Coaching Football's "Little Things"

Developing a Consistently Successful Football Program

What Now?

Posted by admin December - 2 - 2020 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

Those of you who were able to play football this fall are more than likely done with your season. If you are still playing, then it means that you are in the playoffs. If so, good luck! I want to talk to those whose season has ended. Even more specifically, to those whose season did not go as well as you’d hoped it would. The question is: what do you do now? My answer? You get feedback! And you get it from a number of sources.

I was reading an article about my Virginia Tech Hokies’ defense this morning. They have the unpleasant task of taking on Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers’ offense this weekend. What I found interesting were the quotes from the Clemson Offensive Coordinator. They were not your typical coach speak— lauding the Hokies on how great they’ve been playing; what an outstanding job their new DC has been doing. Nope! He was honest and, wellllllllllll…. blunt! In a nutshell, he said that Tech’s defense has been “all over the place. That they still haven’t found their identity.” In my mind, that’s the kind of feedback that Coach Fuente and his staff needs… IF they are going to improve! Self-evaluation is fine. Unfortunately, self-evaluation often doesn’t give you an objective picture of how you’ve been doing. That has to come from someone else! Who? Anyone who has seen you play and has a level of expertise in knowing something about how football teams are supposed to perform.

One of the key groups that I sought feedback from at the end of each season was my graduating seniors. They had nothing to lose. Their career was over and they didn’t have to worry about any fallout if they spoke their minds about the program they’d just participated in for the last 2-3 years. Getting them to “open up” was the hard part. I always led with this question: What can I do as the Head Coach of this football program to be a better leader? In this way, you are asking for feedback but you’re asking your (former) players to help you… help you to improve. Take notes and don’t stop to defend yourself. Listen! Get clarification if you need it but let them talk.

Another group would be opposing coaches. Someone whom you respect and maybe won’t play again next year. Question him about what he saw in general. Then ask for specifics: how hard was it to prepare for us? What gave you concerns? Was there something you saw that was a weakness on our part? You want the good, the bad and… yes, even the ugly!

Media people. Or, recruiting service guru’s. They come to your games. They see you play. Question them about what they saw. Let them know that you want them to be forthright with you. You can’t improve if you don’t know what your weaknesses are.

There were former coaches who followed our teams when I coached. I liked to “pick their brain.” It might even be worth asking one of them if they would be a scout for you next year. Ask them to watch your team and get a report from the retired coach on what he’s been observing.

The important part is now the hardest part. I’m not saying that it’s going to necessarily be pleasant to have someone criticize things you’ve been doing. But, the listening is only the starting point. My challenge to you is: are you willing to make the changes that people have shared to improve your team’s performance? I have been in this role as a “scout” for a couple of coaches since I retired. They were all willing to listen. Very few of them had the fortitude to attack the weaknesses I observed and make things better. Several of them are not head coaches anymore.

Growing Means Changing. That’s one of my church’s Core Values. It’s true. If you want things to get better, you must be willing to change. Cuz what you’re doing now doesn’t seem to be working! I hope that things get better for you… I really do!!!

Coaching? OR… Winning?

Posted by admin November - 18 - 2020 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

I feel the need to address a subject that seems to always come up at this time of the year. For those of you who got to actually play this fall, I hope your season was “successful.” I put that in quotes because it is important that you know in your heart what your definition of “successful” really is.

The subject that I alluded to in my first sentence is the issue of a bunch of coaches (prematurely) “retiring” at this time of year… invariably to “spend more time with my family.” At least, that is the reason I read most often when coaches who haven’t seen much success in the win column step down from their head coaching position. They lost a lot of games and so they “retire.” They walk away rather than persevere. Thus, my title: why are you in coaching? What is your purpose? Are you in this profession because you love to COACH? Or, are you in it just because you like to win? It’s a matter of what you value and what your priorities are.

