Frank Bush isn’t much for playing the ‘what if’ game.
Despite having a promising playing career that ended far too soon, Bush doesn’t spend much time these days wondering what could have been. Instead, the only game that he focuses on is the only one he’s ever really loved: football.
“Once you are in it, you love it, there’s nothing you’d rather do,” Bush said. ‘I always tell my wife I haven’t been to work in 25 years. I enjoy what I do so much.”
The Rams and coach Jeff Fisher officially named Bush the team’s new linebackers coach on Tuesday afternoon, thus affording him another opportunity to continue doing what he loves the most.
Bush beams at the thought of Laurinaitis being the first one to welcome him aboard and grins at the vision of watching Dunbar on tape and seeing him making plays all over the field and even occasionally talking a little smack.
Behind the excitement, though, is a wise, experienced coach who brings to the Rams a set of experiences in football different from most after more than a quarter century in the league as a player, scout, position coach and coordinator.
While it’s possible Bush would be a coach today, maybe even still a coach on the Rams staff, he knows that his life could have a much different look were it not for violent collision with running back Mike Pruitt of Kansas City on Sept. 21, 1986 when Bush was a member of the Oilers.
Bush went numb all over his body and didn’t know exactly what was wrong.
“One play, bang, I got a neck injury,” Bush said. “They find out I had spinal stenosis and though I felt physically fine to go play they told me there was a huge amount of risks.”
Spinal stenosis is narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal chord or narrowing of the openings where spinal nerves leave the spinal column. Or as Bush puts it, the spinal chord “bumps around a bit tighter in there than normal.”
Coming off a strong rookie season for Houston in which he earned all rookie honors, Bush had claimed a starting job and was on his way to what looked like a long and fruitful career.
The spinal condition didn’t cause any lingering pain or even bother Bush, who did what most young players in his position would have done: sought out someone, anyone, who could clear him to play.
Bush visited doctor after doctor hoping one would clear him and tell him it would be OK but with risks that include potential paralysis; he had a good idea what the outcome would be.
“I exhausted all my avenues,” Bush said. “I went to several different doctors and I was just looking for one guy to say it’s not going to be that big of a deal. In my mind and in my heart, I thought ‘I have always played. I have always been a part of it.’ I thought about the thousands of snaps I played and this was just one shot. Maybe I can go play another thousand snaps of football and never have a problem again? I researched it and tried to come up with one guy that would give me a green light but after awhile you realize it’s probably the best thing for you.”
In an instant, Bush’s playing career was over. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow and Bush wasn’t sure what he was going to do next. Armed with his communications degree from North Carolina State, he went to work for a local Houston television station as an intern.
Bush found himself working behind the scenes in a number of different ways trying to learn the ropes of the business. But his heart wasn’t in it. Every time he tried to do something else, his mind just kept coming back to football. It was what he knew, it was what he loved.
Most days, Bush would continue to attend Oilers practices and he kept working out in case he could find a doctor who would let him play again. At all of those practices, he’d find himself sidled up next to then Houston general manager Mike Holovak.
Holovak and Bush would spend those practice hours discussing all things football, including personnel. Holovak offered Bush the chance to jump into scouting and before he knew it, Bush was watching players and, at least in some sense, back in the game.
From 1987 to 1992, Bush remained in the scouting role yet something was missing. Although the scouting job allowed him to stay around the game, it was missing two key ingredients that he held dear from his playing days: camaraderie and competition.
“The one thing about scouting is though it’s great and you get a chance to watch kids and see them play and grow and sometimes you develop a relationship with a kid but then on draft day somebody else takes him,” Bush said. “Then you have that competitive fire and being a part of a group that is out to go get something and try to accomplish something.”
The solution seemed obvious: coaching. Bush jumped from scouting to coaching in 1992 as the Oilers linebackers coach and hasn’t looked back since.
“When you get into coaching you get to have that personal relationship and watch that kid grow and get to share with him as he goes along,” Bush said. “You get that competitive part when you are actually on the field with the players coaching so that’s the part that makes it exciting.”
