Less is best….

PROLOGUE

 

        I recently received an e-mail from a friend in Vienna, Austria complimenting me on a ‘coach of the year’ award I had just won.  He told me to keep coaching my way and would I please write a book on my philosophy of coaching.  So, what the hell, why not.

        I think the first thing I should say is that there are many, many ways to coach football.  Some of them work, some of the time, none of them work all the time.  And, all the methods work best when you have really good players.

        I should fight the temptation to ridicule those that believe in the “More is Better” approach to coaching, and I will try,  but you’ll soon figure out my philosophy is the total and complete opposite and I’ll give you many examples as to why that method is, well hell I won’t ever be accused of being politically correct, stupid.  That is, if you’re like me and want a life away from football as well.

        Yesterday, Urban Myer, the very successful football coach at Florida resigned.  It was his second resignation in two years.  Last year he recanted the next day and although his health was a major concern he promised to scale back and quit working twenty hour days.  This time the early retirement was all about wanting to spend more time with family, specifically his two daughters who were college volleyball athletes.

        I’ve never met coach Meyer, although I did spend a week at the university of Utah as they prepped for a bowl game his last season in Salt Lake City.  He was in Florida interviewing for the University of Florida job after apparently, if you can believe the media, turning down an opportunity to coach at Notre Dame.  This much I do know about him, like most of the D-1 football coaches, now that’s wrong, all of the D-1 football coaches he made the job into a 24/7/52 a year job. Then he retired before Joe Paterno, who I’m very sure was home at a reasonable hour after his work day to spend dinner with his wife and family, and began coaching about forty years before coach Meyer.

        No one will ever accuse me of spending too much time in the office.  I’m a firm believer in “The Law of Diminishing Returns.”  And I won’t retire early to spend more time with my family or because of health reasons.  Let me tell you why.  It’s pretty simple really, I try my best to spend Quality time at my job and I take breaks as often as possible and I don’t worry about trying to impress anyone with how many hours I’m spending trying to coach this very simple game.  I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  I do know this and firmly believe there are three basic reasons football coaches think the way they do.  First, they aren’t very smart and it takes twenty hour days to figure out what to do on forth and forty.  Second, they hate their wife and their kids are on drugs and the office becomes a safe haven for them.  Third, they are trying to impress their boss.

        A little harsh?  Ok maybe.  There a lot of football coaches who are really nice guys and coach the way they do because they look around and see everyone else coaching that way.  They think back to their playing days and remember how many hours their coach put in the job and they, without spending any time asking themselves the question, “Is this right or wrong or good or bad”, they just do it. Sorry guys but I really believe if you sat down, by yourself and thought it through you would eventually come up with the right answer.  “More is Never Better.” 

        I had a number of summer jobs while attending my six years of college and I’m sure you did as well.  Most of them were bad jobs with poor pay, but I did learn a lot from my indentured service time.  Basically I’m a “greyhound guy’.  What does that mean?  While working as a bag boy, the guy who empties the under the bus luggage compartment, for the greyhound bus company I found a policy that made sense.  We worked very hard when the busses arrived, but when there was a lull and no busses were in need of offload help we sat down and rested.  Contrast that with the warehouse clean up boy job I had in an earlier summer.  I had just finished sweeping the warehouse and cleaning the area so I asked the foreman, “What do you want me to do now?”  His answer was, “dump the dirt out and sweep it again.”  Brilliant!  I think he must have been a football coach in his spare time.

        I’m sitting in a film room in spring of 1984 as the running back coach of the USFL Portland Breakers.  It’s midnight and we’ve been in the room for hours and hours watching the same four goal line plays.  Thursday night in the NFL is goal line night for everyone.  Every coaching staff in the NFL spends Thursdays that way and the rule is you can’t leave until after midnight.  I remember whispering to my colleague, “Why are we still here?” His answer, also whispered, was, “Because Dick Vermille did it this way.”  Dick Vermille had been the very successful coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and Dick Coury our head coach has been on the Eagle staff.  I said to my friend, “But Dick Vermille went crazy and they had to carry him off to the loony bin.”  After which he cited “Burn-Out” as the cause of his demise.  And after that  Burnout soon became the hot term for coaches all over America as most of them attempted to follow in coach Vermille’s footsteps.  Make any sense to you?  Didn’t to me.

        After that marathon session of brilliance we managed to get close to the Houston Gamblers goal line early in our game that next weekend.  Then we, in spite of our nocturnal efforts, screwed up three successive plays with wrong personnel, wrong formation and wrong direction of the three plays we so carefully planned on Thursday and attempted on Sunday.  Then a foreign kicker came in and keeked a field gooooooooal.  Wow!  Guess where we spent the next Thursday?

