Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess
James Cregg knows the drill.
For Tennessee's tight ends and tackles coach, little has changed since he became enamored with football all those years ago. No matter what you say or who happens to notice, it's about getting the job done. Sounds like an old offensive lineman, huh?
Cregg, described as quiet by some, wasn't a trash-talker on the field. But that doesn't mean he was quiet.
"Very hard working, very blue collar. I don't know about quiet," says Alan Krueger, who coached Cregg at Norco (Calif.) High School. "He didn't talk much. He was very intense. You always knew he was on the field. I don't think of that as a quiet guy."
Kruger chuckles as he remembers a story from Norco's run to its first appearance in the California state championship. Cregg, as he often did, was busy wearing out an opposing defensive lineman. On this particular night, the undersized Cregg was again too much for his opponent. After Cregg pancaked the bigger player, the defender strolled into Norco's huddle, defeated and utterly frustrated.
And punched the tight end.
"James just drilled this big old Samoan guy over the left guard," Krueger said. "I'm not sure why he punched our tight end. I guess he might not have wanted to fight James."
In a nutshell, that's James Cregg.
He's not the flashiest or the loudest. But he's a first-teamer on the Lunch Pail All-Stars.
Raised in a military family, Cregg criss-crossed the country growing up. Since becoming a football coach after an all-conference career at Colorado State, he's moved four times. The one constant for the Tennessee assistant coach is football. And that humble, hard-working mentality of an old offensive lineman.
"You could always rely on him," retired Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick says. "No matter how tough it got or how much you were down or how out-matched you were, you always knew James Cregg was going to be there. You knew when he was out there, he's not backing down from anybody."
'Hits like a truck'
Norco High, located southeast of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire, was making waves with a two-man wrecking crew on its offensive line. So it's no surprise that in 1991, the college recruiters were rolling by to see the reason why: guard Pete Becker and tackle James Cregg.
"They would just piss you off," Krueger says. "We had no linemen on the right side. We had a pretty good center (Cregg), and Pete Becker. We went to the finals that year. In 14 games, we ran two times to the right side without pulling them two. They'd just load the left side, and we'd run with them. Everybody knew where the ball was going.
"But they figured out a way to get it done. They'd sit there and giggle and laugh and just knock the (crap) out of people. They were fun to watch play."
Becker went on to sign with Arizona, while Cregg - who topped out at about 225 pounds his senior year after beginning his high school career at 180 - was drawing some big-time offers, including two from a pair of future SEC coaches.
"I'm like, 'I understand why you're taking him,' " Krueger said. "'But I can't believe you're taking a 225-pound offensive tackle.' They said he runs like a deer and hits like a truck.
"He'd play kicker. He'd do anything you asked to help you win. That type of guy. How can you not love that guy?"
Rich Brooks, now the coach at Kentucky, was convinced and extended Cregg a scholarship offer to play at Oregon. Ultimately, though, it was a dogged recruiter from Colorado State who ultimately landed Cregg, helped by the fact that Cregg had fallen in love with life in Colorado when his parents were stationed at an Air Force base near Colorado Springs.
"What's funny, I was recruited by Urban Meyer at Colorado State," Cregg says about the Florida coach. "Without him, I wouldn't be sitting here today. He believed in what I could do. He's the guy that sold me to (former Rams) Coach (Earl) Bruce. I owe it to (Meyer) for that."
Cregg bulked up and went on to start his final two seasons at Colorado State, earning All-WAC honors as a senior in 1995 and helping the Rams reach the top 10 nationally as well as consecutive bowl berths his last two seasons.
Cregg always wanted to be a football coach, so when his career was over he jumped at the chance to be a student assistant for Lubick, who succeeded Bruce at Colorado State in 1993 following Cregg's freshman season.
"In that transitional period between playing and coaching," Lubick said, "James was always around working, and working for nothing and not asking for anything."
Except more work.
After a year, Cregg became a graduate assistant. And he went about that job the same way he played.
"He was well-liked by everyone," Lubick said. "There was no bull with James Cregg. He was coming in, working and he wasn't telling anybody how hard he was working. He was getting in early and staying late, and the job was always done. No matter how menial the task was, he would always do it. Heck, James, he's volunteering to do it."
Some 10 years later, Cregg is a Volunteer. And the reason goes back to Colorado State.
Connection with Kiffin
As a kid, Cregg was no stranger to moving around. His family lived in Germany, Colorado and Maine before settling in Southern California.
For the last six months or so, Cregg and his wife and daughter have been settling into Knoxville, their fourth move since Cregg began coaching.
"This is the first time ever that the neighbors came over and greeted us and brought us cookies and welcomed us to the neighborhood," he said. "I've never seen anything like it. That's how people are here. They care about people, and it's a warm community. It's a passionate community."
The path to Knoxville wound through stops at Colgate, Idaho and the Oakland Raiders. And it went right through another former Colorado State graduate assistant coach.
During his last year as a GA for Lubick, Cregg was showing the ropes to his newest co-worker - another former player from the Western Athletic Conference who knew he wanted to be a coach, too.
It just so happened to be his future boss, Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin.