In coming to St. Louis, Bush will reunite with Fisher, a relationship forged nearly two decades ago in 1994 when Fisher was the defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers and Bush was in his third year with the Oilers.
Fisher was impressed enough by Bush’s work that he helped him get a promotion in Denver the following season, where Bush took over as the Broncos’ linebackers coach.
Bush went on to spend nine years in Denver in various capacities and on to stops in Arizona and Houston before he and Fisher’s paths crossed again. Just before Fisher decided to leave Tennessee, he and Bush had discussed the possibility of working together with the Titans.
When Fisher departed, Bush still landed a spot on the staff as linebackers coach but didn’t have the chance to work with Fisher again.
As fate would have it, Bush and the Titans parted ways this offseason just as the Rams were searching for a new linebackers coach of their own to replace Blake Williams, whom the team did not re-sign at the end of the 2012 season.
“He discussed some things with me right away after I got let go,” Bush said. “Fortunately he brought it all together and made it happen. I am happy. It’s a good situation and I am looking forward to working with him.”
While the Rams still search for a defensive coordinator, the addition of Bush adds even more knowledge to a staff that is surely one of the league’s most experienced. In fact, Bush is the fourth coach on staff to have spent time as a defensive coordinator after his two-year stint in that role for the Texans.
For his part, Bush is excited to join a staff that has so much knowledge and said he can’t wait to be a sponge and soak up as much information as he can from guys like Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis (whom he also worked with in Tennessee), defensive backs coach Chuck Cecil and defensive line coach Mike Waufle.
“I’m extremely excited to add Frank to our staff,” Fisher said. “Frank brings a wealth of experience and has a long history of success. Players respect him and our linebackers are going to enjoy playing for him.”
Philosophically, Bush said his approach to coaching linebackers is to emphasize a few things inherent in the job. At the top of the list is leadership.
To Bush, linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense and it’s their job to make sure everyone is on the same page and ready to go on any given down. In many ways, it’s possible that working with linebackers is what Bush was meant to do. He calls it the best position on the field because it requires so much versatility and an understanding of playing the run and the pass equally.
Bush’s initial impressions from early film work were nothing but positive when looking at the Rams linebackers and, really, the defense as a whole. He said he saw a group that played extremely hard and wasn’t afraid to fly around the field and make plays. He sees ascending players in Laurinaitis and Dunbar and likes some of the younger players that round out the current linebacker group.
From a schematic contribution standpoint, Bush has been a part of defenses that have done just about everything and, more important, had to defend against just about everything.
“I have been around, seen a lot of stuff and I’ll be able to help the guys out as far as pressure packages, how we can tweak a call here or there to help us get through a game,” Bush said. “I’ve gone against a lot of different coordinators in the league so I’m sure I can add a thing or two here or there that can help us get through a game or get through a situation in a game.”
Timing can be a funny thing. If Bush’s spinal condition had been discovered in 2013, he wouldn’t have had to run an exhaustive search for a doctor who might clear him.
Instead, Bush would be able to go to a local medical facility and have an operation to widen the canal. Although the procedure isn’t quite routine, it’s done enough that he could get it done and be cleared to play again with little problem.
Even in knowing that, Bush doesn’t harbor any ill will about how it all ended despite his initial disappointment.
“It wasn’t my time,” Bush said. “Maybe that’s a good thing. It was an opportunity, fortunately I have been able to have some success as a coach and I was able to find my way to St. Louis. So things have worked out.”
In addition to his defensive knowledge and emphasis on leadership, Bush will bring that relentlessly optimistic approach to the linebackers room every day.
When something might get difficult or hard to handle for one of his players, Bush will undoubtedly have plenty of examples of overcoming adversity to draw upon.
“I have been able to enjoy a lot of success,” Bush said. “It’s almost as if I didn’t get hurt playing; maybe the path would be different. I am grateful for the path that I’m on. I’m still trying to improve, still trying to do things even better but I am grateful for this path. It’s showed me a lot about myself and taught me to be resilient in some situations, how to deal with disappointment and keep moving ahead. I’m very, very fortunate.”