Coaching Football's "Little Things"

Developing a Consistently Successful Football Program

“Square Peg In a Round Hole??!!!”

Posted by admin May - 22 - 2018 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

I was having a discussion with a young assistant coach the other day. He was being a bit critical of the system that his head coach was installing on defense. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like that. I’m thinking, “I sure am glad that you weren’t on MY staff when I coached. We’d have to have an “attitude adjustment” session if you were going to stay on with me!”

This could easily be a post about the importance of loyalty… but I won’t go there today. It was his next statement that gave me pause and helped me come up with a new topic to discuss here. He continued, “When I’m a head coach, I’m going to match the system with the personnel I have.” This sounds like a good philosophy to have. I’ve heard it before over the years. But, now that I’m on the backside of my coaching career, I can afford to step back and analyze things from a different perspective. I would have to say that if his philosophy is your philosophy, it it a recipe for mediocrity for your program. Why?

When we had things rolling at my high school during my head coaching days, people saw us as a “monster” program. We beat many teams on “Monday!” What? Yep…. our opponent would walk in the locker room on Monday; look and see who they’re playing that week; see that it was us; and… groan… “Oh no! We can’t beat those guys?!” Mentally, they’d already lost the game — on Monday!!!! From things that we saw on game night, I think some coaches felt the same way. Let me explain:

We’d always scout our opponents in detail. I’d get as many game videos as I could. We’d work up a great scouting report and game plan based on what we’d seen. We were ready to go! Then the game would start and our opponent had completely changed (or tried to change) what they’d been doing previously. I knew right then that we had them! This is why the philosophy of “changing to fit our personnel” is so problematic.

What I believe every head coach needs is a system of offense and defense. It needs to provide some flexibility so that, if you have an outstanding passing QB coming up in your program, you can adjust to that player’s talents. But, to wholesale scrap your offense or defense is going to hurt in the long run.

Not only do you have to teach your players a new offense or defense but, more significantly, you have to teach your assistant coaches a brand new package. That’s fine if you have veteran coaches who’ve coached in different systems. But, that is rare. You have young coaches, more than likely, who are still learning. If you keep changing the system every season or two, those young coaches are going to be as confused as your players.

What I’m suggesting is to find an offense and defense that you and your staff can study and grow together over the years. For example, you may decide that the double slot/double SE package is what you like to attack defenses with. This can be a Flexbone offense (run the option!) or it can be a Run ‘n Shoot package or it can be a Spread Air Raid offense. The formation is the base; what you emphasize is your flexibility factor.

On defense, do you run an even or an odd front? I think you need to decide if you’re going to play defense one way or the other… or have a really good staff that can switch from odd to even and still teach it effectively. Are you going to be a 3 deep or a 4 deep secondary? Are your linemen going to be 1 gap players or 2? Again, you need a system and then you can adjust if you have a really talented player or two.

What this does is help you not to “drink the koolaid!” You say, “Everyone’s running the Spread so I guess we need to run the Spread!” Why? If you and your staff don’t know the Spread, look at the pro’s and con’s before you jump into it… or any new concept. It gets back to my philosophy of: Do a FEW things reallllllllllly well. Do you know that Vince Lombardi used to lecture on his Green Bay Sweep for 8 hours???!!! Do you know your “bread ‘n butter” play well enough to be able to talk on it for even 1 hour??!!! Be a “student of the game!”

Press On!

Posted by admin May - 16 - 2018 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

Have you ever watched an Olympic swimmer? Stroke after powerful stroke propelling him through the water. He takes what’s in front of him and pushes it behind him. Each stroke moves him closer to his goal — touching that finish wall/line. That swimmer literally takes the obstacle (the water) that is keeping him from achieving his goal and actually uses it to get there.

You may be thinking: great point, Lew, but I’m just trying to keep my head above water. Getting to the finish line is the last thing I’m thinking about. Welllllllllll… if all you can do right now is keep your head above water, then just keep treading water! It’s times like these that I learned in my life that you really have to rely on God. Cuz… I was in no position to keep myself from sinking.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Philippians 3:14. “I press on toward the goal to win the prize…” The part of that verse that motivates me is where it says to “press on.” Press is short for “pressure.” That means that there is a force that is somehow blocking me from achieving my goal. Rather than giving up, I give in!!! I admit that I can’t do it on my own and submit to God and ask Him to help me to overcome this obstacle. He may not get me OUT of it (right away!–it’s called “God’s Timing!) but He will certainly get me THROUGH it.

When things get roughest, that’s when Jesus will carry you. IF… you let Him! My pride and stubbornness have too often gotten me where I am just “treading water” or I find myself backed into a corner with, seemingly, no way out. Maybe if I’d turned it over to God’s Holy Spirit earlier, I wouldn’t have found myself in the mess I was in! But… I’m learning. How about YOU??!!!

