Ernie Sims crouched into his stance and backpedaled 100 yards down the field. Then, he backpedaled 100 yards back the other way.
When the Detroit Lions rookie was ready to finish the drill, then-linebackers coach Phil Snow — now Temple’s defensive coordinator — was waiting for him, prepared to push Sims to do another rep.
Even after Sims’ eight NFL seasons with a number of different teams and coaches, Snow’s attention to detail and willingness to put in extra time with his players are unique.
“That’s something through the course of my career, especially at the NFL, you really don’t get,” Sims said.
After spending his playing career as a quarterback at Sacramento City College and California State Hayward, Snow joined the Berkeley High School coaching staff in 1976 and was flipped to the other side of the football.
Berkeley’s coach thought Snow’s offensive expertise might help him figure out how to stop opposing offenses. Forty years later, Snow, in his fourth season as Temple’s defensive coordinator, has continued to coach defense, finding jobs everywhere from small California high schools to the NFL.
Snow came to Temple in 2013, after coach Matt Rhule called him up to join the Owls’ coaching staff. Rhule worked as a graduate assistant for the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001 when Snow was the defensive coordinator.
Under Snow’s guidance, the Bruins’ defense ranked No. 27 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed per game, one year removed from ranking No. 86 in that category and allowing more than 30 points per game.
“He was the best football coach I’d ever been around,” Rhule said last week after practice.
“Phil took one of the worst defenses in the PAC-10 and made it one of the best in one year,” he added. “I just learned a ton from him, not just football, but how to coach, how to practice, how to work.”
Snow’s impact on the Owls’ defense in four years has been similar to what he did with the Bruins.
Temple’s defense ranked No. 82 in scoring defense and No. 108 in total defense in 2013. Snow’s defenses ranked in the Top 25 of both of those categories over the past two seasons.
The Owls’ defense, which sent three players to the NFL after last season, currently ranks No. 39 in scoring defense and No. 18 in total defense.
Snow describes the Owls’ defense as “multiple” — their base set up is a 4-3, which uses four linemen and three linebackers, but they can switch up into a 3-4. Anywhere from three to eight players could be rushing the passer at any time.
He starts simple, and the playbook builds on itself as the season continues and players get more experience within the system.
Former Owl Matt Ioannidis, who is currently with the Washington Redskins, described Snow as a “magician” in 2015 and compared his defensive schemes to an NFL playbook.
“He’s a guru if you ask me,” redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick said. “The guy understands football.”
Snow’s first FBS job was as a defensive backs coach at Boise State University. He’s also had stays at PAC-10 schools like UCLA, University of Washington and Arizona State University, where he was the defensive coordinator for the Sun Devils’ 1996 Rose Bowl team.
During his stops, he’s run into some great players.
As a defensive coordinator at Arizona State, he coached two PAC-10 Defensive Player of the Year winners, Pat Tillman and Adam Archuleta. In his final season with the Sun Devils, he coached future Baltimore Ravens Pro-Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who won the PAC-10 Freshman of the Year.
“I get a kick out of everybody talking about, ‘This guy’s a great coach,’” Snow said. “He’s probably got great players. The players win football games, not the coaches. Our job is to put them in position to make the play and then they have to make it.”
Robert Thomas was the PAC-10 Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and a finalist for the Butkus Award when he played for Snow at UCLA during his senior season in 2001.
The former NFL first-round pick, who is currently trying to get into coaching as an assistant at UCLA, said Snow certainly deserves some of the credit for the success of his players.
“I was a little nasty, but he got it all out of me,” Thomas said. “He really taught me to be a student of the game. … Just making the game slow for me. When the game was slow for me it allowed me to play fast and use my athleticism to make big plays. I owe a lot of it to him.”
Snow’s coaching path has also taken him to football’s highest level, the NFL.
From 2005-08, Snow was the linebackers coach for the Lions, where he was exposed to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense that helped lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl.
Snow, who grew up rooting for the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, earned respect there as well.
“Now that I look back on it, I’m really appreciative of the type of person he was,” Sims said. “The time he took out to talk to us about individual snippets about the game, how to study.”
Over his coaching career, football’s changed quite a bit. Forty years after he started, Snow is still often in the building watching film and working on new ways to stop opposing offenses, Rhule said.
Snow’s Arizona State defense used just two defensive fronts and coverages when it went to the Rose Bowl. After facing more traditional, pro-style offenses when he coached in the PAC-10, Snow now encounters all kinds of up-tempo spread offenses that tire defenses out and space the field.
“Things have dramatically changed,” Snow said. “The style of football today, I prefer the old style where you line up and you hit each other and the toughest guy and the guy that’s most disciplined wins. Now it’s all spread and they try to get you tired. But, hey, you know, that’s the game. It changes and you have to change with it.”
Owen McCue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.