Leigh Ensor, former General Manager for the Birmingham Bulls, described Coach Moon as one of the two best British coaches the nation has ever produced (along with Tony Allen) and Terry Smith described him as "an outstanding offensive line coach" and "very crucial to our (Manchester Spartans and Great Britain) success"
Steve Moon started his American Football career at the Lancashire Chieftains in 1986 as a player, and quickly became fulltime Head Coach. In 1989 he was asked by Terry Smith to join his Manchester Spartans side as Offensive Line Coach which won the British title in 1989 and 1990, and also the Eurobowl in 1990. Moon then joined the Birmingham Bulls as Offensive Co-Ordinator in 1991, and took over as Head Coach in 1992 before having to resign due to work commitments. A brief foray with the Nottingham Hoods in 1993 as Head Coach was his last involvement in British American Football due to his professional career, and today he works for the firm he founded, Provexis PLC.
Steve Moon’s playing/coaching career
Lancashire Chieftains Head Coach 1986-1988
The coaching interest came pretty quickly for me, partly because of my shortcomings as an athlete, but also because I was concerned about the standard of coaching. I know there were some good and well meaning US coaches around at the time, quite often from US air bases. But there were also a lot of American guys offering their advice just on the basis they had a US passport – the equivalent of me going to coach soccer in the United States because I was born in the same country as Beckham. And not only was some of their coaching misleading, it was also dangerous. So I resolved not to let it happen at our team, and felt I could add more as a coach than a player.
On the playing side, how many years and what positions did you play?
I played O tackle for a year
full-time, then but then over the next couple of years it became more
part-time as I got into coaching, but I did play at tackle, guard, and
then one year at defensive tackle. Eventually I coached full-time in
order to stop embarrassing myself!
In later years, a couple of well-known coaches made a big deal of me being on the GB staff, saying I couldn’t coach if I hadn’t earned it by playing. For one thing, they were wrong as I had, but they hadn’t bothered to check. The real irony is that one of these "big name" coaches made a big deal of his time coaching at a high school in the US. When Coach Timer came over in 1990, he started to pepper the aforementioned coach with the names of the rest of the staff at the high school, as he happened to know the head coach; and it was no surprise that he didn’t know any of them, resulting in a red-faced withdrawal from the conversation.
But I enjoyed playing, and I focused hard on technique,
and that was what made me really understand that the game was all about
the minute detail, and I carried that approach over into my coaching.
As mentioned earlier, the Chieftains were a reincarnation of the original Roadrunners. After a year or so, there was a shake out at the club, due to the different ambitions within the club. The players who wanted to turn up once a week on Sunday and knock each other down left, as there was a hard core of players who wanted to take it more seriously and train several times a week. Our American coach also left, and the club asked me to take over as coach.
Like most things I do, it’s all or nothing, so I quickly got fully immersed in learning the game. If there was a book available, I bought it. If there was a seminar, I was in the front row. If there was a game on in the area when we weren’t playing, I was there. I also contacted US colleges (which I’ll come to).
We joined the Budweiser league and had a pretty good baptism of fire, as our tiny club was in at the deep end with the Newcastle Senators and the Glasgow Lions. The next year, the divisions were reorganized, and we had a pretty solid year against more evenly-matched teams such as Stockport Falcons and Bolton Braves.
My biggest achievement was really putting in place a good solid system, which suited the level of athletes we had. Overall we had a pretty good win-loss ratio in my time there, and I think it was because we based ourselves on the talent at hand. We were long on running backs, and short on passing and receiving skills, so I installed an option offense and kept it run-focused, for example. We kept seeing teams which were going for razzle-dazzle things they had seen on the NFL games, and it just didn’t work. So my legacy was a system in the offense, defense and kicking game, and I know it was pretty enduring.
You spent some time at the Florida Gators, Arkansas Razorbacks and Clemson Tigers during your Chieftains years learning the coaching trade. How did that come about?
When I took on the coaching role, I made a pact with myself to deliver absolutely the best service I could to the team – I saw it as my responsibility to the players, particularly as I had seen the damage a poor coach could do. So in an "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach, I called Coach Hall at the University of Florida (don’t ask me why Florida, there was no logic) and he was hugely helpful. Less than a month later, there I was on the practice field in Gainesville watching the team – which included a number of future NFL first round picks – go through their paces. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, I attended all the meetings, did all the film breakdown, got access to all the playbooks, and got a heap of one of one coaching from the staff. A great grounding.