Let’s look at a definition of success that I’ve always adhered to. It says that “success is peace of mind…. in the knowledge that you DID your best, to BECOME the best you are capable of being.” I took that from legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Most of you probably remember Coach Wooden as leading UCLA to 10 national championships in 12 years, including a record 7 in a row! Though UCLA was successful under Wooden from his first year at the helm, they did not win their first national championship until Wooden’s 14th season! WOW! I wonder how many coaches would have “retired to spend more time with their family” if they had to wait 14 years to grab the brass ring?!!!

On a personal note, it took 12 years before one of the teams that I was the head coach of won a District championship. Heck… our record for my first 5 years was barely above .500. But we persevered. I made sure that I set aside time for my family throughout my career. I didn’t magically have to give up coaching to “spend time” with them. Our son, from an early age, went with me when I scouted. Our daughter was a star Field Hockey player. I rarely missed a game. She was on the Homecoming Court at our school both her Junior and Senior years. I went and sat with my wife during halftime for the presentation of the Court. My assistants could handle the halftime activities for one night. Sooooooo.. “come on man!” You make time for the things (and people) that are important.

You are a role model for your players— whether you like it or not! The values that you establish in your program will be the things that are “caught” not “taught.” Who you are when nobody is looking represents who you really are. Sure it’s frustrating to lose. But as Winston Churchill said during England’s darkest hour during World War II, “Never, never, never give up…. and never give in!”

Scouting with Hudl

Posted by admin November - 3 - 2020 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

I have good news for those of you out there who are Wing T coaches! I have been “advising” 2 coaches this fall in states where they’ve been allowed to play football— one in West Virginia and one in Indiana. One team is 8-1 and the other is 11-0!!! They are both running the “old fashioned” base (University of Delaware) version of the Wing T! The team in Indiana is crushing people. I asked their coach as we concluded our weekly meeting, “what are the naysaying chirping about now, Coach?!!” As happens when someone wants to install this great offense, he got a lot of blowback in the Spring when he announced that they were going to install the Delaware Wing T. He’s averaging 50 points a game in the playoffs. He told me that all he hears now (from the naysayers) is crickets! “They have had to eat their words, Lew.” Beautiful!

He did pass along a coaching tip that I want to share with you. I had not thought about this before— it’s a great idea! He was preparing for his next playoff opponent last week. We were talking on Saturday. I asked if he had received any Hudl video on his next opponent. His answer was “no.” But, his next statement was eye-opening. He said, “but I have already started scouting their star running back.” I asked, “how did you accomplish that?” “I looked at his Hudl highlight video,” he replied. “What???” “Yes,” he said. “I can view all of his big runs. That way, I know already what we need to stop when we play them next week.” Ingenious!!! I was reallllllllllly impressed.

Kids are “giving away” a means of scouting them by posting their best plays on their Hudl highlight video! An opposing coach can go online and break down all of his key plays. I suppose that I’m a little “behind the times” compared to some of you. If you’re already doing this… good for you! If this is something new and innovative, I’m not charging you a cent for this invaluable info!!! LOL!!! My goal is to help others be successful. I think that this is a great aid in preparing your defense for a great athlete. In this case, it was their Tailback. It can just as easily be the quarterback or even a receiver. Study the plays that he’s been most successful executing and build your defensive game plan to stop those plays!!! PROPER Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

P.R.I.D.E.

Posted by admin October - 20 - 2020 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

Our new Head Coach is doing a great job of communicating to our players during these crazy times. Our city allows him to work out with the kids twice a week. No contact but they can do drills. A guy here in the area who owns a Training Center for high school athletes came up with a brilliant idea: He started a “league” in the area so the schools can at least play 7 on 7 each Friday. It is outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia High School League. Guys are getting a chance to compete in the “off” season.

Something that our HC passed along to the players a couple of weeks ago showed a lot of wisdom on his part. Not only is he a great X’s and O’s guy but he cares about building character in his players. Thus, when he presented his acronym for PRIDE, I was all over it! I have built my “Character Coach” talks around each of the words that each letter represents. Let me show you…

“P”= PERSEVERANCE. One of my favorite Bible verses is Phil. 3:14. It exhorts us to “press on… towards our goal.” By telling us to press on, God is saying that there is going to be press-ure! We must push through it. Remember the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. That little engine persevered!

