TAMPA, Fla. -- Mark Dominik is entering his 18th season working with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he's learned a thing or two. An adept general manager can gauge a reaction before a situation even takes place, and the man running the show in Tampa saw this one coming a mile away.
The Bucs hired Greg Schiano on Jan. 26, and the immediate response locally and nationally was as expected.
"I still joke around with Greg a little bit, but we knew when the Buccaneers hired the head coach from Rutgers University, people are going be like, 'What? What's going on in Tampa?' " Dominik said, laughing. "But our mindset was, 'Wait until you meet him. Wait until you get a chance to hear him.' "
The public heard him at his 30-minute introductory press conference. And shock was immediately replaced by support in Tampa. At that point, the fan base learned "what we got to see behind closed doors," Dominik said.
Clearly, the Bucs needed fixing.
In truth, watching a practice is as revealing as anything when it comes to figuring out why Tampa Bay hired a coach who had spent the past 11 football seasons in Piscataway, N.J. Schiano's practices are fast-paced and intense, with an emphasis on fundamentals and situations.
Tackling. Ball security. Completing drills. Dealing with poor shotgun snaps. More tackling.
"They put a bigger emphasis on finishing," third-year receiver Mike Williams said. "We catch the ball, we got to finish 40 yards down the field."
Dominik appreciates this approach. "To me, to us an organization, a big part of becoming a better football team is getting the little things back on track to lead to big things down the road," he said.
The little things came off the rails in a disastrous 2011 campaign. Fresh off an inspiring 10-6 season in 2010, Raheem Morris' "Youngry" Bucs had high hopes at this time last year. Beset by injuries, inconsistency and a woeful lack of football fundamentals, though, Tampa Bay lost its final 10 games of the season and finished with an embarrassing 4-12 mark. Morris was fired, and the Buccaneers embarked on an exhaustive coaching search.
In addition to Schiano, Tampa Bay talked with Oregon's Chip Kelly, believing that a college coach who taught and molded young people could do the same for a youth-filled team in the pros. Bucs brass didn't just want the most successful college coach in terms of wins and losses, but one who had created something. And Schiano had done just that at Rutgers.
After two years as the University of Miami's defensive coordinator, Schiano took over a Rutgers program in 2001 that was widely considered one of the nation's worst. Over the next decade, the Scarlet Knights were steadily transformed into a nationally competitive team, making a bowl game in six of Schiano's last seven seasons. He stayed at Rutgers all that time not because he couldn't get a better job, but because it was where he felt he should be. He rebuilt a program from scratch, competed against the best despite a subpar recruiting base and earned a reputation for developing NFL-ready players out of former two-star recruits.
Why couldn't he build the same way in the NFL?
"Football's football when you get inside the white lines," said Schiano, who did spend three years as an assistant with the Chicago Bears from 1996 to 1998. "You're dealing with a different group as your team. Although we had mature guys at Rutgers, when we're not out there practicing, you get a 30-year-old man you're talking to, and that's been enjoyable. What we want in between the white lines, that's not going to be compromised. They may have a bunch of experience and that experience is certainly going to help you, but we're not going to do different techniques than what fits our scheme. We're going to do what we do. And I think our guys have been awesome that way. That, to me, shows we have good guys here."
To be sure, there has been some housecleaning to help further the organization's goal of assembling a roster of players who read from the same page. Gone is injury-prone, free-spirited tight end Kellen Winslow. Same with safety Tanard Jackson, who bristled at the new leadership. Same with receiver Dezmon Briscoe and defensive tackle Brian Price. (Price's trade to the Bears, in particular, is believed to have immensely helped the locker-room culture.)
On the other hand, cornerback Aqib Talib has drawn rave reviews for buying in, while veteran cornerback Ronde Barber shrugged and said "no problem" when asked to move to safety.
"There's got to be a fit, and we've worked very hard to evaluate that," said Schiano, who has worked with Dominik and director of player personnel Dennis Hickey to make these calls. "Talent is easy -- you watch that on video. But is it a fit? Personality fit? Philosophy fit? And if there was someone that we felt didn't fit, and it was extreme enough, then we'd make a move. Certainly we have a philosophy that we're going to go with. And if it's not a good fit, sometimes, the old square peg in a round hole. Why force it?"
Schiano's ultra-detailed ways aren't for everyone, but he makes no apologies for that. He simply takes stock of the resistance and huddles with Dominik to figure out how to deal with it. Their actions have spoken loudly, both in terms of the players gone and the players still around.
Dominik described it as finding players who are willing to "do it the Buccaneer Way," and that's how the players talk about it. A collection of intangibles comprises that label -- fundamentally sound, diligent, team-first, detail-oriented -- but it's much more efficient to say, "The Buccaneer Way." Schiano likes efficiency.
"When you're a Buccaneer, you're a Buccaneer," said quarterback Josh Freeman, who showed up 20 pounds lighter for the new coaching staff. "When you're not ... You value them as teammates, you value them as friends, but we have a mission. When guys get released, it's for the greater good of the team. You have to believe it."
Schiano had plenty of chances to leave Rutgers, and spoke with other NFL teams in the past. But he followed the same process each time, stepping back and asking himself, "Is that where I need to be?" Every time, he'd decide, "Nah, Rutgers is where I need to be." Except this time, when rumors emerged that Kelly had taken the job, Schiano learned his true feelings. They came on stronger when a deal fizzled between Kelly and the Bucs.
"I kept going down the road and felt, 'Nah, I want to keep going with this,' " Schiano said. "I knew when word got out that Chip Kelly was going to get the job, I was legitimately mad. I knew, then and there, I must really want this."
Schiano embraced the plan of the ownership, and the ownership embraced him. The Bucs believe they are on the right path.
"I feel we were all on the same page," Schiano said.