When Jim Caldwell was hired as the head coach for the the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, his promotion left a void in the Colts coaching staff with the quarterbacks.
Frank Reich was promoted from offensive assistant to the quarterbacks coach, which meant there was now an opening for an offensive assistant on Caldwell’s staff.
“I was in search of a guy, but it had to be the right guy,” Caldwell said of finding an assistant that would ultimately work very closely with him and then Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
It was then that Caldwell received a phone call out of the blue from Philip Fulmer, who at the time was the head football coach at the University of Tennessee.
“I was sitting at my desk just prior to going down to the Senior Bowl and I got a call from Phil Fulmer,” Caldwell remembers. “He said, ‘Hey, you know, I’m calling around to some of the pro teams. I have this guy who played here for us, who was a graduate assistant for us, who is looking for an opportunity in the league and he’s deserving of it.”
Intrigued, Caldwell asked Fulmer to describe the individual in question.
“Fulmer said, ‘The best way I can describe him to you is he’s a 4.0 student, but he said he’s as close to Peyton (Manning) in terms of knowledge of the game of anyone that I’ve been around,” Caldwell said. “He said he’s Peyton-like from a coaching standpoint.”
That comment made Caldwell sit a little straighter in his chair and he asked Fulmer if he’d talked to any other NFL clubs about him yet.
When Fulmer said he hadn’t, Caldwell asked him not to call another team until he had a chance to interview this whiz kid named Jim Bob Cooter.
A standout baseball player at Lincoln County High School, Cooter had a couple scholarship offers to play baseball, but a standout performance in an end-of-the-season East/West Tennessee High School All-Star football game helped nudge his decision to walk on to the University of Tennessee football team as a quarterback.
Cooter appeared in six games during his Tennessee playing career and was named to the Academic All-SEC team from 2003-06. When his playing days were done, he stayed on staff as a graduate assistant at Tennessee from 2007-08 while getting a master’s degree in sports psychology.
His first NFL interview was scheduled to take place in Mobile, Alabama, home of the Senior Bowl, shortly after that conversation between Fulmer and Caldwell.
“I think the interview was at night, it was late, because I think they had some interviews with some prospects,” Cooter said. “So I got there about 30 minutes early and I parked on the street. I didn’t know my way around Mobile at all.”
Cooter gathered his materials, nervous to make a good first impression, and walked into the hotel. The only problem was it was the wrong Senior Bowl hotel.
“About 15 minutes later I figured out there were multiple Senior Bowl hotels,” Cooter said with a laugh.
“So I had to call coach Caldwell and make sure and get to the right one and went in a back door and got up there late.”
He went from 30 minutes early to 30 minutes late for his first NFL interview.
He may have been late, but the Tennessee native with as country a name as they come, blew the interview out of the water, according to Caldwell.
“It took me all of about five or 10 minutes to realize this guy was pretty special,” Caldwell said. “So it ends, we hire him, and he comes to Indianapolis.”
His first day on the job in Indianapolis, Cooter validated the hiring to Caldwell rather quickly.
“You could tell he was good, so I gave him some work to do,” Caldwell said. “Typically this volume of work I had given him would have taken most guys two or three days. He had it back to me in an hour.
“So I gave him another big chunk of work to do and he had it back to me a couple hours after that. It was just unbelievable how much information he can devour. There are some guys who just have an unusual knack and he has that.”
It’s the very same reason the Denver Broncos were upset they lost him to Detroit this offseason. Cooter was an offensive assistant in Denver last year, working closely with offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterback Peyton Manning, who he reunited with.
Cooter was a key part of Denver’s game planning, preparing scouting reports on opposing defenses.
“My deal has always been to ask for more roles,” Cooter said. “’Okay, this guy can do this, can he do this next job.’”
“He’s a very knowledgeable guy, very smart guy,” Stafford said of his new quarterbacks coach. “He’s learning a new system too, but he mastered it really, really quickly. He’s an intelligent guy and he’s somebody that holds us to a high standard and has been great to work with.”
AN IMPORTANT ROLE
Cooter is one of the men, along with Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, tasked with helping Stafford excel in this offense and reach his potential.
Cooter brings a stacked deck to the table in that regard, having worked with a first-ballot hall of famer like Manning both in Indy and Denver.
He’s seen the best in action and knows what kind of preparation and mental fortitude it takes to play at that level.
“I learned about every way a quarterback can prepare and can see things,” Cooter said of his stints working with Manning. “Schematically seeing things the way he did, I think, put me in a certain spot mentally. Understanding the pass game I think certainly helped me.
“Then just watching him prepare week to week. What film did he watch? What clips? When did he watch them? How did he see blitz protection? Hopefully soaking that in and taking notes and not forgetting much of it.”
We hear the term “gym rat” thrown around a lot referring to a player who tirelessly works at his craft. Well, the term “film rat” might accurately describe Cooter.
“My first year in Indianapolis I was in charge of the scout-team defense by myself,” Cooter said. “I’d done it in college, but in college there’s usually three or four GA’s (grad assistants). I had the whole group to myself (in Indianapolis).
“I didn’t want to screw it up because when you screwed it up you got called out. So I would watch tape and take notes so I could tell a defensive back to play a certain technique. ‘This is how they’re going to play it this week.’ When you take 10, 12, 14 weeks of notes, you start learning things about defenses.”
Caldwell has conveniently described Cooter’s role on this Detroit coaching staff as: “He does it all.”
He’s been working with Stafford on tightening some of the fundamentals and picking up Lombardi’s offense. When the real game planning starts in the regular season he’ll be a particularly valuable resource for Stafford and the other quarterbacks picking out trends and finding ways to attack defenses.
Caldwell said he’s always wanted to reunite with Cooter since they went their separate ways after the regime was let go after 2011 in Indianapolis, a 2-14 season played without Manning (neck injury).
Denver didn’t want to let him go this offseason, according to Caldwell, but they and Cooter knew what kind of opportunity he had in Detroit.
“I’m lucky he called Caldwell first, I guess,” Cooter said of that phone call from Fulmer to Caldwell back in 2009. “There were a lot of situations to go to in the league and I wouldn’t have turned down one of them.
“But to go to Indy and learn that system and learn from those guys and coach Caldwell and Peyton was great.”
Now he’s hoping to apply what he’s learned over the years and help Stafford and Detroit become a consistent winner.