“R”= RESPECT. This is something that we all clamor for. We want respect! I shared the “Golden Rule” with the players. I saw a few eyebrows go up when I said, “if you want people to show you respect, then FIRST show it to them!” That got them thinking. I pointed out that the Golden Rule actually was something that Jesus stated in the Bible.

“I”= INTEGRITY. Oh how this character trait is missing in society today! At one time, to say “a man is only as good as his word” was a truism. Not so much anymore. Challenging young people to be honest and to exhibit honor is a bit of an anathema in our culture today. I still emphasized how much respect a person who shows integrity can earn.

“D”= DETERMINATION. I shared on here a while back about Stephan Curry’s story about The Stone Cutter. Check it out if you don’t know the tale. It is a prime example of what determination can get you. “Never, never, never give up and never give in!” Keep on Hammerin’!!!

“E”= EXCELLENCE. Let everything you do be done with excellence. Don’t settle for average. Strive to be the best you can be. I saw a young man at the fitness center this morning who had this printed on his t shirt: “Proud… but still working hard!” Sooooooo good! If we are striving for excellence, we don’t have time to get puffed up. We appreciate what we have accomplished because we know that we went about achieving our goal the right way. You should feel good about yourself and your accomplishment because you achieved it with hard work and integrity!

Renewing Friendships

Posted by admin October - 12 - 2020 - Monday ADD COMMENTS

I haven’t written in a couple of weeks— been busy writing my book! I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was encouraged to write my memoirs. A 22-year career as HC at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, VA has produced a lot of stories about some great players and some even greater times.

This past weekend I enjoyed renewing friendships with players from my other HC experience. I came out of retirement (my friends will tease me and say that it was the second time that I came out of retirement!) to take the head coaching job at nearby Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk, VA in 2011. It was 5 wonderful years. Yesterday, one of those players got married. I was honored to have been asked to be the Officiant for the occasion. Yes, in my spare time between retiring and coaching again… I studied to be a pastor. In 2014, I was ordained as a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Tim and Madison asked if I would be their minister for the wedding celebration, I immediately said yes!

The groom is a former NSA player. His Best Man is a former NSA player. And two of his Groomsmen are former NSA players. It was grrrrrrrrreat to be able to spend time with those guys. They are all now in their mid 20’s and doing well in their professional careers. To be there for Tim’s wedding meant the world to me.

Riding home today, I remarked to my wife, “That is what coaching is all about.”

She replied, “what do you mean?”

“Just seeing those guys and how well they’re doing brings a smile to my face. That they were glad to see me and spend time just sharing stories of our football seasons together makes all of the work involved worth it,” I explained. She just nodded and smiled. My girl is the consummate “coach’s wife!” She knows me better than I know myself.

The moral of the story for you younger coaches out there? Enjoy the time you have with your guys. Make a positive impression on them. They will truly always remember it. Whether it’s 5, 10 or 25 years from now when you see them again, they’re going to talk about things that happened off the field as much (or more) than the games. Build relationships that last a lifetime.

One Way OR… BOTH Ways?

Posted by admin September - 15 - 2020 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

Friday nights around here in Virginia have just NOT been the same! No high school football till Spring! “Booooooo!”

A coaching friend from West Virginia texted me last Friday and said, “If you’re not doing anything tonight, our game is going to be live streamed. I’d love for you to watch it.” I replied, “Heck, yea!!! I’d love to watch your team.” The cool thing is that he is a Wing T guy so watching his offense was really fun for me. I even texted him at halftime with some suggestions from things I saw in the first half. He was nice enough to use them coming out in the 3rd quarter and his offense went right down the field and scored!!! Cool!!!

We talked a while Saturday. I congratulated him on a good win. He appreciated it but was a bit apologetic about the “lack of talent” he has this year. I reassured him that his team looked well-coached. It got me to thinking… how many of his players went both ways on Friday night??? This has been a subject that I have “gone round ‘n round” with coaches over the years.

