Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

Friday, September 7, 2001

Seriously speaking,
Cav’s a character

IT'S 8 in the morning and the man with the Uncle Fester haircut is going nuts. He's pumped, psyched, profane and insane and loving every second of it, polishing, polishing, polishing with a harsh wire brush.

He paces in fast-forward, his gravelly voice rising, barking, carrying, demanding precision, demanding perfection, demanding it right the #%^&$*@! now.

He calls this "grinding," going at it again and again and again, and sometimes the intensity can lead to a "Full Metal Jacket" moment. But his boys don't seem to mind. They ran to his post on this morning, racing to meet him, and when they got there, they giggled.

"I just think they believe," he says.

They do. They believe in this man. They believe in his methods and they believe in his love. They believe in the results, have felt them, seen them. They laugh at his jokes and they buy into his passion.

Mike Cavanaugh, to steal a line from "Seinfeld," is a short, stocky, funny, bald man. And it works for him. In this moment, with his guys on a football field on a September morning, he is in his perfect world, in his element, doing what he was born to do.

"How some people like chocolate," says Hawaii guard Manly Kanoa, "this guy just loves coaching O-line."

Look out, Marisa Tomei.

THREE PROS in two years and a mere 10 sacks over a 3-9 season are only numbers. But they're good numbers. Unheard of numbers. Telling ones. This guy is working miracles in Manoa. He's building something here. Something good. Something big. Bit by bit by bit every day.

He's coaching the offensive line. And tomorrow night, on Maui, we see the first glimpse of what could be his best group yet.

This stuff is important to him, and it shows. He's the real thing, a perfectionist, humorous madman genius, and he's preaching to the converted. He knows his stuff, and they know he knows his stuff, and whatever he says, that's the way it is. And so it's a daily process together, a daily dose of tough love, dissecting and correcting, drilling every little detail, doing every little thing just right.

"I just enjoy the hands on," he says. "There's schemes and there's fundamentals. But the scheme guys to me, a lot of great fundamental coaches feel that scheme guys are a dime a dozen. You better teach your kids how to play."

Cavanaugh is very serious when it comes to the offensive line, very serious and very studious. Intense. Determined. Obsessed. Take your pick. He's a technician. An academic. He talks about offensive line play like Ted Williams talks about hitting, the way doctors describe operations (but you don't want your doctor this keyed up).

He works and laughs and lives his life with cartoon-like fervor. He is, in short, a "character."

At this description he explodes, the laughter coming out of him in sharp bursts.

"Sometimes I say things I guess that are funny, I don't know," he says. "Put it this way, I don't mean to be." Maybe it's just his East Coast accent, he says. Maybe people just assume that he's funny and he goes along with it. "I get, uh, 'volunteered' for a lot of things," he says. Whatever.

They love him for it.

"He's hilarious," Kanoa says.

Coach Cav stories?

"You're looking at one right now," Hawaii guard Shayne Kajioka says.

Cavanaugh, not exactly the cover boy for Runner's World magazine, is running around the soccer field after football practice. The coach passes by, and Kajioka is suddenly a 330-pound Rob Schneider: "You can do it!"

Is that how he burns off stress?

"No. He yells at us for that."

IT WASN'T always this way. He wasn't always famous, the quirky, funny celebrity coach on staff, a familiar face, a popular quote, sending guys to the pros, building a national name, living the good life in his dream job.

He was a Division III guy, a Division III coach, a grinder. For years. For most of his career. He was one of those anonymous, hard-working grunts in the middle of nowhere, living on nothing, just because he was crazy enough to want to be a football coach. But it was good work. He discovered his love there. He found his passion, and life hasn't been the same since.

At Division III Alma College, Coach Cav was on staff with Dick Comar, a former pro and big college coach. Working with Comar, Cavanaugh, a guard "against my own will" as a high school senior, suddenly saw a light go on. This was what he would do with his life.

"He was really the guy who showed me how to teach fundamentals, how to prepare your guys, how to prepare yourself, the passion," Cavanaugh said.

"He was as good of an offensive line coach as I've ever been around, and that includes (former NFL coach Joe) Bugel and all those other guys."

But Comar moved on, and Cavanaugh took over the line at Alma. He was hooked now, looking to learn everything he could, drinking it up like a man in the desert. He found a new mentor, Joe Moore, who had sent 50 players to the pros.

"I spent, going down to Notre Dame when he was there, probably six, seven years, maybe eight years, wherever I was at, I would go," Cavanaugh said. "Spring practice, to their summer camp, I'd work their summer camp. I worked that like four times just to be with Joe."

Finally, the big break came. His brother-in-law knew the coach at Murray State, I-AA, a huge step up, and Cav was on his way. But then the coach got fired, they all got fired. And it was back down to the bushes for four more years.

But the brother-in-law was Kevin Gilbride, and the San Diego Chargers called. His foot was in the door. Cav was working with Joe Bugel, the world's most famous offensive line coach, the man who had developed the immortal "Hogs."

And Cavanaugh, crazy Mike Cavanaugh, continued to work, and soak up all the knowledge he could.

"Cav's my next door neighbor," defensive line coach Vantz Singletary says.

Cav next door? That's a TV show waiting to happen.

"We talk about it all the time," Singletary says.

With Cavanaugh living next door, what's the funniest thing that's ever happened?

"Well, he snores a lot."

WHEN JUNE JONES went to UH, he offered Cavanaugh the job, his own line, his own show. He could have stayed, coached tight ends in San Diego, but Cav was ready. He had all this knowledge, enthusiasm, intensity, craziness just waiting to come out. In many ways, this was his big break, the chance he had been waiting for, working for, foaming at the mouth for.

"First day I saw him, we knew," Kanoa said. "I mean, he came out of the blocks, he knew what he was talking about, and he was going nuts."

A star was born. The players could see what he was doing with them, and they loved his personality. And soon, everyone else saw it, too. He became the team's "character."

"In '99, before the Fresno State game, June right on the field after practice says, 'By the way, Cav, go in the locker room and get your swimsuit on.' Swimsuit? What the heck's going on there? Well, he volunteered Rich Miano and I and two women from our athletic department, we swam against Baywatch! So here comes short little fat man, frickin' players are going crazy, hootin' and hollerin'. And they nominated me to be the anchor (of the relay). They named me the anchor, they thought I was going to sink to the bottom of the pool. But I shocked 'em all. I came out of the frickin' blocks and swam a pretty good race."

He tells this story with intensity and pride and intelligence and life and laughter at himself. This is what they see when his guys look at him. He's developing draft choices and keeping Timmy Chang safe and making everyone laugh, but that's not why they play for Mike Cavanaugh.

"He's just a cool guy," Kanoa said. "He loves us like family, you know. And we respect him and we love him like a dad.

"I feel like I've got a second home here on the field."

Kalani Simpson's column runs Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
He can be reached at

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