Lions cornerbacks coach polishes style in Japan

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Lions cornerbacks coach Tony Oden had a conversation several months ago with coach Jim Caldwell, who told him that leading football clinics is a great way for coaches to step outside their comfort zone.

Before this year, the only clinic in which Oden took part was one for high school coaches when he was an assistant for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012.

But, a day after that conversation with Caldwell, Lions wide receiver coach Robert Prince approached Oden with an opportunity to test his teaching skills on a large audience — in Japan.

So, after organized team activities ended in June, Oden and his family — his wife, 18-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter — made the trip across the world, and the 42-year-old spent much of his 12-day trip working with college-age football players.

"I feel like I'm a much better coach now because it forced me to really open my eyes a little bit and kind of detail my work even more," Oden said. "I thought I was detailed before, but it made me detail it even more. … There was no gray in my presentation."

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The student-athletes at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and Nihon University in Tokyo could read English better than they could speak it, Oden said, so he worked hard to try to answer any questions before they had to ask. He had to slow down his speaking style, talking about two sentences at a time so interpreters could relay the information. Luckily, two of the Nihon players were from Hawaii, so they could help their teammates with any language barrier.

In addition to working with about 30 defensive backs at Ritsumeikan and 40 defensive backs and linebackers at Nihon, Oden said he had a teaching session with "a couple hundred" other coaches and players in the area. He worked with grade-school-age American children at Yakosuka Naval Base, which is about a 90-minute drive from Tokyo.

"The brand of football over there is a lot better than I anticipated," he said.

Stanford connection

Stanford offensive assistant Tsuyoshi Kawata, also known as TK, set up Oden's trip just as he planned one for Prince last year and San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach Jason Tarver in 2013, who was the Oakland Raiders' defensive coordinator at the time.

Although the coaches worked elsewhere, too, this was the third year in a row with a camp at Nihon, whose mascot is the phoenix.

In audio provided by Stanford's athletic communications staff, Kawata said he started the coaching exchange program back in 2008, and the schools where the American coaches teach foot the travel expenses.

Prior to joining Stanford in 2007 under then-coach Jim Harbaugh, Kawata was an assistant coach in the Japanese X-League. He also played in that league from 1995 to 2003, and Prince was one of his coaches from 1996-97.

"Coach Prince told me Tony is the best guy, and I took him over this summer," Kawata said.

Over the years, Kawata has made plenty of connections as he's tried to bring a better brand of football to Japan.

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Kawata, Oden and his family all had dinner with former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama during the trip this summer. Hatoyama received his Ph.D. from Stanford.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, a Stanford alumnus and donor, also helped Kawata bring the coaching clinics to the naval base.

Although the extra coaching has certainly helped, Kawata said size, among other things, has limited just how good the teams can be in the foreign land.

"Not even close," Kawata said when asked to compare football players in the U.S. to Japan.

But, at least one Japanese player recently showed that it's possible to earn opportunities the NFL. Wide receiver Takashi Kurihara tried out for the Baltimore Ravens during rookie minicamp in 2013 and participated in the first veterans combine in March.

Learning experience

For Oden, the trip presented an opportunity to show his children they could be comfortable living outside the U.S. He said the organizers gave him family first-rate accommodations, and he even had the best steak of his life — Matsusaka beef. They went to Disneyland in Tokyo among other site-seeing trips, too.

"Their country is so rich in history," Oden said, noting one experience in which he visited a rock garden that had a 600-year-old tree.

Tony Oden is pictured with former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Also pictured are Oden's wife Amanda, daughter Ryan and son Jaylen.

Besides realizing he could talk a little slower while teaching, Oden said the trip was a "perfect" learning opportunity even though he was the one giving direction.

"It helped with presentation skills," he said. "You're in front of that many people, and you don't know if they understand you or not."

A couple of Lions cornerbacks said they haven't noticed anything different with Oden since the trip, but just going is a sign that he wants to become a better coach. Rookie Alex Carter, who knew Kawata at Stanford, said it was cool for Oden to spread football in another country, and Rashean Mathis said Oden sent him photos during the excursion.

"He's always trying to improve in all that he does, (even) if it's asking one of the guys about something you see within my coaching," Mathis said. "And that's the sign of a great coach and a humble man."