Some guys swear that “2 platooning is the only way to go, Lew!” I concur… as long as you have a big squad and a LOT of good athletes. Otherwise, I have always held to the philosophy that “if you have a cannon, FIRE it!” In other words, I’m not going to leave an athlete on the bench just so I can say that I 2-platoon my team! The 3 very best players that I ever coached all went both ways. And I’m glad they did!

For those of you who lack numbers overall OR… just have a few (say) quality linemen… I think it is the “smart move” to have them go both ways. Tell them in the preseason that they will be going both ways and that they will need to get themselves physically and mentally ready to go both ways. Most kids liked the challenge.

Early in the season, we set up a rotation where every 3rd or 4th series, the 2-way starter would get a break. I always felt like I needed my best players on the field as much as we could get them out there. Yes, they get tired but… aren’t they supposed to??!!! My best athlete at 90% is still better than his back up who’s only gonna give us 75% production. I don’t recall which great running back it was… maybe Archie Griffin when he was at Ohio State. But they asked him after the game if he was tired since he’d carried the ball over 30 times. His answer was classic! He said, “No. The ball only weighs 13 ounces!!!!!”

You coaches out there with smaller squads— I highly recommend that you build up your best players’ stamina. They have to go both ways. When we did Conditioning— at the beginning of practice, by the way!— the starters ran a couple of more sprints than the back ups. And the 2 way guys ran a couple of more than the 1 way starters. Some grumbled but they appreciated it later in the season when they realized that they were not fatigued.

The best athlete I ever coached played Wingback, Safety, was our Punter, Punt and Kickoff Returner and held for place kicks. I even had him kick off some. He thrived on that amount of work. He loved playing the game and told me once that the more he was on the field, the better “show” he could put on for the fans!!! And he did. All State in high school; All American in college and All Pro in the NFL. He was a competitor and enjoyed competing! I bet your guys will too.

Journaling

Posted by admin September - 11 - 2020 - Friday ADD COMMENTS

I am so glad that someone encouraged me to start keeping a Journal many years ago. It has come in handy lately.

It just dawned on me (“Thank You, Holy Spirit” for prompting me!) that I have not composed a blog in a couple of weeks. My reason for this is that I have been writing my memoirs.

Some of you who follow me weekly and continually (Thank you!) saw that I posted a list of The Best I EVER Coached a couple of months ago. It hit Facebook and the folks in our area went crazy. Everybody seemed to enjoy reading the list. One friend even commented that I should “write a book.” Here I am… writing a book! It is a “look back” at a lot of the kids whom I coached. I’m sharing stories about them that either impacted our program or impacted me personally. I have gotten so engrossed in composing the manuscript that I forgot about posting on here! Sorry…

One of my main resources to jog my memory as I’ve composed these “memoirs” has been my Journals. Being able to read what was happening and… what I was thining/feeling about the particular situation as it happened has really helped me recall details.

My father-in-law kept a journal of his where-abouts during World War II. He was sent to Europe as soon as he graduated from VMI in 1944. He started logging all of the places he was stationed in England… then France and Belgium. Finally the final push into Germany itself. He was a Forward Artillery Observer in the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the first Americans to come upon a Nazi Concentration Camp. My wife keeps that Journal under lock and key! It is so interesting. Our plan is to, one day, travel her dad’s route through Europe and see the places he saw while in the war.

I would recommend to any of you out there to consider starting a journal. I write something in mine every Monday morning with breakfast. It is good to be able to “look back” and recapture the thoughts you were having “back then.” It’s good to “look back” occasionally. It can be helpful (and healthy) to see how far you’ve come.

