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Turning a Program Around.

How Grinnell's football staff created a winning environment in the mid-90s

ASSISTANT FOOTBALL coaches are seldom in position to pick and choose their first head coaching job. When the door of opportunity opens, they are usually happy to walk right in... and begin discovering that life at the top isn't always a bed of roses.

The aspiring head coach will usually inherit a program that is a traditional loser or has fallen on hard times. It may represent an opportunity, but also a chilling situation. How do you create a winning environment and put the program back on its feet?

Following are the major problems that a new coach will have to deal with in turning a program around.

In-House Talent

As a rule, every situation will have a group of athletes waiting for direction from the new coach. What can he do to get more out of them than the previous leadership did?

First, he must sell them on the idea that working harder than they ever had before will ensure success. Several of the ways of getting more out of every player:

1. Reemphasize the importance of the strength and conditioning program. It may require changing the program, or adding to it, or just creating better or more realistic goals. Probably the simplest way to show progress is by introducing more stimulating activities, increasing bench, squat, and power-clean maximums and monitoring each athlete's body-fat percentage.

2. Make communication a priority. Whenever a player knows you care about him, he will respond by increasing his effort.

3. Slot your players in the positions that best suit their ability. By allowing them to help you make those decisions, you will give them a sense of ownership in the program.

4. Make good use of the assistant coaches you inherit. They can prove invaluable sources of information. At the same time, get them to begin thinking of the new tradition, the new way of getting things done.

Attitudes

New coaches usually bring a great deal of optimism with them, and they should never allow this optimism to diminish upon discovering the shortcomings of their new program, such as a small budget, a lack of talent or depth, or simply a negative hangover from the previous program.

The new coach must turn these negatives into positives. The two huge areas that he can turn to for help are scheduling and recruiting. Almost every coach can find a handful of sure W's for his schedule. If he cannot locate any sure wins, he can at least create a schedule that will allow his athletes to compete.

The best way to motivate kids and make them more coachable is by giving them a chance to win every time out. Obviously, the best way of com-batting pessimism caused by poor personnel is by going out and recruiting better players. It isn't easy and it will sometimes call for creative recruiting, such as emphasizing the newness of the program, the opportunity to become instant starters, and creating a sense of excitement among the players, student body, and media.

There is no substitute for hard work: outworking your opponents, making more contacts, writing more notes, outselling your competition. All of these things will give you a chance of out-recruiting your competition.

Everyone on the Same Page

Various groups of constituents comprise the internal group of every organization - institutional and athletic administration, the coaching staff and their families, the players and their families, and sometimes the alumni.

The sooner the new coach endears himself to these factions, the sooner he will be able to call upon the different strengths and human resources they provide.

For instance, once a coach builds a relationship with a player and his family, the family will feel obliged to help the coach recruit a local prospect whom the family knows. And there will always be someone on campus or some parent who can provide good fund-raising ideas and a willingness to work at it.

Once the support is established, continued communication is extremely important. The coach can use a weekly newsletter, e-mail, or a website to convey progress and other important news.

Choice of Systems

When it comes to the sport itself, it will be desirable to install a system of offense, defense, and special teams that is different from the rest of the league. A new system can be more exciting to watch and provide a competitive edge by being more difficult to scout and prepare for.

The system should be adaptable to the type of players in the program and the changes in personnel form season to season. For instance, a power game might be the best offense for a big, but slow team, while an option or Wing-T system will provide a smaller team with an extra blocker and better blocking angles on the LOS.

If you have smart players with average bodies, you might want to utilize multiple formations to confuse the defense.

A complex passing game may be the answer for teams with a good passer, but average offensive-line talent. The choices of offenses are vast, but the key lies in choosing a system that best fits your players.

Defensively, the coach has to make decisions about the kind of front to play and how to fit the secondary to it.

If, for example, he is not blessed with a lot of defensive linemen, but has a good linebacking core, a 3-4 defense would be the answer. If, on the other hand, he has an abundance of linemen, he might consider a 4-3 or 4-2 nickel system.

If his secondary is not fleet of foot, he should probably think of more zone coverage. If he has a host of defensive backs, he might accentuate the nickel concept to get more DBs into the mix.

Again, there are a lot of defenses to choose from, but the best one for you will be the best that fits your talent.

Learn the Game

The great coaches never stop studying their sport, even deep into their careers. They realize that their game is constantly changing and that it is essential to keep up with the times.

They will take every opportunity to meet with their peers and talk football, attend all the clinics they can, read all they can, and watch all the games they can on TV.

They'll work at their game and always remember: Every coach in the league is working just as hard as he is and nobody can allow himself to be outworked.

If you are set on your system and what it provides, you should at least be out there listening to other coaches explain their approach to beating systems like yours. For instance, if you have a team which likes to throw the ball a lot, find out what the defensive coaches are saying about how to stop the pass.

In this world of paper proliferation, all kinds of new electronic tools are making things easier and more manageable time-wise. There may be a new computer program out there that can cut your scouting time in half or give you a better way to organize your recruiting. Seize all these opportunities to help put your program on the track to success.

Internal Promotion

There is an old adage: If you look good, then you feel good; if you feel good, then you play good; if you play good, then you win good; and if you win good, then you look good. You can create this type of cycle with some very small internal moves.

Everyone likes praise, and football players are no exception. There are many ways to make a player feel special in front of his peers, which is as good a way as any to create a positive cycle.

Examples of how to praise your players:

1. Create an awards system based on play in competitive situations. Make sure the system covers the many areas of success. For instance, give awards for TDs, PATs, field goals, sacks, interceptions, big hits, big blocks, special team unit of the week, and offensive and defensive practice player of the week.

2. Name an offensive, defensive and special teams Player of the Week and display a write-up or quotation about the players in the locker room. At the beginning of practice, take head-and-shoulder photos of your players and have duplicates of them made for your Player of the Week program.

3. Use one of the prints for a hometown news release, or send it to the player's high school coach with a note of thanks. A print can also be given to the player as a symbol of his contribution to the program.

4. Write a short letter to the parents of a different player each week to get the parents involved in the program.

Outwork the Opponents

There is no substitution for hard work in life or in coaching. Almost every area of football provides an opportunity for a coach and his team to outwork the opponent. Whether it is in off-season or in-season strength training, two-a-day practices, breaking down film, recruiting, using public relations tools, or just taking time to meet with players, a coach can gain on his opponents by working harder than they do.

It is important to try to outwork your opponents in the areas of greatest feasibility. If, say, a coach has limited player depth, the way to outwork the opponent is by focusing more on mental preparation than on physical contact in practice. If a staff is made up of part-time coaches, the head coach can try to outwork the opponent by being completely organized and on the same page with every staff member.

The smart coach will also spend a lot of time teaching and reemphasizing technique rather than dreaming up schemes.

He will also concentrate daily on investing a little more time on the little details that move their program along.

NOTE:

This article was written after experiencing the fulfilling turnaround of the Grinnell College football program. During the first four seasons on the 1990s, the Pioneers won two games and lost 33. Over the next six seasons, Grinnell produced its first winning season in 28 years, a 34-23 record, and its first conference championship in 28 years.

Many of the principles and practices described in this article helped put Grinnell on the right track.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:HAMILTON, ANDREW H.
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Words:1727
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