Jeff Fisher and Bart Andrus Friendship, Forged 50 Years Ago, Takes A Break on Sunday

Start with that weathered photo of the 1969 Reseda Rams youth football team: That's future NFL and USFL coach Jeff Fisher wearing No. 26 on the second row and future NFL and USFL coach Bart Andrus wearing No. 13 on the fourth row.

And that's actor Dennis Weaver standing in the back row with the coaches -- because one of the assistants on that long-ago Pop Warner team was ole McCloud himself.

"Or Chester from Gunsmoke," Andrus says fondly. "You know, when you grew up in Southern California back then you didn't really think about that. It's just the guy's job. That's what I thought."

"We grew up in the area, just in the valley there," Fisher adds, "and all the big houses had movie stars in them."

Those were different days in America but football was football even back then. So two boys who were the team's quarterback and best receiver had to form a bond.

"He was my go-to receiver," Andrus recalls. "He dropped as many as he caught but that's beside the point."

"I got really efficient because I was always catching bad balls," Fisher retorts.

Jeff Fisher, now the head coach of the USFL's Michigan Panthers, and Bart Andrus, the head coach of the league's Philadelphia Stars, are sitting in front of a zoom camera at the USFL offices in Alabama only days from their important Sunday game against one another.

The meeting could deliver a playoff berth for the Stars and determine whether the Panthers can still rally toward the postseason.

And the two men, competitors on Sunday, are recalling their close friendship that began more than 50 years ago and was sealed on that long-ago youth team.

"The theme of the USFL is united in football and we, by chance, were united in 1969 by the game," Andrus says. "And still, to this day, over 50 years later we're united by the game. We got to go against each other this week and it's like that old cartoon with the coyote and sheep dog: They punch in with their lunch pails, talking like friends, and then they're enemies for the next three hours."

Fisher turns to Andrus.

"You take it that seriously?" he asks.

Andrus and Fisher went to different high schools, different colleges and took different paths after their time on the Reseda Rams but both eventually got into coaching.

"He probably got into coaching a little bit sooner than I did because I acted like an NFL player for five years before I got into coaching," says Fisher, who played for the Bears from 1981-85 before joining the Chicago staff as a defensive assistant.

Fisher started his coaching career in the NFL but Andrus took a slightly different route, starting in a 2A high school in the Bay Area in California.

"Different paths and if it wasn't for him I wouldn't have gotten in the NFL maybe ever but certainly as soon as I did," Andrus says.

Fisher hired Andrus as an offensive assistant with the Tennessee Titans in 1997. And there were some crazy times and rough times.

There was the Music City Miracle.

And there was the disappointing loss to the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.

"For me as an assistant in that situation, there's a lot of thoughts that go through your head," Andrus says. "You're thinking, 'We'll get back here,' and we didn't. It's like the one that got away for me."

"It was the aftermath of it that really took a long time to set in," Fisher says. "Particularly because you're trying to get back and doing those things. But it was a great experience. It was a great run. We kind of look back on and go back to that 1969 picture and who would've thought.

"And that was cool."

Football is a business and following that Super Bowl loss Fisher actually had to let Andrus, the quarterback coach, go. It happened because offensive coordinator Les Steckel was on an expiring contract and wanted to coach the quarterbacks as a provision for signing a new deal.

That made Andrus the odd man out.

"So we work out the provision for coming back," Fisher says. "And then he went out and talked to another team.

"At that point I wasn't going to give him an opportunity to come back. You tell me you're going to be back, I make the staff change and then you go talk to somebody else? Fine. Go do what you want but this one's not going to be here for you."

Andrus, forced out by a situation that ultimately became moot, became the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach of the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe.

"Those conversations are always hard but that's the reality of the business," Andrus says. "I think it was kind of like a forced deal."

Forced deal or competition has not come between Fisher and Andrus. Indeed, Andrus might have saved Fisher's life once.

The two friends would routinely jog together when the Titans were on the road.

"I would always jog on the left side so we could talk and he can't hear anything with the traffic coming on the other side anyway but there's a bus turning left and I grabbed him to keep him from getting hit by the bus," Andrus says.

"We keep jogging and he eventually looks over at me and goes, 'Hey, thanks for trying to throw me in front of that bus.' "

Fisher hired Andrus to join the St. Louis Rams staff in 2013. Andrus, meanwhile, helped convince Fisher to join him in the USFL this year. And so the friends on Sunday will be competitors for the second time this season.

But that doesn't stop the banter.

"I can't figure out what he's going to do and he can't figure out what I'm going to do so it's no big deal," Fisher says.

"I got a secret for you," Andrus adds, "I can't figure out what I'm going to do, either. So that throws a wrench right into the gear right there."

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