High School vs. College

Posted by admin August - 26 - 2020 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

There is a vast difference between the things that college coaches can teach (and expect their players to execute) and the things that high school coaches can expect their players to excel at. How many of you have at least 1 Div. I player in your program right now? Think about it: that one guy is the only player whose skill level is such that an ACC or SEC or Big 10 school wants him to come play for them in the future. Do you think it’s wise to expect the rest of your players to be able to perform at your D1 guy’s level? I submit that you are setting goals that are too high! Nothing wrong with having high expectations…. and encouraging your kids to reach for the stars. There’s also a point where a standard is unachievable. Then it becomes frustrating for everyone involved. “Well, Lew… anything is possible!” you may say. My response is, “No. Not everything is possible.” I’m as positive a guy as you want to meet. And I know that miracles DO happen. But… still. I was watching Miracle again on tv the other night. That team was so well-prepared when they met (and defeated) the Russians, that when you look at everything they went through to get to that one game, I don’t think you can call it a miracle win. They were good enough to defeat the Russians and on that night they DID!!! The best strategy when setting goals is for them to be challenging and…. realistic!

I am not advocating “dumbing down” what you teach your players. But, I think you have to be careful in assuming (and you KNOW what the definition of “assume” is??!!) that your high school players really know the game. They play a lot of computer football and they watch the ESPN “Talking Head Experts”… so they think they know football. But, my experience tells me that you might have those 2 or 3 guys who really understand the game; the majority are clueless. I did a routine “experiment” one season and checked to see which of our players were logging in the hours that the coaches hoped they would in watching game video on Hudl. Even our best player told me that he really “didn’t get a whole lot out of watching Hudl!!!” Wow! and he’s in an NFL Camp as I type this!

My point here is to encourage you to check out other high school coaches who are running your schemes before you seek out a college coach. If you have one near you, the best college coaches I found to get information from were D3 coaches. Their athletes; their facilities; their program in general is the closest to what we experience at the high school level. Most of those D3 coaches are young and gung ho! They would be happy to talk “X’s and O’s” with you.

For those of you who won’t be playing (hopefully) until the Spring, you have 5-6 more months of off-season preparation. Use this time to continue to study and learn. There is so much information out there now on the internet that you can utilize. It will help you to grow your staff, yourself and your program. It’s worth repeating: Be a “Student of the Game” and a “life-long learner.”

Try it! You’ll like it!

Make Your Special Teams “Special”

Posted by admin August - 21 - 2020 - Friday ADD COMMENTS

Have you ever wondered why the call them “Special” teams?? Where did that name come from??!!! The reason I say this is because far too many times over the years, the teams that we went against were anything but special when it came to their Special Teams!!!

You’ve probably heard the adage that the “kicking game is 1/3 of the game.” I believe it to be true; however, how many of you spend 1/3 of your practice time on your kicking game? Not many, I bet! I will admit that we did not either. We did spend a LOT of time in preseason practices getting every kicking team installed; but, once the season began we only spent about 20 minutes on Special Teams during a 2 hour and 20 minute practice. Yet, our kicking game was almost always superior in performance during games. Why was this? Two reasons:

  • We put a high priority on Special Teams… and the players knew it! The first segment of practice each day was the Kicking Game. Putting it first showed the team that we were not going to overlook it. Yep! It was that important. Also, we were not opposed to playing starters (on Offense and/or Defense) on our kicking teams. We let our back-up’s know that they could play a lot of ball and even earn their Varsity letter by contributing to our Special Teams but… it was not going to be “given” to them. They would have to show by their hustle, aggressiveness and positive attitude that they deserved the chance to to play on our Special Teams. Why? Cuz we wanted our Special Teams to be “special!” If a back-up was the starter on, say, our Kick-off team, then the defensive starter would be the back-up on the Kickoff team. There were games where we would insert the defensive starter on the kickoff… just because it was an important; i.e., playoff, game. We also sent our starting Running Backs deep on Kickoff Return. For 2 seasons, we had 2 future NFL players as the deep returners on our Kickoff Return team! Yep! It was that important!
  • The second reason that our Special Teams were “special” is because we did things a bit differently (uniquely) than most teams. You’ve read of the team in (is it) Missouri that only On-side kicks their kickoffs? Kinda crazy huh? Wellllllllllllll…. he “stole” that idea from us!!! (Just kidding!) But, we were “onside” kicking everything as early as 2001. Our concept was not a true “onside” kick but rather a “sky” kick to the opposite 30 yard line on the numbers. What we wanted was a “pitching wedge” golf shot. Accuracy was critical… as was hang time! We wanted our opponent to have to fair catch all kickoffs. That put the ball on their 30 yard line with NO chance for them breaking it long. We had one hard and fast rule on our kickoffs: Do NOT kick the ball deep down the middle of the field! It’s a recipe for disaster. The best part of our “sky” kicks is (as previously mentioned) people did not properly prepare for it. There were many games that we recovered a kickoff (or two!) simply because our opponent’s return men stood there and watched the ball bounce…. thinking it was like a punt. We’d dive on it and always loved to see the official direct his arm towards our opponent’s goal line! “First down!!!”

