"Pay attention," I tell the coach. "Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell both ended up in the barbecue business after they retired from football. There's a good chance you're looking at your future here."
"Retirement is the last thing on my mind," Capers laughs as we shuffle along in the line. The coach is in great shape and looks younger than his 50 years. He is wearing a loose-fitting Houston Texans golf shirt, but judging from the size of his chest, I'd say he benches about 300.
"Well, it's never too early to think about the future," I warn.
Capers ate a lot of barbecue during his years as head coach of the Carolina Panthers. He had some Carolina whole-hog barbecue at a party not long ago. The Carolinas allow only one kind of 'cue: slow-cooked pork, pulled apart and served with a vinegar sauce. "I never got used to that vinegar sauce," he confesses. Capers coached defensive backs at the University of Tennessee in the early 1980s, so he's also had some experience with ribs.
But it's incredible that he still hasn't eaten any barbecue in Houston. How's he going to recruit offensive tackles if he doesn't know where to take them for a couple of pounds of brisket and a rack or two of ribs? Getting the Texans coach up to speed on Texas barbecue seems like a matter of the utmost urgency, so I take an afternoon off to help out the team. I order Capers a three-meat plate with ribs, brisket and jalapeño sausage for starters.
We sit outside on a picnic table and talk about football and barbecue. The Texans joined the other NFL teams in Indianapolis last month to watch the best 350 college prospects in the country work out -- even though our team won't have any picks until next spring. But Capers figured he might as well keep tabs on all the players in the league in preparation for the expansion draft. The Texans are paying him a lot of money to sit around and watch college kids he can't even pick, but owner Bob McNair and General Manager Charley Casserly were so eager to hire Capers, they took him a year early to prevent anybody else from hiring him.
Capers is eating his ribs first. I offer him some of my black pepper-speckled Czech sausage so he can sample it alongside the jalapeño sausage. He isn't just being diplomatic when he says they're both good. Goode Co. really does buy excellent sausage. I guess it's the fresh kind -- the vacuum-packed supermarket stuff always seems dry.
Capers orders beans and dirty rice as sides. I think these are odd choices until Capers reminds me that he also spent many years coaching for the New Orleans Saints. He probably thought they were red beans. The pintos at Goode Co. are somewhat controversial among the barbecue cognoscenti. Some feel the flavorings overpower the taste of the beans. I know what they mean, but nobody eats these pintos in a bowl like the borracho beans at Ninfa's, so I'm not sure you'd notice the subtle bean-broth flavor anyway. Capers seems to like them well enough, and he also quickly levels the large pile of dirty rice. We talk about restaurants in the Big Easy and the prospects for the spring crawfish season. He's actually very interested in food, and he pumps me for some restaurant recommendations in Houston.
I tell him he can get a great lunch at Floyd's Cajun Kitchen [1200 Durham, (713)864-5600]. He's living in a corporate residence over near the Galleria until his wife moves here, so I recommend Ouisie's Table [3939 San Felipe, (713)528-2264] for fine Southern cooking. But if I were living alone over there, I'd pick up dinner at eatZi's Market & Bakery [1702 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)629-6003]. EatZi's is like a restaurant where you can't sit down, I explain to Capers, but where you can get an incredible dinner to go at a reasonable price and bag some crunchy Italian bread, smoked salmon and caviar spread while you're there.
But then again, if my former employer were paying me the rest of a $9 million contract between now and 2006, I might forget about the reasonable prices at eatZi's and have my dinner flown in from Paris every night.
It's only fair that a guy enjoying this kind of free ride get a little grilling, so I take a shot at it. "Mack Brown came down from North Carolina and asked UT fans to give him four years to build a championship team," I say. "How long are you going to need to get us in the Super Bowl?"
"It's not quite the same in the NFL," Capers waffles. "You don't know how long it's going to take. If you start making predictions, you end up stubbing your toe."
I figured he would be slippery, but who can blame him? Capers was everybody's best friend when the Carolina Panthers started off with a better-than-expected seven-win debut season in 1995. A year later, when the team vaulted over the 49ers to take the NFC West title and then beat the defending champ Cowboys in the Panthers' first playoff game, Capers was voted NFL Coach of the Year. In their third season, the Panthers fell back to 7-9, and the coach became a mere human. Then in 1998, Carolina sputtered to a miserable 4-12 record. Carolina fans called for Capers's head, and the front office obligingly served it up.
Capers makes a lot of coded comments about how quality comes from the top down. He praises the support he enjoys from the head office of the Texans. Time will tell exactly how unwavering that support really is. But for now, angry fans, fickle management and sullen players are all just a bad dream. It's a warm February day, we're eating succulent barbecue, and the future looks as promising as an uncut buttermilk pie.
"You can never tell what's going to happen in the NFL," Capers says, sucking a rib bone philosophically. "You just have to set a high standard and stick to it." It's obvious he has wiggled off this high-expectation hook many times before. It's also obvious he doesn't know what to make of the sliced brisket.
I tell him to put the beef slices on the jalapeño bread, pour some sauce on top, and then fold it over. It's hard to believe, but this is the first brisket sandwich the man has ever eaten.
Luckily, Goode Co. is on its game today. The meat is tender, smoky and juicy -- I'm eating the same kind of folded-over sandwich, and it rocks. The coach is suitably amazed at what we call barbecue here in the Lone Star State.
"So what do you think?" I ask him. "Better than Carolina?"
"It sure is," he says with his mouth full. "You've got a convert."
Of course, the man is easy to impress right now. For the last two years, he has been the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, a city where barbecue means a ham sandwich with Heinz Thick and Chunky. His performance with the Jaguars was pretty impressive, though; he improved the defense from 25th in the league in 1998 up to fourth in 1999.
The guy sitting beside us at the picnic table is sipping iced tea and getting antsy.
"You want to ask him a question?" I offer.
"Well, just the obvious: What about the XFL?" the guy wants to know.
"Will it thin out the talent in the expansion draft?" I ask the coach.
"Not really," Capers says. "It was a little hard to find extra players at the end of last season, but I don't think it's really going to hurt the level of talent in the NFL."
"And what about the free agent situation?" I wonder.
"Free agency has changed the landscape a lot," Capers says. "The expansion draft is going to be a lot different than when Carolina and Jacksonville came in. Teams have learned how to protect their good players. But the good news is that Houston is a very appealing place for players to live. I'm not sure why exactly -- the climate, the cost of living maybe?"
I'm surprised he still hasn't gotten the picture. I tell him to think like a 350-pound lineman at the end of an all-day workout.
"It's the barbecue!"