        I was watching Sunday night football with my wife.  It’s was a pretty good game and the Green Bay packers minus their starting QB are going with a little used back up.  He actually outplays the Patriots Tom Brady and with a minute to go and his team driving toward the goal line have a chance to win the game.  And then on third down he completes a pass and the receiver is tackled four yards short of the first down on the Patriot fifteen yard line.  It’s now fourth down and as he exhorts his teammates to the line of scrimmage you can tell he’s listening to his coach through the helmet headset.  Nothing.  And the clock keeps on ticking just like that Timex did in the long ago John Cameron Swayze commercials.  The clock is nearing zero and he’s still waiting.  The center finally snaps the ball and eleven Packer players don’t have a clue what play to run.  The QB gets sacked, game over, Patriots win. 

        All game long we’ve been watching the Packer head coach hide his play call, as if anyone is actually trying to lip read, with his multi colored play chart.  He’s worked five or six twenty hour days well into the night and has every possible situation written on the chart.  It’s green with red highlight and black with yellow highlight and blue with pink highlight.  And he can’t find where it says what play to call with the clock winding down, fourth down and four, the defense is wearing blue jerseys, the wind is out of the southeast, it’s overcast and threatening snow, the opposing coach is wearing a hoodie and a national TV audience is yelling simultaneously at their big screen, “call the F—ing play!”  He can’t!  Why, he has no feel for the game.  None! This guy, along with his thirty other colleagues, is at the top of the profession and scenes like this one happen every weekend.  These guys spend thousands of hours neglecting real life and going through hundreds of dollars worth of colored sharpie accented pens and don’t have a clue of what to do in a real situation with the game on the line.  Most of them are paralyzed by over analysis! They are only outdone in this insanity by the small time football coach who thinks he’s in the big time, probably somewhere in Austria. 

        It’s new years day and Wisconsin is playing TCU in the Rose Bowl.  It’s a great game that TCU has managed to stay ahead most of the game by a small margin.  Now it’s the fourth quarter and Wisconsin, down by eight, mounts a last-ditch drive.  They go something like eighty yards in eight or ten plays, entirely on the ground.  The Badgers feature a 300 lb offensive line and three bruising running backs who alternate.  Between them they have spent the season wearing down the opposition. Which is exactly what they do on this possession.  They score with less than a minute to go and need the two point conversion to send the game into overtime.  So what do they do?  They line up in the shotgun with five wide receivers and throw a pass that gets knocked down at the line of scrimmage.  Brilliant! 

        Guess when the decision to throw that pass was made.  I will guarantee you it wasn’t at that moment on the sideline.  No, it was made in a meeting a week or so before the game, probably at midnight after six or seven hours staring at goal line cut ups.  A cut up is a series of plays cut from game film.  The offensive staff, more than likely “bleary” eyed and sleep deprived, made that call in a room a hundred miles away from the sideline and the game.  Did they take in the circumstances of the moment?  The answer was no.  They simply looked on their colored chart, found the play agreed upon in a sterile environment, called it down to the coach with the headset on the sideline and lost the game.  Then they’ll spend the next month defending the call.  What they actually did was take five bullets out of their six shooter.  The shotgun is not what they do best.  Ram it down your throat is.  It’s what they just did.  Make any sense to you?  Doesn’t to me.  What these coaching clones have done is take the “Feel for the game” out of the equation.  No gut feeling, no well hell they haven’t stopped the run, lets do what we do best.  Nope, let’s send in the second string.  Would you send your second best negotiator into battle or your second best lawyer to argue a law suit?  I’m guessing you would send your best and you would at least have a fair chance to win.

        By contrast I don’t wear a headset on the sideline, don’t have a multi colored chart and don’t have a problem calling plays.  It’s fourth and four with eighteen seconds left and no time outs.  Ok, call a quick out, get the first down, huddle up and with some breathing room call a play that actually has a chance to work.  I go to bed no later than 10:00 pm. I watch film for about ten hours…a year!  I’m well rested, think clearly most of the time, have a life away from football and win 80% of my games over a forty-year plus career.  I did it without a colored chart, a headset or twenty hour days in the office.  I’ve been called an idiot by some, a genius by others and I’m neither. What I really am is a simple football coach who places a premium on time management and uses an enormous about of common sense.

        Many years ago and early in my coaching career I had a good friend and former college teammate of mine who was an athletic director at a competing school tell me, “If we had your athletes, we’d work shorter hours too.  We don’t and therefore we have to work longer and harder.”  Really?  Take a close look at that theory.  You’ve got inferior athletes, you say,  so you overwork them and drive them to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion and expect them to beat our kids.  That’s smart.  I’ve always tried my very best to have my players, who by the way most of the time aren’t any better athletes than yours, physically, mentally and emotionally fresh and at their peak on game day.  One more practice play turns into another and another and another and the hours pass by and the work load increases and you put a tired and emotionally beat up team on the field.  Not smart. 

        I was listening to an interview with Bobby Knight not long ago and he was talking about practice and said that he always cut practice in half the day the season reached the halfway point.  “Why,” was the question his interviewer asked?  Coach Knight responded, “It’s really pretty simple, I want my guys rested and we really don’t have to go over the same drill again and again and again all season long.”  Well, hell if it’s good enough for the then Winningest coach in college basketball it’s good enough for me. 

