ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens talks about how he developed his coaching philosophy after coaching with the triple option and air raid offenses.
Rob Likens cut his football coaching teeth on the triple option under Bobby Wallace at North Alabama.
Later working for Sonny Dykes, first at Louisiana Tech then at California, he became proficient in the Air Raid.
What Likens discovered offers an insight into what to expect in his first season as Arizona State’s sole offensive coordinator, a position he shared at least in title last year with Billy Napier.
“What I found out was the Air Raid was the exact same plan as the triple option, but you were getting the ball to people in a different way,” Likens said. “I really liked that because it is my nature. I don’t like to run 500 plays out of every formation. I like to be great at certain things you can hang you hat on under pressure.”
ASU won’t run out of the triple option with Likens calling plays from the press box, but it will not throw in place of running as sometimes happens in an Air Raid offense.
“What’s going to make him successful is his knowledge of both systems and understanding you have to run the ball to an extent if you’re going to be a championship team,” said Dykes, in his first season as head coach at Southern Methodist. “Our job as coaches is to figure out how pieces fit together. Rob will do a good job doing that.”
Likens, who turns 51 on Sept. 5 between ASU’s first and second games, has a nomadic resume common to major college football assistants, chasing the right move for a breakthrough opportunity.
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From 1992-97, the years at then Division II North Alabama when Likens was a graduate assistant earning $5,000, even he wondered if his break would come. “I was sleeping at different places every night just trying to break in this business,” said Likens, who remembers a phone call from his father Art suggesting he “hang it up and go try to do something else.”
Then Wallace, on the strength of three consecutive national titles with a combined 41-1 record from 1993-95 at North Alabama, was hired at Temple in 1998 and brought Likens along as wide receivers coach.
It was enough of a promotion for Likens to still be in the profession 20 years later and embarking on what he freely admits is the best opportunity of his life.
At Temple from 1998-2003, Likens said, “I thought I was rich,” making $42,000, a bit under his current $700,000 base salary. “I was the man.”
Herm Edwards worried about ball security, tackles and situation football.
But not the man in charge. So he left D-I for the chance to be an offensive coordinator at Southeast Missouri (2004-05) then Central Connecticut (2006-09), both in the Football Championship Subdivision.
It was a gamble that could have backfired — “Everybody told me if you ever get out of 1A, you’ll never get back in,” Likens said — but instead he was an instrumental part of the winningest four-year period (30-15) in Central Connecticut history.
Dykes, whom Likens calls his best friend, was coming off a successful three years as Arizona’s offensive coordinator when he landed his first head coaching job at Louisiana Tech in 2010. His first staffing call was to Likens.
“I wanted to hire the kind of person he is,” Dykes said. “He’s about as solid a person as you can find. I always respected the way he handle himself.
“He’s a real enthusiastic coach and works really hard to be good at what he does. He doesn’t care who gets the credit or who’s in charge. All he wants to do is coach football and make a positive impact.”
Cal didn’t win much in Likens’ two years (2013-14) as assistant head coach/wide receivers coach, but the offensive statistics were gaudy with Jared Goff at quarterback and multiple NFL-bound receivers.
It made sense for Likens to remain in Berkeley in 2015 with Goff as a third-year starter. Instead, the man of spiritual faith took what he calls “leap of faith” to become offensive coordinator at Kansas, which has not won more than three games in a season since 2009.
The Jayhawks, under first-year head coach David Beaty, went 0-12 in 2015, the school’s first winless season since 1954. Cal, meanwhile, went 8-5, its winningest season since 2009. It wasn’t much better at Kansas at 2016, a 2-10 season.
“I just felt a calling to go to one of the … whatever you want to call it programs in the country,” Likens said. “Some people would say I failed. But I didn’t. I felt really good about the relationships I made with those kids, that we taught those guys how to practice like a championship team. I feel like when I left there, I left that place way better off than when I got there.”
Dykes encouraged Likens to take the plunge on his first D-I offensive coordinator opportunity, not knowing that it really was a stepping stone back to the Pac-12 at ASU.
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who played for Likens at North Alabama, called Likens in December 2016 asking if he’d be interested in a receivers coach opening. “I’ll be there tomorrow,” Likens replied.
Within a month, Lindsey left ASU for Auburn, soon to be replaced by Napier with Likens earning a promotion before ever coaching in a game to co-offensive coordinator.
When Napier left after the 2017 season for his first head coaching job at Louisiana, new ASU head coach Herm Edwards stayed in house with Likens as offensive coordinator in part to provide continuity for third-year starting quarterback Manny Wilkins and All-Pac-12 wide receiver N’Keal Harry.
With a base salary of $700,000, Arizona State offensive coordinator Rob Likens likely will be among the Pac-12’s higher-paid offensive coordinators this season.
“I want him to be aggressive,” Edwards said. “He’s got a full vision of players that are around him. He knows that receiving core pretty well, he’s had them for a whole year. He knows their strengths. He has a full grasp of what he wants to do. He understands the system and communication between him and the quarterback.”
Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards says that football is a wonderful game, not complicated. Athletes need to do what they have been trained to do.
Tom Tingle/azcentral.com, Arizona Republic
Likens’ relationship with Wilkins goes back to 2013 when he recruiting him for Cal.
“I remember him pulling me out to come talk to him,” Wilkins said. “Our relationship is really good. I continue to tell him to push me every day to be the best I can be. Don’t let me be mediocre, and he’s been doing that. I try to make his job as easy as I possibly can so he’s comfortable calling plays because everybody has to be comfortable in order for things to go the correct way.”
All that’s missing for Likens going into Saturday’s season opener is his father, who died April 9 at age 74. It’s a loss he’s not sure he’s recovered from and one that Edwards, whose father died suddenly in 1978, understands and is sensitive about.
They speak almost identically about respect for their fathers.
“I’ve been going 100 miles an hour since the funeral,” Likens said. “But my dad’s always in my mind. He taught me hard work. He taught me the name Likens means something. When somebody thinks about that name, it better elicit a response that that guy’s a hard worker and he’s dependable.
“Every day I wake up and try to make my dad proud with my last name.”
Texas-San Antonio at Arizona State
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Sun Devil Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Streaming: pac-12.com or the pac-12 app
Radio: KTAR-AM 620