Not only did we do things differently, we only did them one way! We had one Kickoff Return. We had one way that we punted. Our Punt Return team did it one way! We rarely faked because we did not have time to work on it. By doing things one way, we could get a LOT of reps in each day in practice. The players knew how we did it and we never changed things. You’d be surprised how many reps you can get in 7-8 minutes by doing your kicking team only one way!!! Plus, doing it this way, we got realllllllllllllly good at it. For example, our goal was to return at least 1 kick-off back to (at least) the 50 yard line. Our Kickoff Return team was disappointed if we didn’t return one for a TD each week. We got so efficient with our Kickoff Return that people stopped kicking deep! We got great field position and didn’t have to set up our Wedge/Middle Return.

A coach whom I worked for years ago was famous for saying: “What you emphasize, you will achieve.” True…. to a certain extent! You can emphasize something (D End “wrong-shouldering a kickout block, for example) but if you’re not teaching it in a way that a player can excel at it, you’ve wasted your time. It’s why I came up with the adage that “PROPER Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!” Work hard on your execution in your kicking game and you will see results. Lou Holtz was known to say that “In a close game between two evenly-matched teams, it’s probably going to come down to a play or two in the Kicking Game that’s going to determine who wins.” Think: Auburn’s “Kick Six” against Alabama or Michigan’s punter “whiffing” on that last-second punt and Michigan State recovering for the winning TD! Just 2 examples of how Coach Holtz’s adage proved to be true.

Spend the time it takes to truly make your Special Teams “special!!!”

Spring Football

Posted by admin August - 11 - 2020 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

I’m wondering how many other states have already declared to do what Virginia is going to do??? Football in high schools in Virginia will not be played until March and April. In fact, NO high school sports in VA till (at least) Christmas.

Several coaches have lamented to me about how disappointed they are and… of course, how down their kids are that they can’t play football this fall.

The question becomes: how do you take a bad situation and change it for good? The answer: an attitude adjustment is needed!

We use the word attitude a lot. But… exactly what is “attitude?” The dictionary says the definition of attitude is: “A settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in one’s behavior.”

So the way we “think” impacts the way we “act!” The attitude that you, as the Coach, project to your players has a major impact on their behavior. “Take that frown and turn it upside down!”

Here’s what I’ve shared with a couple of coaching friends who were struggling with how to present this major change in the sports calendar so that their players would accept the (radical) change and have a good attitude about it. I said:

Tell them (fall athletes) that “now you get to see what baseball players have dealt with since they started playing organized ball!!!”

Create a paradigm shift. You’ve got to bring about a “fundamental change in underlying assumptions” about a certain situation. When you get football players to “see” themselves the way that “spring” sport athletes “see” themselves, you can begin the shifting.

What is is about being a “spring” sport athlete? Wellllllllll…. you start school in the fall and nobody is talking about or even interested in your sport! Why? Cuz it’s still 6 months until you start playing. Soooooooo…. what do you do in the meantime? Work hard to prepare properly for the start of pre-season practice! You lift; you run; you do drill work; you play 7 on 7 (IF it’s allowed in your area)—- you do the things that are necessary to get ready to have a great season!

You LOOK AT yourself as a “spring” sport athlete this year! Do the things that “spring” sport athletes have done for years! Mentally prepare your mind the way that “spring” sport athletes have done for years! THAT is what you “plant” in your athletes’ minds!

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