman Trophy winners -- Ty Detmer, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart -- and his offenses have helped win three national titles.

“He’s the type of guy who really tailors what he’s doing to his personnel,” said Detmer, who won the Heisman at BYU in 1990. “He doesn’t force things down your throat.”

Gentle spoon-feeding, though, is in progress at UCLA. Losing Cowan and Olson left the Bruins with Craft, who started five games at San Diego State in 2006 and spent last season at Mt. San Antonio College. Craft has struggled in practice and had three passes intercepted during last week’s scrimmage.

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“We’re trying to figure out what Kevin Craft can do, and what the rest of the guys can do,” Chow said. “We have to put them in a position where they have a chance to be successful.”

In the past, that hasn’t taken long. Philip Rivers was the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year playing for Chow as a freshman at North Carolina State in 2000.

“This is a position that can be so complex. ‘If the coverage is this, do that. If they blitz, do this,’ ” said Rivers, who is now the starter for the San Diego Chargers. “Norm’s not like that. It wasn’t scientific. It was, ‘If the guy’s open, throw it to him.’ There wasn’t any writing down stuff or taking tests. Just draw up a few plays and let’s go.”

1:00 . . . 0:59 . . . 0:58 . . .

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Chow was having dinner with his family in North Carolina shortly after agreeing to become USC’s offensive coordinator in 2001.

“We were teasing him about going to Los Angeles to coach,” said Carter Chow, his son and agent. “We told him, ‘You’re going to be a small fish in a big pond out there. No one will remember anything about you.’ ”

Four seasons later, USC had two Heisman-winning quarterbacks and two national titles.

But with the success came speculation Trojans Coach Pete Carroll was unhappy that Chow received credit for the offense. Neither has acknowledged a rift, but Chow left after the 2004 season. Still, the end result was Chow had gone national.

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“I think people thought that it was just the system at BYU, not Norm,” Detmer said. “What he did at USC really opened eyes.”

Chow spent 27 seasons at BYU, starting as a graduate assistant in 1973. He and his wife settled in to raise a family in Provo and Chow gobbled up the philosophies of BYU Coach Lavell Edwards and offensive coordinator Doug Scoville.

“When Lavell took over that job, BYU was not a very good football program,” Chow said. “He figured the only way he would survive was to do something other people weren’t doing. He wanted to throw the ball.”

Sharing an office with Scoville, who, Chow said, “liked to bounce things off you, not for input, but to see how they sounded,” Chow became a sponge. He “was absorbing everything. You could see even then he had a great offensive mind,” said Gifford Nielsen, BYU’s quarterback in 1975 and ’76.

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Said Chow: “I copied every play I ever learned from guys who are a lot smarter than I am.”

But the way he teaches is all his own.

“He’s not a yeller or screamer,” said Leinart, the Arizona Cardinals quarterback who won the Heisman at USC in 2004. “He teaches. His offense is one that works, and he knows it. It has worked for 20-30 years.”

0:30 . . . 0:29 . . . 0:28 . . .

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Neuheisel stood center court, introducing his offensive coordinator to a sellout crowd at Pauley Pavilion last winter: “When you’re looking for an offensive coordinator you ought to go looking for a guy who has three national championships,” he said. “You ought to go looking for a guy who has three Heisman Trophy quarterbacks. You ought to go looking for a guy who wants to kick those guys’ butts across town.”

Chow will settle for perfection.

“If he wants a receiver to run a 15-yard route, it had better not be 14 1/2 yards and it better not be 15 1/2 yards,” said former BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco, who led the Cougars to the 1984 national title.

The sorcerer’s latest apprentice is learning that drill.

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“It’s constant work,” Craft said. “He is very specific in his attention to detail. Completing a pass in practice isn’t necessarily good enough. It has to be done right or what is a completion in practice could be an interception in the game.”

0:03 . . . 0:02 . . . 0:01 . . .

Time’s up, with one thing left to ask: Will the Bruins’ offense live up to Chow’s expectations this season?

“If we limp off the field, we tried,” Chow said. “Even if the score is not the way we want it, we succeeded. Dealing with young players, that’s what you have to do.

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“Obviously, the wins and losses are important, and I got 27 bowl rings somewhere in my house. But a kid who played at BYU, Scott Collie, came by the house the other day. He showed me his family and asked how things were going. Those are the things I remember.”

For longer than two minutes.

chris.foster@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Chow’s legacy

All eyes are on UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow to see how many points he can get out of a patchwork UCLA offense. The Bruins are thin on the offensive line and begin the season down two quarterbacks. However, Chow’s specialty is developing college quarterbacks. He worked with receivers during his early years as an assistant at Brigham Young, but since 1982 has polished quarterbacks as a position coach or coordinator. A look at a few of his proteges:

AT BRIGHAM YOUNG

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Steve Young, 1980-83

* Set 13 NCAA records and was first-team All-American as a senior, completing 71.3% of passes for 3,902 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Robbie Bosco, 1982-85

* Guided Cougars to 1984 national title, leading major college players in total offense as a junior and setting 10 NCAA records in career.

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Ty Detmer, 1988-91

* Two-time All-American won Heisman Trophy in 1990 after passing for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns. Passed for 15,031 yards in career.

Steve Sarkisian, 1995-96

* As senior, won Sammy Baugh Award as nation’s top college quarterback, having led NCAA with 173.6 pass efficiency rating.

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AT NORTH CAROLINA ST.

Philip Rivers, 2000

* Atlantic Coast Conference “rookie of the week” a record eight times. Went on to shatter nearly every conference career passing record.

AT USC

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Carson Palmer, 2001-02

* Four-year Trojans starter was better after Chow signed on in 2001, then won Heisman

Trophy as a senior, passing for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Matt Leinart, 2003-04

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* Had school-record 164.5 pass efficiency rating and set Pacific 10 Conference records with 38 touchdowns and 212 passes without interception.

-- Mike Hiserman


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