Once I had made the decision to go with the option offense, I contacted Coach Hatfield at Arkansas and again, went down there to work with the team a couple of times – once in the regular season, and then for the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Once again, it was open access, and as well as being fully immersed in the option offense, I also picked up a lot of defensive and kicking game stuff. Coach Switzer at the Sooners was also very helpful in my obsessive pursuit of the option game as well. Coach Hatfield and I stayed in touch on an ongoing basis, and when he went to Clemson, I followed there on my twice-yearly visits. So I was very fortunate to have such mentors from the Division 1-A colleges, and it taught me that coaches help other coaches regardless of where they are in the pecking order.
How did you come to join Terry Smith’s Manchester Spartans in 1989?
Terry contacted me out of the blue one evening – to be honest I was speechless. There I was coaching a team down in the lower ranks, and here was the coach of one of the premier teams in the country on the phone. He asked me if I would help with the O line and I jumped at the chance.
My first training session was a real test – here were all these experienced guys, used to working with US coaches, faced with a Brit as a coach. But I had studied the line stuff hard on my US trips, so I pretty quickly started to add value. And the guys were pretty receptive, so we formed a good team. Terry had a good offensive playbook already laid out, so I worked hard on the fundamentals of technique with the line. You have to remember this wasn’t the biggest bunch of linemen you have ever seen, so that made it even more important. But it turned out well – the improvement in the blocking started to release the potential of a young Paul Bailey and he really started to thrive. So some games we could run Paul anything between 30 and 40 times a game, and that can start to wear a defense down. Plus we had Hazen Choates as QB, and a number of protection schemes to take advantage of his athleticism.
That was a great first year, and
we got all the way to the Bud Bowl, where we took the win. I felt bad
for the Bulls, as that was the year that Jensen walked out on them the
night before the game. All that being said, the Bulls aren’t
a team who feel sorry for themselves, and it was a heck of a game which
could have gone either way – a stunning goal-line tackle by
Roy Harris, and a late interception by Sean Mason were needed to keep
us in front to take the title.
The following year was a mixture of great success and controversy, as Terry set his sights on a Bud Bowl repeat and taking the European Championship as well. Terry is a very clever coach, and has a will to win which can’t be believed, and this sometimes led him to push the boundaries a bit. So the big story was the Spartans signing a wide array of the 1989 GB Lions squad. Having said that, the guys who came had tasted European success with the GB team the previous year, now knew Terry well and were pretty excited about the whole thing – these were grown men making their own decision, Terry didn’t press-gang them.
We just took the new talent and built it on top of the same systems, which opened things up for us, as we added Tim Casey as tight end, and Allan Brown as receiver – so the passing game was much more effective. And with Les Tuitt and Joe Richardson added to the line, we were more effective both in the running and passing phases.
It’s history now, so not worth going through on a blow by blow basis, but we completed the double of Bud Bowl and Euro Bowl. A few games really stood out, especially the home game to Amsterdam, which came down to the last play with the Crusaders in our red zone, and Martin Owen taking down their QB with a weak side blitz. The Bulls game was outstanding, with the two best teams in the country going nose to nose for 60 minutes. And the Bud Bowl versus the Stormbringers was a tough old game – Coach Markham had really done something special there – a small squad and not a huge amount of talent, but he had a philosophy and a system and it was effective.How did you get involved with Great Britain in 1989 and 1991, and what were some of the highlights of your time coaching them?
Both of the GB campaigns were just so rewarding. Getting to work alongside the other top coaches was a great learning experience, and the honour of coaching the best players in the country was just superb. It’s a great environment, as you have this period where you get to train and prepare everyday, two a day, and that is a great platform for accelerating the development of a team. It’s also to see players put aside club rivalries and gel so well. Plus these guys know have to have fun on and off the field – but pity the lineman who overdid it on the beer and then had to walk up to my blocking sled the next day – Barry Driver knows exactly what I mean!
Highlights from a professional perspective included the chance to work with Coach Willsey. He had a probably two lifetimes of experience to pass on, and was always willing to do so. He was also great company, with a very dry sense of humour, and once the work was over he made sure he looked after his assistants, with him picking the bill up. It was an honour to work with a guy who had made it at the highest level. I also found working with Coach Tony Allen a rewarding experience, and I think his contribution to the game is highly underestimated. His commitment and focus were something to admire, and I see that he has continued to this day. I believe he was the first coach to really develop and coach a ‘modern’ defensive scheme – some of the schemes the O’s were running back then were impressive, and in the week leading up to a game with the O’s you had your work cut out as a coach.
