KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Romeo Crennel walks through the tunnel at Arrowhead Stadium on a Friday afternoon, heading up the ramp after a practice in the sun.
He moves slower than he once did. He smiles and says he never was exactly a speedster. Flat feet and a wide waistline are two reasons he's a football coach and not a retired Army officer.
Not that he wouldn't have made it in the service.
"They told me they really didn't want me," Crennel, 63, says with a shrug.
But there's part of him who just didn't fit in that world, either. He grew up in a disciplined military household that shaped his outlook and influenced the way he coaches. But he also sees things beyond orders and rules, and that's why players are willing to swim oceans for him.
Crennel is the wild card separating last season's 4-12 Chiefs from this year's 7-4 team. In a little less than a year as defensive coordinator, Crennel has transformed most of the same core players that comprised one of the NFL's worst defenses into a smart and disciplined group that has the Chiefs on the verge of the playoffs.
He motivates with a combination of strictness and care, things he learned as a child and sharpened by walking one sideline or another for four decades. Players cannot stand the idea of disappointing Romeo Crennel, and they're willing to run faster, hit harder and pay attention longer because that's what you do when a man you respect asks for something.
"I just like the way he approaches the game," Chiefs lineman Shaun Smith says.
Players who struggled last season look reborn under Crennel's guidance. Fringe players with average talent seem energized because it's Crennel they're playing for. Young defenders in their formative years in the NFL are learning that there's a certain way of doing things: Romeo's Way, which means being smart and never repeating mistakes.
"One thing that Romeo realizes," says Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel, who also played for Crennel when he coached in New England, "is that coaches and players are in this thing alike. He tells guys: 'I need you. I need you, because I'm too old and too fat to do it."'
It is this unusual mix of skills that has made Crennel one of the game's most respected coordinators. In an age of screaming coaches and intricate head games, Crennel speaks a language of compassion and respect. In return, he expects discipline, focus and loyalty.
There are many changes at Arrowhead Stadium this season. But the most impressive one is waddling up that tunnel, telling his story as he walks, saying that the lessons he learned decades ago explain so much.
It happened so often, Crennel still remembers it clearly: He had just drifted to sleep, and there was the sergeant standing over his bed and pointing toward the latrine.
Young Romeo had forgotten to scrub under the sink, and rules don't mind the clock. Joseph Crennel was a longtime Army officer, and when he came home, he expected a clean house and a list of completed chores. If details were overlooked, he had no problem pulling his eldest son out of bed to correct his oversight.
"You knew," Crennel says now, "that there was something to doing it right the first time."
Joseph Crennel ran his house the same way he ran his platoon: with respect, cleanliness and order. He expected things that were started to be completed, from cutting the lawn to naming his children. There was a certain symmetry in his world. There was a Romeo, and three years later when Joseph and Mary Crennel had a daughter, they named her Juliet.
"He just liked Shakespeare," Juliet says now, adding that no one really questioned it.
The elder Crennel wasn't interested so much in explanations as results. As he saw it, sleep was a luxury that had to be earned by his five children not just doing their jobs but doing them without cutting corners. The sink or the toilet or the floor, this was a certain child's job, and it should be a source of pride. Too often, Romeo's job was the bathroom.
Only when Romeo was finished scrubbing was he allowed to return to bed. No wonder even his kids called him "Sarge."
There was relief sometimes when his father was working and his mother ran the house. Mary was a listener, and even now, years after his parents' deaths, Crennel remembers how patient his mom was when he would run in from school with some problem, and she would hear him out and suggest a solution.
Mary Crennel also was responsible for explaining to the children when it was time to move again. Joseph was transferred every few years, and that meant moving from Fort Knox, Ky., to Lynchburg, Va., and back again.
"We didn't have any long-lasting friends," Juliet says. "We learned to be friends with each other."
Romeo found another way. No matter which town the family moved to, there always was a football team that needed a stout body and sharp mind. Coaches liked that he could absorb details and follow discipline.
"People don't know you. You don't know people," he says now. "Just trying to get acclimated, it's tough. Probably the hardest thing. But the thing that makes it easier is athletics. Generally, if you're part of a sports team, you have a group right there.
"If you're any good, they just -- boom, they respect you right away."
Crennel paced the sidelines, trying to find anyone who'd listen. It was his first preseason game as an NFL assistant, and he was certain there wouldn't be a second. It was 1980.
He was the New York Giants' assistant special teams coach, and the team had botched an extra point. Head coach Ray Perkins was seething. He let his young assistant know it, too.
"He saw a little bit of me," Perkins says, "that he'd never seen before."
Crennel believed in his abilities as a coach, but it was the NFL culture, which seemed more cutthroat and serious, he was uncertain about.
He first walked the sidelines at Western Kentucky University, where he had been a walk-on defensive and offensive lineman, and things were a certain way there. Coaches didn't scream at players. They didn't threaten or embarrass them in front of teammates. Conflicts were resolved privately, and even the tensest disagreements usually ended well.
Crennel, whose personality usually resembled his mother's more than his father's, fit right in.
"I guess you could say we were more huggers than anything," says Butch Gilbert, who coached Crennel and later coached alongside him.
Sure, there were rabble-rousers, but Coach Rome didn't mind those. If a player resisted an assignment or questioned it, Crennel wouldn't often explode; instead, he'd ask the youngster why he felt so strongly. If the reasons were good enough, heck, he might just go along with it.
But if he met the kid halfway, that raised the stakes. There'd better be no mistakes this time. If there were ... well, he wasn't that much unlike his father.
