Bruce DeHaven and Russ Purnell have golfed together in the snow in Nevada, traded notes on their special teams philosophies and shared beers and dinners nearly every year at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine.
But one thing the coaching veterans have not done in 25-plus years in the NFL is work together.
That could soon change.
DeHaven, the Carolina Panthers’ special teams coordinator, plans to return for next week’s three-day minicamp, six weeks after taking a leave of absence to begin treatments for a serious medical condition.
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Coming back next week would put DeHaven alongside Purnell, whom DeHaven recommended to Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera to handle the special teams in his absence.
DeHaven will remain the coordinator, a title he’s held since February when Richard Rodgers was reassigned to assistant secondary coach. But Purnell, who is signed through the end of the 2015 season, indicated this week he would remain in a special teams role after DeHaven returns.
“If both of us are here, that would be fantastic. It would be fun to work together,” Purnell said. “It’ll just be a little more coaching for these guys.”
DeHaven, 66, has been in Buffalo, N.Y., since the first week of May undergoing treatment for an undisclosed condition. He said Wednesday that things have gone well, and barring any setbacks, he expects to be at minicamp June 16-18 in Charlotte.
“I’m excited about getting back down, seeing all the players and the coaches and everybody in the organization. I miss everybody,” DeHaven said in a phone interview. “And I’m probably driving my wife crazy because I don’t have enough stuff to keep me busy.”
DeHaven has kept in close contact with Purnell, who has coached special teams for five NFL clubs and was most recently with Jacksonville from 2009 to 2011.
When the NFL schedule came out in April and Purnell saw the Panthers opened at Jacksonville, he sent DeHaven a text. DeHaven responded by saying the two needed to talk, and there might be an opportunity for Purnell with Carolina.
“I knew the other coaches would like him, the players would like him, and that he’d get along with everybody,” DeHaven said. “It just went without saying that he’s a good coach.”
The two met about 35 years ago when DeHaven was an assistant at Kansas and Purnell was a high school coach in Southern California who came to a coaches clinic put on by the Jayhawks’ staff.
After both ended up as NFL special teams coaches, they would bump into each other at the Senior Bowl, combine and an annual kicking camp in Reno, Nev., where snow flurries fell during their round of golf one April.
“We always managed to have dinner and a beer, so we’ve remained good friends,” Purnell said.
DeHaven said he has watched a recording of every special teams rep during organized team activities on his iPad, and talks with Purnell nearly every day about practice plans and personnel.
Rivera says it’s uncanny how similar DeHaven and Purnell are in terms of their philosophy, and even mannerisms.
“It’s been funny because sitting in the meetings and watching some of his mannerisms, watching some of the things that he says, very similar to what Bruce was doing or the direction he was headed,” Rivera said.
DeHaven noticed Purnell uses different terminology for blocking assignments on kickoff return, which DeHaven says is easier to understand than the old verbiage.
DeHaven and Purnell will have their hands full improving a Panthers special team group that finished near the bottom in nearly every major category last season. Gettleman tried to do his part by signing several players with extensive special teams backgrounds, including punt returner Ted Ginn Jr., defensive backs Teddy Williams and Kurt Coleman and linebacker Jason Trusnik.
“They’ve done a great job in the offseason acquiring some guys that are special teams demons, some guys that have some skins on the wall, that have been successful at other places, been successful here,” Purnell said. “So we’re going to hopefully have a great year on teams.”
DeHaven expects to oversee the turnaround. In addition to keeping tabs with Purnell, DeHaven also has worked out on an elliptical machine for 35 minutes every day since he’s been gone.
“So far my treatments went well,” DeHaven said. “And if nothing changes, I anticipate being back for minicamp and being there for training camp and the season.”
For one season anyway, the longtime friends would be colleagues.
“He’s just a really good friend,” DeHaven said. “You make friends in the league other than the guys that you coach with. Maybe not as close as friends, but Ross is really an exception. He’s a really close friend for me.”
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