A “Command” Performance

Posted by admin May - 9 - 2018 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

I’ve stated numerous times over the years about the importance of being a “student of the game”… of football… for those of you who are coaches who read this. It holds true for anyone in a leadership role. We need to be life-long learners — continuing to accumulate knowledge so that we stay on the cutting edge of what’s going on in our particular field. That’s why I like to read. Because one of my areas of interest is leadership, I especially enjoy reading books by and/or about great leaders. I especially like to study military leaders. They have been trained in effective leadership skills. However, until they have to put that training into action, you don’t know if they really possess the character to “step up” under pressure and be a great leader. Wartime forces military commanders to “step up” or “step away!”

My current reading list includes a book about the Mexican-American War of 1848. It is amazing how many of the commanders (on both sides) of the American Civil War fought in the Mexican-American War. Names like Lee, Meade, Grant, Jackson, Beauregard, Longstreet and Pickett. All of these Civil War generals where lieutenants or captains in the Mexican-American War. These were all U.S. Military Academy graduates who were thrust into the foray of battle shortly after their commission. They “cut their teeth” on battle tactics and strategy and… how to LEAD during this war. It certainly trained them to be the formidable commanders that they became a decade later in the War Between the States!

One other commander (who would be considered the lead character in the book and the Mexican-American War) was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Mexico. That man was Winfield Scott. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and was one of the few full-time officers in the U.S. Army at that time. President Polk sent him to Mexico to defeat Santa Anna and secure the Southwest Territory.

Scott took a liking to a young lieutenant by the name of Robert E. Lee. It was this relationship that the book I’m reading Gone To Soldiers by Jeff Schaara focuses on. Lee becomes Scott’s “right hand man” and helps lead the Americans to victory. The interesting part for me was how much wisdom and experience Lee gained while sitting under Scott’s veteran leadership. I see so much of the commander that Lee became in the Civil War being forged in the Mexican-American War.

One dialogue between Scott and Lee really jumped out at me. Scott had just met with his general staff after a victory. He’d asked Lee to sit in on the meeting. It became a bit contentious because of all of the huge ego’s in the room! Scott dealt with his staff, dismissed them but asked Lee to stay back. Scott speaks to Lee about leadership and states, “My friends consider me an outstanding commander. Hell, so do I. My enemies, and there’s a few, they think I’ma foolish old peacock. Davy Twiggs (one of Scott’s generals) thinks I’m soft. Gideon Pillow (another general) thinks I’m dangerous. Worth (still a third division commander for Scott)… God knows what Worth thinks. I’m his personal tormentor. Point is, Mr. Lee, command is all about the minds of the people around you, understanding how they think, how they see you, and how they see themselves. Am I making sense, Mr. Lee?”

Wow! The last part of that statement about “command” is sooooooooo important as a leader! It means that you have to know your assistant coaches. You have to study them. You have to see things that are not necessarily apparent to the naked eye. In a way, you have to become an amateur psychologist so that you can command most effectively. Everyone has to be treated uniquely; yet, we have to, as head coaches, treat everyone the same. NO!!!

I know some of you think you have to treat all of your coaches (and players) the same… but that goes against General Scott’s tenet of commanding/leading others.

Something I learned as a head coach years ago was: “you earn the right to be listened to.” A coaching staff is not a democracy. An assistant coach had to show me that he was motivated and educated before he earned the right to move up the ladder of responsibility. We had a coach who related well to the players but was neither motivated to do the “little things” nor did he have a lot of football knowledge. What he did have was personal ambition. He bugged me for months to be made a Varsity assistant. I told him on several occasions that he was serving our staff and program the best as our JV coach. He finally got so frustrated with me that he quit. He didn’t deserve being elevated to a Varsity assistant’s position so I wouldn’t give him the status that he wanted. Sometimes as a head coach, you have to make the tough decisions.

General Scott’s words to Lieutenant Robert E. Lee really resonated in my mind. Taking them to heart will help you become a more effective leader.

“Don’t Drink the Koolaid!!!”

Posted by admin May - 2 - 2018 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

Let me rattle off a few names for you. Let’s see if you know what they have in common. Some may not be as familiar to some of you cuz I’m probably a lot older than you and my interest in sports goes back further! Here goes:
Michael Jordan; LeBron James; Allen Iverson; Danny Ainge; Charlie Ward; David Justice; Russell Wilson; and Rajon Rondo.

