BLOOMINGTON -- Jon Fabris is old school in a new school way. Humor mixes with stories which mixes with rump chewing. He engages, challenges, demands.
Are you ready for this?
Fabris stalks Indiana football practice fields just behind defensive ends who, at this moment, are not measuring up. He is tall and lean like Clint Eastwood. He squints like a gunslinger. Decades are etched into his 53-year-old weathered face. He wants more, settles for nothing. A late-morning sun blazes from a cloudless August sky suggesting brutal temperatures are coming.
Perfect teaching weather.
“You can create an environment of toughness,” Fabris says. “You can find out if a guy chooses to do that, to be tough. I can make a player think, but I can't make him act. He has to decide what he wants to do. If you're not tough, you have no chance to win. Toughness gives you a chance to win. That's why service academy teams are so good. You never get them to quit. They're tough. They're smart.”
Fabris speaks truth with an edge honed from 30 years in the coaching profession, three as a Mississippi defensive back. The season opens Saturday against Indiana State and nothing is left to chance.
Can you handle it?
“He knows what he wants out of a player,” defensive end Bobby Richardson says. “His No. 1 thing is toughness. He calls it the two Ts -- toughness and technique, but you can't have good technique without having good toughness.”
Fabris was hired last winter to coach defensive ends and special teams. The defensive ends are young and promising, but promises aren't guarantees. Last season IU had 18 sacks. Defensive ends accounted for just 4.5 of them, 3.0 by Richardson as a true freshman.
That's not nearly good enough.
“Will the team win because of you or in spite of you,” Fabris says. “Will they lose because of you? I think we're the weak link on the entire team. That's what (opponents) think. We haven't done anything to prove otherwise. We've got a bunch of inexperienced guys, guys who don't have a lot of quick-twitch muscle. There are some things you can't teach. That's why have to do everything just as well as can do it.”
Fabris has coached, at one time or another, every position except quarterback, receiver and running back. He has coached in the ACC, Pac-10, Big 12, SEC and, now the Big Ten. He coached with the NFL's Cleveland Browns. He coached at Notre Dame. He even coached junior college.
Three times his defensive ends led the SEC in sacks, with Georgia All-America David Pollack doing it twice.
Sure most of those teams had far more talent than Indiana has, but Fabris understands talent is nothing without will and passion and desire and, yes, toughness.
“It's about the grind,” he says. “What's a guy going to do when you're grinding him. You can tell a lot by body language. How they act. Will they quit? Will they hit the wall?
“You hope to teach a kid by the time he's older so he doesn't need that any more. All you're doing is teaching. If you spend all your time motivating him, you're not teaching him anything. The key is they're already self motivated. You're just teaching.”
Head coach Kevin Wilson talks about Fabris' unique teaching style. Richardson says it is relentless.
“The stuff we learned last year was effective,” Richardson says, “but it was not that effective on the field. Everything Coach Fabris does is field related.
“We go over everything ever day. He stresses it every day. We watch film. Everything is written all over the board so we know exactly what we have to do when we go to practice.”
Fabris has a story. He has hundreds of them, each making a different point. This time he compares players to race horses, and if that seems a stretch, just listen.
“In most horse races, the jockeys are whipping them to go harder,” he says. “That's the way it is with a lot of coaches. They're (yelling) at players. Most players will only go as hard as they have to to keep you from yelling at them. They still have something in reserve.
“Now the championship horse, that jockey is just guiding him. There's no need for a whip. If a player has a championship mentality, you can just teach. If I have to bark at you, teaching stops for everybody. I can't stand that. I want to use all my energy towards achievement, not conflict.
He pauses with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Every once in a while, conflict is necessary.”
But in the end, he adds, it comes down to talent.
“You can't win the Kentucky Derby with mules. I love mules. I was a mule. There's a place for mules. But on both sides of the ball you'd better have three to four thoroughbreds. If the talent level is that far between two teams, coaching doesn't matter. If you can close that talent gap, coaching can come into play.”
And then, Fabris adds one last teaching point:
“My old high school coach said you've got to talk with your Riddell (helmet). Even in this day of sophistication, it still comes down to blocking, tackling and conditioning.”