On the field, the game that really sticks out is the 1989 game in Hamburg against the host team. An electric atmosphere, but once our defense had held the German offense to three and out, then Jason Elliot had opened with one of Terry’s usual trick plays, the crowd got an awful lot quieter. An impressive performance from the whole team, and the list of standouts could go on forever, but Steve Letham and Trevor Carthy particularly impressed me on that evening.
On recognition, my proudest moment was in 1991 when the
All-European team of the Finnish tournament was selected. Three of the
five O linemen were from the GB squad: Joe Richardson, Gary Mills and
Barry Driver, and I was so proud to be associated with these three fine
David Webb called me and offered me the role, and I was delighted to accept. I had done two years as O line coach with the Spartans and needed to move to the next level, so a coordinator job was the obvious move. David had told me that Coach Timer was coming over to be Head Coach and that was the clincher. It wasn’t easy to tell Terry, as he had been kind enough to give me my first big break, and I certainly missed the Spartans players.
Coach Timer had 40 years of coaching experience, and was well known for developing a number of top high school, college and professional coaches. So a real "coaches coach" and I understood why when I worked with him that year. He has no ego at all, and felt his role was to teach, so there was never any doubt in his mind that on game day his offensive coordinator called the game – but you needed to make sure you prepared hard in the week, and you needed a gameplan and had to be able to articulate it to him prior to game day. During the game he would make observations, make a gentle point here and there – it was such a rewarding environment – and of course I had his unbelievable expertise to draw on.
Coach Timer is a real role model for me, and far beyond
the football field. I’m proud to say we are still friends,
and speak regularly.
I think it was a talented side for sure. People always mention the running backs at the Bulls, but the offense we had in was a lot more balanced than that – for example, we were almost exactly 50/50 pass to run ratio in the Bud Bowl. Kramme had a great arm – a really delicate touch on routes like the fade, and he was as tough as heck. I’m not sure how many people know he played the Bud Bowl with a separated shoulder. Unlike some other US quarterbacks, he would be coached, and he would play within the system – there’s nothing worse for a team when a QB just starts drawing plays in the dust on the field, negating all the preparation. Mike Price is a highly underrated receiver, and was a great threat for us, plus we had the superb Maverick Logan at tight end. So yes, we had some great running backs, but we were much more than that, and laid on top of a multi-formation offense, it made us hard to defend.
Bulls with the 1991 Coke Bowl trophy
I’ve mentioned Paul Bailey already, so no need to go there again. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Lloyd O’Neill who for me was the best fullback ever to play the game over here. Absolutely tough as old boots and would get you those short yards.
One of the downsides of having so many backs was dealing with how to keep them all active. Our multi-formation philosophy helped, as many times we had a tailback lined up in the slot position. And passions could run high: the Bulls fans were some of the most passionate and dedicated in the sport, and they had their favourite players, and wanted them in the game. I have a vivid recollection of walking through the car park after defeating the Hoods in the semi-final, feeling we had done a reasonable coaching job that day, when I was confronted by some well-refreshed fans berating me for not playing their preferred back enough – a surreal and now funny moment.
In 1992 you were installed as the Birmingham Bulls Head Coach. You were quoted at the time as saying, "This has been my goal for 6 years, to coach the Bulls." Must have been a massive moment for you in your career?
This was the biggest moment in my career, and I felt well positioned to deliver the goods, building on the systems Coach Timer had left in place. As Bud Bowl champions we were also the British representative in the Euro Bowl, so I was so excited at the prospect. But things didn’t turn out well at all, sadly.
We had Travis Hunter at QB, and I had seen him play at East Carolina and knew he was a great one. His style also opened up the offense even further, as he was an expert at the triple-option. Roy Harris, the former Spartans, Florida Gators and Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle also agreed to join us. And finally we found an assistant coach with pretty good experience, including some NFL credentials on his CV. So far so good. Sadly, my assistant coach didn’t contribute as much as we had hoped and he became disaffected and left for Germany, taking Travis with him. Then Roy had to withdraw, as a family member had health issues. So we had one coach and no American players, which gave us some problems. The guys were very supportive, and Colin Nash stepped up to help me with the defense, in addition to anchoring the defense at middle linebacker.
You can never write the Bulls off though, this group had so much spirit - show them some adversity and they would rise to meet it. We opened the season well, beating a very good Olympians team, and then continuing to amass wins, including good teams like Northampton. I’m pretty sure we were the only all-Brit squad that year.
Unfortunately my employer at the time wanted me to relocate, so I had to tell David Webb I was leaving the team mid-season. As always, David was very supportive and pragmatic, so we agreed that my last game was the Euro Bowl tie in Amsterdam.