"You'll see them hackles get up on his neck," Gilbert says in his Southern drawl. "You could tell with that grit on his face; he'd tighten up a little bit."
Crennel stayed at Western Kentucky five seasons before moving on to Texas Tech, then Mississippi. In 1980, Perkins called him about a job in the pros. Maybe they could meet over lunch somewhere and talk. Perkins and Crennel ate and discussed football philosophy for more than two hours. Perkins immediately wanted him on his staff.
Not long after he joined the Giants, Crennel's special teams unit messed up that extra point, and Perkins let the kid have it. Even 30 years later, Crennel still remembers his boss' reaction.
"He wanted to know how I handled pressure," he says.
Crennel approached another assistant on that staff, a young coach named Bill Parcells, and asked if he should start saying goodbye to his colleagues. Parcells laughed, telling Crennel that Perkins thought he had far too much potential to lose his job over something like this.
So many years later, Perkins says there was something about the mix of Crennel's personality -- the ability to flip a switch to and motivate any player -- that prepared him perhaps better than most young coaches.
Perkins says he never considered firing Crennel. But that didn't mean he wasn't willing to make the kid sweat.
Over the years, Crennel found a way to reconcile the two ends of his personality spectrum. Plenty of players loved him -- "Outside of this, he's a friend of mine," Smith says -- and others learned that the old coach is a mine field; some steps are safe, but others have consequences.
"If it's not right the second time," Crennel says, "then that becomes an issue. Particularly when you instruct a guy and talk to him and tell him what the problem is and what he needs to do to fix it -- and then he runs the same play and he lets the same thing occur that's the problem.
"Then, I feel like either he didn't listen, or I didn't explain it well enough, and so now I'm mad at him and at me. And so I'm not yelling at myself, so I yell at him."
Crennel won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants under Parcells, and three more with the Patriots. But perhaps the most impressive thing Crennel has done, at least since leaving New England, is transforming the Chiefs into an intimidating defensive team again.
These Chiefs don't have Neil Smith, Derrick Thomas, Jared Allen or Bobby Bell in their locker room. But Sundays at Arrowhead sound a lot like they used to, and it's because the defense, without even one superstar other than perhaps its coordinator, has put together something worth cheering about.
Derrick Johnson lost his starting linebacker job last season because of poor effort and overlooked details. Under Crennel, Johnson is back in the lineup and having his best NFL season -- one the Chiefs have been waiting on for six years -- and could be chosen to his first Pro Bowl.
Tamba Hali, the Chiefs' best outside linebacker, has always been motivated, but he looks a step faster than he did under old coordinator Clancy Pendergast -- or anyone before that, really. Brandon Flowers is sharper. Glenn Dorsey is quicker. Andy Studebaker is better.
"He gets a certain amount of respect from his players," Vrabel says, "and he did a great job coaching some young players when we were in New England, which I really respected. And I can see him trying to do that here. Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, those guys coming in and teaching them about this 3-4 defense that he's coached for so long.
"Those are the guys that he can bring along and kind of help out and help them mature, I think. Guys see that and immediately give him a lot of credibility, like this guy is taking the time to coach me and also mentor me a little bit. He's kind of done that ever since."
Perhaps the finest definition of Crennel's ability to connect with players, and demand a little more of them, is Smith, a lineman who signed with the Chiefs last spring. It's his eighth team since 2003, his rookie season.
Smith was a troubled player with a history of run-ins when he reached Cleveland, where Crennel was head coach. But Crennel talked to Smith, but more than that, he listened. In return, he expected certain things: respect and discipline, and why not run just a little faster at practice, lift a little more in the weight room?
The men formed a friendship that centered on family more than football, and sure enough, his first season under Crennel was better than any of the previous four. More starts, tackles, sacks and deflections.
"His office is always open," Smith says now. "You can call him when you have questions. Not just about football; you can talk to him about life.
"Who wouldn't want to play for a guy who's honest with you?"
After Crennel was fired from Cleveland, Smith was back on his way toward being forgotten. Then he got a call last spring from Crennel. Months later, Smith has started five games and has become an unexpected face of the faceless Chiefs defense -- a group without otherworldly talent but one willing to push a little extra because of the man asking them to do it.
Smith says that Crennel will give any player a chance, and from there's it up to him. The caveat is that he has to do it Crennel's way. It's something the old coach learned long ago, and the lessons of the sergeant standing over his bed haven't gone away.
"He's an emotional guy that, most of the time those emotions are in check," Vrabel says. "He doesn't like getting his ass chewed from the head coach, and so he realizes that, if the head coach chews him, there's a reason.
"We would all be better served if we didn't have to get to that."
Crennel reaches the coaches' parking lot at Arrowhead and stops. He has been in this business a long time, and by now, he knows what works. He'd prefer to be that teddy bear who is everyone's friend first, but he's also not afraid to be the surprising authority figure who can point a player to the NFL's nearest exit door.
"He yells when he has to yell," Smith says.
Crennel says that, if he hadn't become a coach, he probably would've been a teacher. There was always something about this role that appealed to him, and he says he found the perfect line of work to satisfy the complicated way his mind is wired.
He stands in the sun now, and soon he'll catch a ride back to the Chiefs' practice facility. That workout is waiting, and no military man ever likes to be late. That, and it's date night. All that means is there's the same amount to do in far less time.
"You began to learn some of the discipline involved there and some of the responsibility," Crennel says, and it's hard to tell whether he's discussing football or the military or both. "You're expected to handle this task, and this is your job. You learn about responsibility and doing your job and taking responsibility for your job when you didn't do it right."