Kazuki Omura, a college football coach from Japan, visits American universities each year to learn new schemes and keep with up the changes in the game. Omura has a long-running friendship with McNeese State assistant coach Lance Guidry. (Rick Hickman / American Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 4:42 PMBaseball is our pastime. Basketball is our invention. But more than any other sport, football is seen as America’s reflection.
Speed. Power. Innovation. Creativity. Beauty. Violence.
Cross our borders and its name changes from football to “American football,” the world’s window into our sporting living room.
Yet we are not alone.
The size and speed of the athletes may be different, but football — the good, hitting people kind — is also thriving in Japan. And this week one of the top defensive minds in Japanese college football is in Lake Charles, gleaning all the information he can while observing a week of practices at McNeese State.
'Cuz' comes to town
This feels like it should be a buddy comedy, or at least a match made in reality TV heaven.
Kazuki Omura, the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters, is shadowing an American ambassador that can only be found amongst the rice fields and bayous of south Louisiana — Cowboys defensive coordinator Lance Guidry.
“I told him Cajuns are great people, so you can’t judge America by me,” Guidry joked. “He wanted to take a taxi from the airport. I said, ‘No, I’ll pick you up.’ Then he said he was going to walk from the Comfort Inn. I said, ‘No! I’m gonna pick you up.’ So he ain’t got it yet.”
Omura, known to Guidry as “Cuz,” makes a trip to the United States every year to visit various college practices. It was on one of these trips to Western Kentucky, where Guidry was serving as Willie Taggart’s defensive coordinator, that their paths first crossed.
The gregarious Guidry hit it off with his foreign visitor and they’ve been in touch ever since.
“He’s (the) man,” Omura says with a laugh.
“He came the first year, and then the second year he brought us some gifts,” Guidry said. “He said, ‘I’ve got to bring this crazy man some gifts.’ So he brought me a fan and some other stuff. This time he brought cookies and chocolate-covered potato chips. We became good friends and email back and forth all the time.”
It was McNeese’s season-opening win over Guidry’s old boss at South Florida last fall that placed the program on Omura’s itinerary for this spring.
“When we beat Willie (Taggart), he was really happy,” Guidry said. “So he decided to come see what McNeese has to offer.”
Omura has visited colleges of various sizes over the last seven years.
He spent two years studying the game under June Jones at Hawaii, and has observed practices at programs ranging from the Pac-12’s Stanford, Utah, Colorado to Football Championship Subdivision South Dakota.
He’s come to discover that he can learn more at smaller programs, which is why this year’s visits are to McNeese and Miami (Ohio). Not only are coaches more accessible, but players are closer in size to those in Japan.
“I am thinking of what kind of schemes or techniques I can feed to my Japanese players,” Omura said. “You guys have a bunch of new schemes every year, so we need to catch up.”
“I asked him what gave him problems this year,” Guidry said. “And it was the exact same offense that Sam Houston (State), West Alabama and Jacksonville State was doing with the zone-read and the power-read. They’re doing that over there.”
Though the schemes are similar, Omura said many things are different about college football in Japan.
Player size is probably the most noticeable difference.
Guidry said Omura is considered one of the best tight ends in Japanese history, but his eyes wouldn’t even be at shoulder-pad level with NFL monsters like the 6-foot-7 Jimmy Graham, the New Orleans Saints’ All-Pro tight end.
And yes, since you’re wondering, they have tried out sumo wrestlers as linemen. It’s only a good idea on paper.
“They can’t move,” Omura said. “Yokozuna tried it once,” he said referring to the late American wrestler. “He dominated everything one on one. But in a game?”
Omura just shakes his head.
Home-field advantage is another American college staple that is unheard of in Japan. Space is hard to come by on a densely populated island, so you don’t see stadiums popping up on each of the 100-plus campuses where football is played.
“We don’t have any home or away games,” Omura said. “We use public stadiums.”
Like the Ivy League, Omura’s school does not offer athletic scholarships, though he said there are some that do.
Even without scholarships, Kwansei Gakuin’s roster is huge, with 140 players on the team.
The Fighters are among the most successful of Japan’s 24 Division I programs, winning a record 25 championships since the first title game — known as the Koshien Bowl — was played in 1946.
That run includes the last two national titles, though in Japan that is not when the season ends.
Every year the college champion meets the champion of Japan’s semi-professional X-League in a game known as the Rice Bowl. It’s a concept impossible to imagine in the U.S., though it would likely be the only way to ever quiet the Alabama fan base.
“They are huge, for us,” Omura said of the semi-pro players. “They have experience. They do the same basic schemes. But physically …”
With each trip to America, Omura said he hopes to come closer to that elusive Rice Bowl crown. It’s not impossible. Kwansei Gakuin last pulled off the feat in 2002 with an unforgettable 30-27 win over the impeccably named Asahi Soft Drink Challengers.
Omura describes the game as being a regional sport in Japan, most popular in the cities of Kobe and Osaka.
That popularity could explode if a Japanese player ever makes it to the NFL, though Omura concedes it is an uphill climb.
“Physically, it’s very hard to catch you guys,” Omura said. “We have kickers trying to be an NFL player. Our quarterbacks are not tall enough. A linebacker, maybe can be.”
Though Japanese football players are far behind their American counterparts, Guidry said the coaches are not.
“High school guys and other college coaches that don’t know them would really be in shock by how much football knowledge that they know,” Guidry said. “They are right there with us.”