PITTSBURGH -- New Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has been by Mike Tomlin's side for the past 11 years and has a close relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But his identity as an NFL playcaller has yet to take shape. So ESPN dipped into Fichtner's work at Memphis, where he last called plays from 2001 to 2006, to learn more about the coach.
Two steps ahead: When Memphis head coach Tommy West hired Fichtner in 2001, he wanted an offense that personalized the spread offense to the team's strengths, which eventually included running the ball with DeAngelo Williams.
Fichtner studied the spread offenses of Purdue, Northwestern and Clemson before crafting Memphis' attack. By 2003, the Tigers were averaging 32 points per game. A big reason was Fichtner's in-game adjustments as a playcaller, West recalled.
"A lot of guys you watch, you know they are a play or two behind and reactionary," West said. "I thought a strength of Randy's was anticipating things coming up. He was really good at knowing what's coming and having plays ready for each circumstance."
Fichtner's biggest strength might be his ability to handle different personalities and take input from players, said West, who calls Fichtner's offensive style a "democracy." If a player has ideas for the offense, Fichtner wants to hear them.
"Randy will explain it to them -- he won’t run from it," West said. "He’ll tell a player, 'This week you might not get many touches.' But by the end of the season, everyone will be happy."
Odd breakfast choices: West arrived at the office around 6:30 a.m. and found Fichtner eating a piece of cold pizza left over from the night before. The head coach asked Fichtner about the dietary choice.
"He said, 'I love pizza, Coach,'" West recalled.
Those who worked with Fichtner describe him as a high-energy coach who's best suited to work from the field instead of the booth because of his reliability with players and staff.
"He makes everyone smile, players and coaches. It’s just fun going to work with him," said Pete Roussel, a former Memphis assistant who's now an agent with Coaches Consulting Group representing several head coaches and top coordinators in college football. "His demeanor is very valuable, especially in the NFL when the season is so long. People appreciate consistency, and few are as consistent as Randy.”
Coaching fast: The trend of up-tempo offense took hold of college football in the 2000s, and Roussel remembers Fichtner playing a key role in it.
“As a playcaller, Randy never got credit for this publicly, but he was one of the pioneers of tempo and the one-word playcalls," Roussel said. "‘Money,’ for example, was a weekly call that gave the players the personnel grouping, formation and play. It almost always was a unique way to get the ball as fast as possible in the hands of DeAngelo Williams. Players have to want to play in your offense. They have to have confidence in your offensive scheme and philosophy. Randy definitely captured the players at Memphis.”