Distant Observer

  • By John Antonik
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  • March 21, 2012 01:47 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s a good thing for Haruhito Tsuji that Oliver Luck has a photographic memory. This week, Tsuji is in Morgantown observing West Virginia’s spring football practice as a result of Luck’s knack for recall (more on that later).

Tsuji’s path first crossed Luck’s 13 years ago when Luck was in Japan organizing a tryout for NFL Europe as president and CEO of the league. Luck had conducted similar tryouts in other countries in an attempt to broaden the league’s reach.

“We had good success with a limited number of European players, so we decided we’d try and do the same thing with Japanese players and actually some players from Mexico,” Luck said. “Over the course of five or six years, I took a number of trips to Japan and every year we would sign two or three kids and we probably had a total of 10 or a dozen kids come over and play.”

One of them was Tsuji, known as TJ, who played for the Scottish Claymores in 1999. Tsuji was a standout quarterback at Tokai University in Tokyo where he earned all-star honors and played in that country’s college bowl. After college, Tsuji played in the Japanese corporate professional league with the Onward Oaks and the Mycal Bears.

Professional football in Japan is much, much different than what we are accustomed to in the United States. In Japan, there are fewer pro teams and they are funded primarily by major companies within the country. In addition to advanced players such as Tsuji, there are also accountants, computer technicians, software developers and even an English teacher among those who played with him.

“They work from Monday to Friday and Saturdays and Sundays are practice days, and sometimes Wednesday nights,” said Tsuji.

“I got to know the Japanese football community, and I got to know the structure over there,” said Luck. “Japan is actually fairly developed (for football). They’ve got a university league and they have a company league supported by big companies and they will sponsor teams – not just sponsor teams but the players are their employees. I watched some games over there and they do something called the Rice Bowl, which is pretty big. American coaches have gone over there to coach.”

Once his playing career ended, Tsuji, 41, began coaching in the corporate professional leagues until landing a job at Osaka Gakuin University in 2003. Osaka Gakuin is a mid-sized university located in Suita on the main island of Honshu, not far from Osaka – the third-largest city in Japan behind Tokyo and Yokohama.

Tsuji lives in nearby Ashiya, a beautiful community of about 95,000 which is known as one of the wealthiest cities in Japan with a high number of celebrities and industrial titans among its inhabitants. For the last nine years, Tsuji has been Osaka Gakuin’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after having also coached the offensive linemen, wide receivers and running backs. There are three divisions of football in Japan and Osaka Gakuin is in the middle division, comprised of a handful of teams with roster sizes of approximately 50 players. The biggest division has more teams and much bigger rosters of more than 100 players, according to Tsuji.

“Recruiting is so hard at the division I am coaching at,” Tsuji explains. “We have only a little bit of scholarship money to give.”

Most of the players are identified by watching high school games and through combines where kids try out for college teams. Tsuji said Japanese college football is organized and structured very similar to American football with many of the teams employing a ball-control style because the games are a bit shorter, the quarters there lasting 12 minutes instead of 15 here. Tsuji said he is using a West Coast system, which is why he began to follow Dana Holgorsen’s career.

Like many others, Tsuji watched in awe Holgorsen’s offense completely decimate Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl and during the game he also noticed that Oliver Luck was the athletic director at West Virginia. Afterward, Tsuji reached out to Luck, first to see if he remembered him, and then to ask if he could observe Holgorsen’s practice for a week.

“I lost track of all those guys that I brought over, but he emailed me and I remembered him, and he said he’d like to come over and watch spring practice,” Luck said.

Luck called Alex Hammond, Holgorsen’s director of football operations, to make the arrangements and Tsuji hopped on an airplane and flew in last weekend to take in a week’s worth of practice. Not only is he observing practice, but he is also sitting in on team meetings and film study as well. Tsuji is among the dozens of high school and college coaches who stop by each spring to observe Holgorsen’s coaching staff.

“He knows what he’s talking about,” said Luck. “He asks questions, sits in meetings and is watching practice. He went to UTEP once because he had a contact there and I think he went to another school out west somewhere.”

Tsuji said he’s really impressed with the practice tempo West Virginia uses, and he likes the fact that the Mountaineers can get off so many plays during a game.

“These guys run 80 or 90 plays,” he said. “I want to be able to do that in Japan.”

“TJ understands the game of football,” said Holgorsen. “His knowledge of the sport is very, very good. At times, I look over at him during practice, and he is intently watching and taking notes to try to take in as much as possible. Hopefully, the week he has spent with our staff has been beneficial to him, and will help him further his career.”

Tsuji will take in one more practice on Thursday afternoon before traveling to Pittsburgh and then on to Detroit to hook up with a couple of Claymore teammates, one of them being ex-Eastern Michigan offensive lineman Barry Stokes. Tsuji also played with former Mountaineer linebacker Bernard Russ and Purdue offensive lineman Emmett Zitelli, the son of Bob Zitelli who was a member of Jim Carlen’s Mountaineer teams in the late 1960s.

In addition to coaching football, Tsuji also doubles as an NFL commentator for GAORA sports television (GAORA is one of three Japanese networks licensed by the NFL to air games in Japan). GAORA selects one game each week to broadcast and Tsuji will go into the studio late at night (NFL games begin around 1 a.m. Japanese time) to describe the action to viewers on air as well as on the Internet. He has been doing this since 2001.

“I don’t like the studio," he laughed. "I'd rather be at the games so I can get a wider angle and be able to see the secondary and the coverages."

Tsuji said he has really enjoyed his week observing practice at WVU and admitted that eventually he would like to coach in the United States one day.

“It’s kind of cool having someone come 2,000 miles or whatever it is to watch a week of spring ball,” said Luck.

Indeed, it is.