Chris Ault

On the first day of practice, the venerated College Football Hall of Fame coach, who had won 233 games, wanted to evaluate his kickers.

But with no field goal posts on the Italian field, the Rhinos Milano kickers were attempting their kicks over a soccer goal. How could they determine if their kicks would be good over the higher crossbar and more narrow uprights, which are positioned at the back of a football end zone?

This is the explanation Chris Ault got from his special teams coach, Marco Paganucci: "We use our imagination."

It was all part of the Italian coaching odyssey for Ault, who invented the pistol formation and coached Colin Kaepernick at Nevada. Ault accepted the Rhinos' head coaching job because he still loved coaching, had never been to Europe and viewed the opportunity as the perfect way to celebrate his 50th anniversary with his wife, Kathy.

Chris Ault

"I thought I would be kind of a hero to my wife by saying, 'we're going to go see Italy for six months,'" Ault said.

Founded in 1978 the Rhinos were the first American football team in Italy. The players, who have other jobs, would get home from work and then practice under Ault from 8:45 p.m. to 11 p.m. two to three times a week and play the game on Saturday.

"They are very interested in American football," Ault said. "It really was a true passion."

Except for the jerseys and pants, players have to purchase all of their own equipment. The Rhinos’ annual budget is about 130,000 Euros (just more than 140,000 U.S. dollars). That budget goes toward insurance, team travel, trainers and salaries for the two American stars.

Even Ault was just paid a $1,500-a-month stipend in addition to getting free room and board. He and his wife were situated in a beautiful apartment complex near the Piazza del Duomo, the city square, which marks the geographic and cultural center of Milan.

Ault's experience was like something out of Playing for Pizza, John Grisham's novel, where the protagonist, Rick Dockery, goes from quarterbacking an NFL team to one in Parma, Italy. Ault has read the book three times.

Rhinos Milano

In the real-life version, Ault's Italian Football League (IFL) players were very raw, and he guided them through repeated drills.

"Their football fundamentals are very poor," he said. "That was something that we, I mean, we stressed and worked daily."

Ault, 69, does not speak Italian, but 75 percent of his players spoke English, and they served as translators. His patented no-huddle offense actually made things easier because it operates on signals rather than play calls from the sideline.

His methods worked so effectively that the Rhinos, who had a .500 season the year before, went 13-0 and won the Italian Super Bowl, something the club had not accomplished since 1990, in July. The team partied on the field at Dino Manuzzi Stadium from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.

"I'll tell you what," Ault said, "the Italians know how to celebrate."

***

After coaching at Nevada for 28 years, Ault resigned following the 2012 season.

"I had taken that program as far as it could go," Ault said. "There was a time for doing something different."

Chris Ault Poster

He wanted a taste of the NFL and to learn more about the West Coast Offense without taking a full-time job. Several NFL teams, including the Ravens and Packers, expressed interest in hiring him as an offensive consultant, but Ault had already signed with the Chiefs. He and head coach Andy Reid knew each other from their days coaching in the Big Sky conference. (Reid was Northern Arizona's offensive line coach in 1986.)

Ault was with the Chiefs offense during training camp and preseason in 2013 and 2014. During each regular-season week, he would break down film of the Chiefs' run game versus the upcoming opponent.

"It's a great organization," Ault said. "Andy Reid and his staff were just terrific to me."

Reid, whom the Chiefs declined to make available for comment, has regularly brought consultants into the mix. Brad Childress worked in a similar capacity before becoming co-offensive coordinator this year.

While in Kansas City, Ault became acquainted with the Chiefs' assistant special teams coach and former Missouri running back, Brock Olivo, who had served as head coach of the Italian National Football Team and the IFL's Marines Lazio.

That served as the connection between Ault and the Rhinos, for whom he installed the pistol system he famously started at Nevada in 2005.

Italian Super Bowl Trophy

In the pistol offense, the quarterback lines up four yards back from center -- instead of five yards back as in the shotgun. Rather than having the running back line up at the side of the quarterback, the shorter distance from center allows the running back to line up behind the quarterback and run downhill more effectively. The offense can attack strong or weak-side, and that setup also bolsters the play-action game.

"It was a diverse offense for the run game," he said. "It's part of the offensive landscape at all levels, all divisions, including the NFL."

While Ault was with the Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith rushed frequently, 125 times for 685 yards during those two years, but more typically from the shotgun formation, which Reid prefers over Ault's pistol formation.

The man who replaced Smith in San Francisco, Kaepernick, ran the pistol at Nevada adeptly, totaling 10,098 passing yards, 82 passing touchdowns, 4,112 rushing yards and 59 rushing touchdowns during his four years.

Kaepernick has struggled since a transcendent debut with the 49ers. Ault said his athleticism should serve as a perfect fit with Chip Kelly's offense but even after he replaced Blaine Gabbert as the starter in Week 6, Kaepernick has made more headlines for his refusal to stand during the national anthem than any on-the-field success.

"I have no problem with Kaep using his celebrity to champion or protest a cause," Ault said. "Absolutely, I think it's great. I think the platform he used to show the importance of the cause was not the proper platform to use. Not standing for the national anthem, which is an American treasure, in my mind is disrespectful."

***

Ault's pistol quarterback in Milan was T.J. Pryor.

T.J. Pryor

IFL teams are allowed to have two Americans, and Ault wisely used those spots for the integral parts of his offense and defense.

Pryor threw for 7,300 yards and 51 touchdowns and rushed for 1,041 yards during his four years at Eastern Kentucky. Ault had recruited the quarterback of the defense, linebacker Jonathan McNeal, to Nevada, where he led the team in tackles with 98 in 2014.

Led by those two players, the Rhinos came together to win their fifth Italian Super Bowl.

"We were developing the talent level," Ault said. "They loved to learn American football."

The Aults also loved their six months in Italy. Chris praised the people they met and the hospitality they received. Along the way he and Kathy visited Rome and Florence and toured ancient ruins.

"She really enjoyed it," he said. "It was great experience for both of us."

The Rhinos want Ault to return in 2017, but the coach has not made up his mind. Their ongoing dialogue is not a negotiation over money. But with his myriad speaking engagements, coaching clinics and potential book projects, it's a question of whether he wants to spend six more months away from his Reno home.

Milano Football Fans

"Obviously, they'd like me to come back," he said. "I enjoyed the Italian culture so much, there's certainly interest on this side."

Ault has time to weigh his options. Training camp does not start until January 12, and the regular season doesn't start until the first week of March. The playoffs end in the middle of July.

If Ault does focus on a stateside speaking tour instead, he will have a story to tell.

"It was an adventure like no other in my life," he said.

Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.

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