        Several years ago a D-1 football coach was sitting in my office waiting to talk to a recruit.  He was known and had a very well-earned reputation as a tough, hard ass and no-nonsense type coach and I had known him for years.  During our conversation he told me flat out, “Tom, you do us college coaches a dis-service by treating your players too nice.  Your kids have a very hard time adjusting to big time college football.”  I answered, “So, you want me to be as big an asshole as you are so my athletes might be able to figure out why they are being treated like crap and forced to listen to four letter obscenities hurled at them by some moron?”  The discussion deteriorated from that point and the athlete he was there to interview chose another college at which to play his ‘next level’ football.  Big surprise.

        I usually arrived at the Portland Breakers, USFL, at 8:00 am.  My office was at the end of a long hall way and I had to pass by the offensive coordinator’s office on my way.  It was his habit to say hello and then look at his watch as if to say one of two things.  Either, why are you so late or I’ve been here longer than you.  Now, he was a nice guy but he had worked for twenty different programs in his twenty-two year coaching career.  Each day he would wear a shirt with a different emblem.  One day it would be Green Bay, then USC, then Oklahoma, then Notre Dame etc.  he worked in all the big programs….for a year before they figured out he couldn’t coach a lick.  In fact half way through our Breaker season he was relieved of his duties.  He spent a lot of hours in the office but like most who do, he ran out of relevant things to do very quickly.  Most of his office time  was spent on the phone talking with his coaching friends and it certainly wasn’t how to attack the Tampa II defense, more likely he was looking for his next job.  My point is, football isn’t very hard and it doesn’t take brilliance to figure out the game.  And more importantly hours spent in an office doesn’t make one a football coach.

        What I find most incredible is that this workaholic thing is so much a part of our lives here in America.  It’s not just the D-1 football coach, it’s the Athletic Director, the CEO, the chairman of the board, the company President.  These one-dimensional personalities cover the entire spectrum of our society.  Most burn out and quit or die young.  Those that burn out more often than not say if they had it  to do over again they would keep some perspective in their lives.  Those that die young leave a grieving family behind wondering why.  Here’s another thing that is common with the ‘more is better’ crowd.  The boss is a workaholic probably divorced, most D-1 coaches are by the way, his kids are a mess and he’s got a drinking problem.  So, who does he hire for his Head coach, his Foreman, his CEO?  A clone.  Enough said.

        To me it has always been about the product.  In my case the football team.  I ask myself all the time will adding this play, lengthening this time frame, increasing the off season work load, actually make us better or worse?  Again I come back to the fresh spirit of our players.  Our product is good our method works.  Here’s another example;  at every job I left my replacement increased the time commitment and the player responsibility.  In every case the product soon became inferior and  the team less successful.  A pattern that went from consistent championship teams to now and then contenders soon developed and the excuses began piling up.  With these guys it’s never them but they will very soon point the finger at the players,  the assistant coaches, the ball boy, the  rally squad.  Amazing.

        Ok I’m a football coach and who do I pattern myself after?  You will be surprised to know that the four coaches I feel closest too in philosophy are all basketball coaches.  First, John Wooden had the philosophy that he would coach his team and let the others worry about them.  He didn’t scout, he didn’t watch film, he just coached his team.  I watch very little video of our opponent and if I do it will be them vs us.  Second, Bob Knight.  As I stated in an above paragraph, he believed in having his players fresh all the time and half way through the season he would cut practice in half.  We do exactly the same thing.  How many times do you need to practice the same play?   Third, Mike Krzyzewski handles team concepts as well as any coach ever has.  His ability to get players to put team ahead of individual is outstanding and the results are obvious.   Finally, Phil Jackson had a calming effect on his players.  Those who know him say he cares as much about the twelfth guy as the best guy. He connected with them and they gave their very best for him. 

        Coaching isn’t just about calling plays, working refs, figuring out lineups and strategies. Really, it’s management more than anything else. You manage people. And if you can get your players to play to their ability or potential you’ll be successful.  It’s not how much you know, how many hours you spend in an office, how thick your playbook is!  It’s communication with players and with staff.  You might knock my socks off with your knowledge of the game but it’s not what you know that counts.

        In Vienna while coaching I had a young first year coach, who spent all day in the office,  he thought that made him a coach. “All you do is call plays and tell stories,” he told me in one of his more pompous moments.  What he didn’t see or wouldn’t see or couldn’t see was that  I had a feel for the game and a feel of how to communicate with players.  “Things are changing here coach,”  he went on to tell me.  I left before the next season began.  And he was right, they did.  For the worse!

        This book will be a series of ‘essays’ that I’ve written over a long period of time.  They are real stories about kids, about coaches, about philosophies, about my life as a football coach.  I’ve coached this great game for forty-five years at the high school level, the college level and in Europe and it has been a blast.  God willing I’ll do so for a few more years.

        I’m sure by now you’ve figured out I’m not a typical football coach and if this little prologue inspires you to continue, be my guest. On the other hand, if you haven’t already put the book down thinking this is one arrogant asshole then keep reading, you might learn something.

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