This final game was one of the biggest in the Bulls history, as the opponents were a fine team, and we were going in there with an inexperienced British QB. The defense played an outstanding game, led by Colin Nash and his usual intense style. Trevor Carthy made some unbelievable plays at cornerback, in the face of a good American QB and tight end, as well as a good Dutch receiver corps.
With inexperience at QB we struggled to move the ball and were trapped in our own end zone for a safety. We eventually got things on the move, with a fake reverse pass to Paul Bailey who was downed on the 2-yard line. I then proceeded to make the worst play call of my life, sending in an option play – the play was open for the TD, but I shouldn’t have been putting that play in the hands of a nervous QB and the inevitable result was a fumble. And that’s the way the game ended, with the strangest ever Euro Bowl score of 2-0 in my final game as coach. I still kick myself for that call to this day – the players deserved a win.
Why did you leave the Bulls in 1992?
mentioned above, my career with my then employer BP was taking off at
the time, so football had to take a back seat. Coach Willsey had
discussed it with me several times – at this time there was a
lot of talk about British coaches going into the NFL Europe and he must
have sensed it was on my mind. He always told me firmly to stick with
my job for the security. Either that, or he was being kind in getting
across my poor coaching potential!
I believe a coach has a responsibility to work as hard as he possibly can for his players, so it’s 100% or nothing in my book, so once work started to impinge, I felt that was a good time to call it a day. I moved to Lincoln, and the Nottingham Hoods asked me to take over as Head Coach, and Nigel Dias agreed to become defensive coordinator. But after only a couple of training sessions I realized it wasn’t for me; the Hoods had been good for a number of years, but it’s fair to say they had an informal approach to football. I felt a great deal of work was required to install a system and philosophy, and of course the discipline that comes with that, and my conclusion was that I couldn’t devote the time required to do the job justice.
What did you do with regards to the game after you left the Hoods?
My work became
all-consuming as I took up a number of challenging corporate roles,
eventually with global responsibility, so there was no opportunity to
remain in coaching. I do still stay in touch with a number of the
players and coaches I made friends with over the years, and Coach Timer
and I speak regularly, with football at the heart of every
conversation. I live in Windsor, close to Joe Richardson and Les Tuitt,
so I see those guys regularly as well. I still watch every live game I
can get my hands on, and get my fill of both college football and NFL
games on TV each weekend. And I have a good friend with some great
seats at Tampa, so I go over there for a couple of games each season.
So while coaching has not been possible, I have to admit that football
is in the blood, and I can’t let go of it.
No question – Birmingham Bulls at Leicester Panthers. I guess it was 1988 (12th June 1988 – Bulls won 23-21), a baking hot day and I got severe sunburn because I was so engrossed by the game. A real humdinger, with Sean Payton leading the Panthers down the field to score late in the game – I think maybe ninety seconds to go. The Bulls had a decent kick return, and then Jensen just led them down the field for a score in the dying seconds – typical Bulls, typical Bulls versus Panthers barn burner, and an example of Britball at its best.
Who do you consider the best import players to play over here?
To be clear, my list would only include players who put something into the game in a broader sense, in coaching and developing players and the team – so if a team was better after a player left, that would be my measure. So there were some very good pure players who I wouldn’t include.
I think Jeff Christmann was a good guy. Always fired up and committed, would play anywhere to help his team, and was constantly inputting into the coaching and playbook.
Sean Payton did a very good job in his year at Leicester, and you could see the improvement in the receivers there.
Ron Riley played like a man possessed for Leicester and Northampton, and again, was a good coach to the defenses.
Who do you rate as the best British and American coaches to have worked over here?
Coach Sam Timer was the best as far as I’m concerned, but as one of my personal heroes, I’m biased. Coach Willsey is the other major name for me.
The best British coaches are Coach Tony Allen and Coach Riq Ayub. I hear other names thrown out time and time again, but you have to remember that Tony and Riq have done it at the highest level in the UK and Europe time after time, and both are passionate about the game and how they can work harder to further it.
What are your favourite NCAA and NFL teams?
I will watch any college game and thoroughly enjoy it, but I have some old-standing loyalty to the Gators. I have always been a huge fan of the Redskins, and that hasn’t been the easiest thing at times!
Have you considered coming back into Britball ?
Coach Ayub calls me from time to time. The heart is willing, but the head says I’m not in a position to give it what the head coach and players deserve in terms on hours. I would love to be involved in the game in some capacity, but I just can’t see a workable solution.