Caffeine fiend looks to perk up offense

Tim Klobuchar

Now everyone knows the truth.
It wasn’t his admiration of Glen Mason or the chance to help rebuild a former power that persuaded Steve Loney to leave his alma mater, Iowa State, and take the offensive coordinator job at Minnesota.
Instead, it was the ready availability of a certain carbonated beverage that Loney should probably keep in a 50-gallon drum in his office.
“He’s the Diet Coke King of America,” Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney said. “I’ve never seen anyone drink that much. I thought I drank a lot of pop until I ran into Steve. He’s always got a quart of Diet Coke in his back pocket. That’s his only fix that I’ve ever seen.”
With Coca-Cola’s stranglehold on the University’s soft drink market, Loney, 45, now has his fix at his disposal.
“If I ever make it big in this profession I know I’ll easily be able to get a sponsorship from Coke. And the tougher the times are, the more I drink — of Diet Coke,” Loney said, pointing to the can of it on his desk. “I’m not a drinker.”
Considering the teams he’s coached for, it’s a wonder that Loney wasn’t on a continual caffeine buzz the last three years — or that he didn’t start mixing it with something harder. The Cyclones went 6-27 over that span while Loney was offensive coordinator, though he couldn’t be blamed much. Iowa State had the second-best passing attack in the Big 12 last season, and in the two years before that had an outstanding running game, led by two-time 2,000-yard rusher Troy Davis.
Loney’s task doesn’t get much easier this season as he takes over for former offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac, who was fired after his only season. Loney inherits a unit that finished 10th in the Big Ten in total offense last season. Fortunately for Loney, he has history and a high threshold for pain on his side. McCarney said nothing could be worse than the situation Loney encountered when he came to Iowa State, the first year that Davis ran for 2,000 yards.
“I remember the first year he was here, the national magazines called it basically a collection of garbage on the offensive line,” McCarney said. “Those kids really took that to heart, and even though we didn’t win as many games as we would’ve liked, any time you have a 2,000 yard rusher everyone on the offensive line can take a lot of pride in that.”
At Minnesota, Loney is not blessed with a superstar of Davis’ caliber at running back, or any position for that matter. Cory Sauter and Tutu Atwell, the potent quarterback-receiver duo, have graduated. But the Gophers’ insistence last year on keeping the ball on the ground, often with the ungainly Sauter running the option, kept their talents mostly hidden anyway.
The offense that Loney has implemented in spring practice has featured more quick passes, including many to the tight end, while keeping the emphasis on the running game. Right now Loney is keeping it simple, for good reason. This is the third consecutive year the Gophers have had to learn a new system.
“It adds an interesting twist,” senior guard Tim Socha said. “It’s frustrating because you go in every year and you have to learn something new. But I think the way we’re going is the right track. This offense suits what we have a lot better than last year’s offense. No knock against last year’s offense, but it seems like this is going to be a lot more effective for us.”
Not only that, but the players’ eardrums might also get a rest, too. Loney is a bit more low-key than Uzelac, who unleashed his share of verbal harangues on the offensive linemen last season.
Thus far, players say the atmosphere has been more relaxed in practice, with more emphasis on fun than usual, while still keeping the necessary concentration. Loney will occasionally jump all over a player in practice if he feels he has to, but does so sparingly.
“It’s looser, but good,” Socha said. “We know how to work and when to work, but football’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”
And as game time approaches, a calm, decaffeinated aura envelops Loney and holds him throughout the game.
“You can’t be screaming, hollering, going bananas all the time,” Loney said. “You don’t need that. People find security and confidence in someone that acts secure and confident and not like a madman.”
The Gophers hope Loney can not only resurrect the offense, but that he’ll stick around longer than past offensive coordinators, who have been disappearing faster than New Coke. His old boss, who said Loney has both the coaching acumen and personality to stay at Minnesota for a long time, doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“He’s the most thorough person I’ve ever been around, and there isn’t a more loyal person in America than Steve Loney,” McCarney said. “I mean that sincerely, whether he’s in coaching or if went in a different direction in life.”