Zampese is the happiest behind scenes Cowboys assistant shies from publicity, top job

Super Bowl Xxx

January 25, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ernie Zampese has finally blown his cover.

A career assistant coach who has no desire to become a head coach, Zampese has been sort of behind-the-scenes cult figure in pro football for years.

Widely considered one of the best offensive minds in the game -- no less an expert that Joe Gibbs calls him one of the two smartest men in the game -- Zampese has been content to stay in the background during his career.

"I'm an underground guy," he said yesterday. "That's just me."

All that changed a year ago when he was hired by the Dallas Cowboys to replace one of his proteges, Norv Turner, as the team's offensive coordinator.

It's difficult to keep a low profile in the glitzy atmosphere surrounding the Dallas team and even the low-key Zampese has gotten noticed at age 59.

He got more notice last week when he made the Super Bowl for the first time after being on the losing side in four conference championship games with the San Diego Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams.

"It was a great feeling," he said. "It still is. Now the reality is you've got to win a football game and the work starts again. It'll take on more importance for me again once it's all over and you can reflect on it again."

When Zampese was hired to replace Turner, who became head coach of the Washington Redskins, it seemed to be an easy transition.

After all, Turner had learned the offense from Zampese when they were both with the Rams, so Zampese already knew all the terminology the team used.

The difficult part was establishing the rapport Turner had with quarterback Troy Aikman.

"First of all, when I came here, one of the first things I said, nobody is going to come in here and replace Norv Turner. That isn't going to happen. He and Troy's relationship goes way beyond a quarterback and an offensive coordinator. They're BTC extremely close. There was no way anybody was going to come in and establish that same type of relationship," he said.

Winning Aikman's confidence isn't easy. Aikman's never hid the fact he preferred the hard-charging style of former coach Jimmy Johnson to the laid-back style of current coach Barry Switzer.

But Zampese quickly showed Aikman why he was Turner's mentor and gained his confidence.

When the Cowboys won a Super Bowl berth a week ago, Aikman said he was proud to be the quarterback to give Zampese his first Super Bowl trip.

Zampese also enjoys working with Switzer, and defends Switzer's infamous fourth-and-one call in Philadelphia.

"We were all in agreement that's what we wanted to do. We were going for it. Period. We knew exactly what play we were going to run and we had been highly successful with the play. We didn't make it the first time so we knew for sure we were going to make it the second time," he said.

Of course, Emmitt Smith got stuffed twice in a row, but he resigned to getting second-guessed.

"One thing I'm finally figured out. If the play doesn't work, it' a bad call. If the play works, it's a good call," he said.

Gibbs, who worked with Zampese in San Diego, said Zampese has a gift for calling plays.

"Few people have a good enough gift where they can look and see something and recognize what you can do against that [defense].. . . . He can look at a defense and say this will work and this is the reason why and it would work," Gibbs said.

Despite his success, Zampese doesn't get mentioned as a head coaching candidate. He's long made it clear he's not interested.

"I don't think it's my thing. I don't think I'd be very good at it. First of all, I don't like these types of situations [news conferences] a head coach has to do. I shouldn't say I don't like it. I'm not comfortable in these types of situation."

Originally hired by John Madden at a California junior college in 1962, he spent two years as a junior college head coach.

"No way was I ready to do that, but I wanted to do it just like everybody does. . . . I really did not enjoy it at all. So I haven't since then.

"I like doing what I do."

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