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March 17, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Crook hopes offensive line is revamped

MORGANTOWN — It really wasn’t the kind of thing Ron Crook had prepared himself for.

He was born in Parkersburg, right here in West Virginia, and was as West Virginia as pepperoni rolls. He may not exactly have been right to be cast in “Buckwild,” but he only ivy he’d come across in this neck of the woods was poison.

His coaching pedigree grew out of those roots, having played at West Liberty, where he earned his degree in physical education, and having coached there and at Glenville State.

He bounced around a good bit, as young assistant coaches do, always wearing the build that goes with being a former lineman and with the dirt under the fingernails that comes from teaching a profession that begins with your hand in the dirt.

A decade ago, this man who just came home to take the job as offensive line coach at West Virginia University, saw his career take a cultural, if not football, change as he was hired at Harvard, where he would spend his next eight years before making the cross-country journey to Stanford, which sometimes is referred to as “The Harvard of the West.”

“It was a little bit of a shock for me,” Crook admitted on Friday afternoon following the Mountaineers’ first padded practice of the spring. “For the last 10 years, I was at Harvard and Stanford, and everyone assumes I was in that league academically and it didn’t quite work out that way for me.”

He wasn’t, of course, there for his academics or to help any budding astrophysicists to prepare for that career, but to coach the offensive line you do need to use your head for something more than just to put a ball cap on backwards.

At Harvard and at Stanford, however, life is somewhat different than it had been at West Liberty or will be at West Virginia, for you certainly find yourself surrounded by a different breed of people.

“You certainly do,” Crook said. “You can walk across the campus and see Condoleezza Rice on a regular basis at Standford or Sen. (Ted) Kennedy walking around campus at Harvard.”

Now don’t get misled. Crook received no invitations for tea at Hyannis Port or to enjoy an evening at the theater with Rice, the former George W. Bush secretary of state who has returned to Harvard as provost.

But he did get to meet Rice.

“She doesn’t know me,” he said, “but she knows my name. She was a great football fan. About a week after I got there I introduced myself to her and she said, ‘Welcome, it’s great to have you.’ I told Coach Shaw that he must have told her about hiring me, but he said, ‘No, she knows,’” Crook related.

It’s easy to believe, too, that she would know a new offensive line coach at Stanford, her interest in the sport being so strong that there have been rumors that she might eventually become commissioner of the National Football League.

If there is a large gap between the cultural aspects of schools like Harvard and Stanford and West Virginia, the football gap is far less than anyone might think.

“I was really surprised having never been around the Ivy League when I first got there, how important it was to the guys. Going into a new situation, you don’t know what to expect. I was really happy to see how important football was to them, how hard they worked at it.”

Because it was that important, Crook said he was able to ask as much of the players at Harvard or Stanford.

That is not to say that there isn’t a difference in talent level between Harvard and Stanford or West Virginia, both schools with eyes on winning BCS conference and national championships.

“The differences are a step or two in speed here or there,” he said. “There’s more depth at Stanford and West Virginia because you are recruiting more guys on scholarship.

One would imagine that coaching at schools lie Harvard and Stanford you might be able to move a bit faster, teach more technique and more complicated philosophies.

Crook says that’s only partially true.

“Sure, you can put more on them at times, but I tell everyone that just because they scored a perfect score on the SAT it doesn’t mean they are smart football-wise,” he said. “Just like everywhere else, it depends who you are working with.

“Some people can pick things up really quick. With some people it takes a lot of reps before they really get it.”

He’s hoping he’s got the kind of players who have those football smarts here for there’s a lot of work together patching together an offensive line that lost its starting center and two starting guards.

“We’ve tried to use the approach that any change is good,” he said of rebuilding the line. “We started working with them in the off-season, even long before I got here, on why change is good. We tried to give them different examples of how to make the most of it, but it’s definitely difficult.”

If he pulls it off, fine. If not, he might find himself with a lot of time on his hands to go out and play golf.

Who knows, maybe Condoleezza Rice can get him on Augusta National, where she is now a member.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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