Tsai: Everything has led to this for new Hawaii defensive coordinator

Former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman walks on the sidelines during the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Aug. 2015 in Orchard Park, N.Y. Thurman recently accepted a job to become Hawaii's new defensive coordinator for the 2024 season. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

HONOLULU — As a college freshman in 1974, Thurman was a flanker on USC’s national champion football team. His suitemate that year was former Punahou School running back Mosi Tatupu, who went on to play 14 NFL seasons. The annual award for college football’s top special teams player was named after Tatupu, who died in 2010. “Mosi and I had a great relationship,” Thurman said.

After playing nine NFL seasons as a defensive back, most notably with the Dallas Cowboys, Thurman went on to serve as defensive coordinator under Rex Ryan with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, and coached for Deion Sanders at Jackson State and Colorado.


But it was his participation in a summer fun program as a fifth grader that would plant the seeds leading to Thurman becoming the University of Hawaii football team’s defensive coordinator.

As a youth,Thurman attended a summer program at Edison Elementary School in Southern California. Dan Morrison, who recently rejoined the Warriors’ coaching staff, was one of the program’s counselors.

“We’ve been friends ever since,” Thurman said.

Morrison coached Thurman at Santa Monica High. Later, when Morrison was offered the coaching job at Punahou, Thurman shared knowledge of the private school that he learned from Tatupu.

They remained in touch during their respective coaching careers. Morrison was the quarterbacks coach under June Jones for nine seasons at UH and seven at SMU.

“Once I got into coaching (in 1988), Dan and I always talked about coaching together,” Thurman said. “I used to come over when Dan was at Punahou and when he was at UH. We maintained a friendship for years.”

Earlier this month, UH decided not to renew the expiring contracts of co-offensive coordinator Ian Shoemaker, co-defensive coordinator Eti Ena and cornerbacks coach Steve Irvine. At Morrison’s suggestion, Thurman, who was Colorado’s director of quality control last year, applied.

Morrison was hired as co-offensive coordinator, pass-game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Thurman was named defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.

The hiring completed the circle involving UH head coach Timmy Chang, Morrison and Thurman. Morrison coached Chang when he was a record-setting UH quarterback. Chang participated in a minority internship program with Buffalo when Thurman was the Bills’ defensive coordinator.

“We rekindled our friendship,” Thurman said of Chang.

Thurman said he enjoys being on the same staff with Morrison, who earned the nickname “Smooth” for his direct but easy-going coaching style.

“Dan’s always been cool,” Thurman said. “He’s always been smooth. Dan is Dan — low-key, smooth-walking, smooth-talking Dan Morrison.”

Ahead of Monday’s first practice of spring training, Thurman has worked on implementing an eclectic style that might incorporate some of Buddy Ryan’s concepts. In 1985, the Cowboys hosted the Chicago Bears, who ran Ryan’s famed 46 defense.

“We didn’t lose in Texas Stadium,” Thurman said. “But the Chicago Bears came in there and beat us 44-0. I’ve been a fan ever since, and the ultimate respect for what he did that year and beyond. That was a wonderful, wonderful coach.”

Rex Ryan used some of his father’s defensive principles with the Baltimore Ravens, Jets and Bills. “Rex was great to work with,” Thurman said. “He allows you to coach. He’s a great teacher.”

At Jackson State in 2022, Thurman’s defense allowed 13.5 points and 135.3 passing yards per game. Opponents averaged 5.7 second-half points.

“It’s not the scheme, it’s the players,” Thurman said. “You get good players, and you coach and teach them to do the right things with good techniques and fundamentals, then you have a chance to be pretty good.”

Although Thurman has scaled back playbooks in the past, he envisions a UH defense with many options.

“We’ll be multiple, I’ll say it that way,” Thurman said. “We’ll be multiple enough to get the job done. We’ll be adjustable and adaptable to the game situations and what we need to do.”

Thurman has enjoyed each of his stops. He praised Sanders, a Hall of Fame player. “I’ve often said about him, had social media been in existence when he played, he would be otherworldly,” Thurman said. “He knows how to use it. He’s very smart. He thinks differently. He’s very creative, very clever.”

Thurman said Jackson State, an FCS school, evoked the basics of football.

“Having gone to USC, having played with the Dallas Cowboys, having been part of the NFL, you get spoiled,” he said. “And now (at Jackson State) I had to bring myself back to reality and work in an environment that wasn’t the richest. But the football, the creativity, being around those young men, and being in that environment, I learned a lot. And I grew as a person.”

He is equally enthusiastic and optimistic about the Warriors.

“We’re going to have a great time,” he said, “and we’re going to win.”

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