"That's where he and Lane developed a relationship," Lubick says. "When Lane came in, James was the GA with seniority. James knew all the ins and outs of how coaches expected things, and when Lane came into work, I know James helped him."
The two only spent a year together at Colorado State. After the 1999 season, Cregg went off to Colgate, where he coached the defensive line. Kiffin went to the Jacksonville Jaguars to be a quality control coach for a year before landing a job on Pete Carroll's staff at Southern California.
"We went down two separate roads," Cregg says. "But I kept in contact with him."
When Craig was in Corona to visit his family in the summers, he'd reunite with Kiffin to work the Trojans' football camp. Through Kiffin, he made the connections that landed him at Idaho. And when Kiffin became head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2007, Cregg was one of the first coaches he hired.
In December, Cregg was the second assistant hired at Tennessee, a move that rankled many within the Oakland organization because he left before the season ended. Cregg - who despite his Colorado roots became a Raiders fan because of their tough, physical style of play in the 1980s - always wanted to reach the NFL. But, he says, his heart is in the college game.
"I always wanted to go to where I didn't go as a player. I always wanted to experience the NFL," Cregg says. "But I'm sort of programmed to love college. I love college football. I love the recruiting part of it. College is great because you've got young men, and they just want to be taught.
"In college, they're just learning the fundamentals, and you're teaching them. There's more teaching in college. That's what I enjoy."
During his first spring practice at Tennessee, Cregg was teaching the same kind of zone-running scheme he played in at Colorado State and later coached in Oakland. Flanked by graduate assistant Mitch Browning - a veteran offensive coordinator with the University of Minnesota and Syracuse - and offensive coordinator/line coach Jim Chaney, Cregg's voice resonates most with the tackles and tight ends. But it's not just about technique and schemes.
Cregg wants to impart his passion for the game, too.
"I don't like failing," says Cregg. "I like to be the best at what I do. I think that creates my competitive drive. When players are being coached by me, I want them to develop my attitude. No. 1, you want to win.
"(But) have fun playing football. Have fun doing your job. Have fun coaching. If you don't have a passion for coaching or passion for playing football, you shouldn't be out there playing. That's the bottom line."
Matching Cregg's passion, though, isn't easy.
As a former offensive lineman, Cregg is no stranger to a few aches and pains in the morning. But his playing career was a rare exception, in that he avoided injuries and never missed a practice during four seasons at Colorado State.
Cregg says he's fortunate. Lubick says he's tough.
"He could play injured and he could play beat up," Lubick said. "He would really be the backbone of our offense. One of those players where if he was out of the game, I didn't feel too good."
Cregg's not much for telling old battle stories. Still, he can recall one moment from his college career that didn't make him feel so great. Locked in a big conference game against San Diego State, one of his teammates complained on the sideline that Aztecs tackle and future NFL star La'Roi Glover was too tough to block.
"I was like, you've got to be kidding me," Cregg says. "It was a championship, battle game, and you're saying you can't block this guy? Come on, man, give us some effort."
But Cregg didn't just talk a good game. He lived it.
While Cregg was undersized in high school and topped out at about 285 in college, he was almost too big to play as a kid. To meet the weight requirements before games in elementary and middle school, Cregg would mow the family's lawn draped in garbage bags to sweat off the extra pounds.
"My mom would bring over some sandwiches for me at halftime so I'd eat and get my strength back," Cregg says. "It was a big sacrifice to play. But I loved playing. I had to play. I always wanted to be around the game."
As he got older, that never changed.
A brief stay as a kid in Maine - where pickup hockey games couldn't replace the lack of a football league - was the only time he's been away from football since he began playing as a fourth-grader.
Somewhere along the line, he realized he couldn't be away from the game he came to love playing in Colorado and California.
"I really found what I liked to do - play football and that's all I did," he said. "I knew this is what I wanted to do when I was playing high school football."
Nearly 17 years later, it's still the same.
Sense of purpose
Krueger laughs, remembering the way Cregg could nail just about anybody with a spot-on impression.
Like the one of Norco's notoriously stingy head coach, who was a fixture lugging aluminum cans around campus to help raise money for football equipment.
Krueger remembers Cregg playfully taking a "No Parking" sign off a wall in front of the team's weight room, doubling over his coaches and teammates with a quick, "This looks aluminum," nailing his coach's high-pitched bark.
"That guy is hilarious. He imitates everybody. He does them perfect," Krueger says, laughing. "I don't know if he'll ever do his Urban Meyer impersonation for you, but it's perfect."
The quiet Cregg, the leader by example, has a pretty good sense of humor. But it's his sense of purpose with football that many who know him well remember most. Kruger laughs again, when asked if he's at all surprised that Cregg has risen the ranks so quickly in his coaching career.
"You can't have that kind of energy, that kind of work ethic and that kind of love for life and not land on your feet," Krueger said. "It's nice to see, but it's not surprising."
Neither is Cregg's attitude. He's still that offensive lineman, plugging away, doing whatever it takes to be around the game he loves, and doing it with a passion.
And the spotlight, well, who needs it anyway?
"He's not the most flashy guy, but he's a guy you love to have because he gets the job done," Lubick says. "He does it without any fanfare. He's doesn't expect any credit. He just gets the job done."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.