What do you think? What do these athletes have in common? Yep… the obvious point is: they are all professional athletes (or were.) They are all top athletes in their sport. What else?!! You may not know it but… they all have another thing in common: they were all multi-sport stars in high school!!! Yep! LeBron was an all-state receiver in high school. I saw AI play in high school. He may have been the most “electric” HS football I’ve ever seen!

My point? These athletes’ careers were not “messed up” because they chose to play two or more sports in high school. David Justice of the NY Yankees starred in 3 sports!!! Why is it then that young athletes today are being “pushed” to concentrate on 1 sport?? It is an issue that continues to bug me. And I’m not even coaching anymore! I guess it’s because my heart has always been to do what’s best for the kids!

I’m pretty sure I know the reason why many coaches (football included!) are trying to “brainwash” their players into playing only their sport. It’s simply because too many coaches are more concerned about their ego; they are more concerned about their winning percentage. So they “sell” their players on the idea that “if you want a college scholarship, you need to play _____ (my sport!) year round! In fact, if you want to crack the starting lineup here in my program, you’d better plan on being with me year round!”

Step back and say that again to yourself out loud. Does that sound like a coach who’s more concerned about the welfare of his players or… does it sound like someone who’s trying to make sure that he succeeds?

So, what’s the solution? Until parents stand up and tell these Travel Team coaches and AAU coaches and these personal trainers that they want their child to enjoy sports… so let them play what they want to play— not much is going to change!

If you are a coach fighting this battle in your school, try “name-dropping” the stars I listed at the beginning of this article. Do a little “hallway recruiting.” Speak to those players who you’d like to try football to come out and lift some weights… or throw the ball around with our QB’s. Let them know you are interested in them. Call their parents and discuss what I’ve shared here. Get them involved.

If you are a coach who’s “hogging” all of the athletes in your school… shame on you! Some of the best football players I coached played other sports. As long as the coach of that other sport didn’t attempt to get our football player to “drink the koolaid” and not play football anymore!— I was willing to work with any coach. There just aren’t that many great athletes around that we can’t afford to share! Loyalty to the school has been overtaken by the desire to see “my” program succeed. “The heck with the others.” Baaaaaad attitude!

Approach With Caution!

Posted by admin April - 25 - 2018 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

A good coach is always looking for ways to motivate his players. A long time ago, I came up with my definition of what an effective coach looks like. My definition is: “A great coach is able to lead/teach/motivate his players to accomplish more than the player is able to realize he’s capable of achieving.” To accomplish this, a coach must be a “life-long learner” — finding bits of info that he can add to his “tool belt.” Recently, I found one such nugget while reading a daily devotion from Bob Gass Ministries.

Pastor Gass says, “It’s not enough to have the right answers; you need the right approach.” How true! He goes on to say that, “Good ideas and sound advice are wasted when you use a ram-it-down-your-throat approach.” Your efforts to help that player accomplish greater things is dependent on the approach you take to reach him. As coaches, we need to be wise when working with people. Wisdom means possessing the ability to say the right thing, at the right time, with the right tone of voice. I learned a long time ago that “it’s not what you say… but, how you say it” that captures a person’s attention!

I am a firm believer that our efforts at helping a player to change will fail (or worse, cause them to quit on you and leave your program) unless you approach them in love and humility. Another axiom that applies here is, “Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!”

Most players want to be great. They simply lack the skills to help them achieve greatness on their own. That’s where we step in as coaches. That’s why the right approach is so important.

Former U.S. Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson once wrote: “You can offer your ideas to people as bullets or as seeds. You can shoot them or sow them. Ideas used as bullets kill inspiration and motivation. Ideas used as seeds take root, grow and bear fruit in the life in which they are planted. But, there’s a risk: Once it becomes part of those in whom it’s planted, you’ll probably get no credit for originating the idea. But if you’re willing to do without the credit… you’ll reap a rich harvest.”

So if you want your players to receive the truth in a way that will drive them to improve, then you have to find the right approach for each individual!

Team Leadership

Posted by admin April - 20 - 2018 - Friday ADD COMMENTS

We got some extraordinary news yesterday. One of my former players was named a Captain of the West Point football team for next season!!! The “extraordinary” thing is that Cole will only be a Junior! He is only the 5th underclassman in the history of West Point football to be named a captain at the U.S. Military Academy. Verrrrrrrrrrrry impressive!!! But, for me, not surprising. This guy had “leader” written all over him when I started coaching him as a freshman in high school and we named him a team captain THAT season! Yes, Cole was a Captain for all 4 years of his high school varsity career!!!

What I want to comment about, though, is how few “leaders” we actually had during my 30 years as a head coach! I look back and can only think of 4 or 5 players who I tapped as a “captain” who possessed the emotional maturity to truly lead the team! Teenage boys of 16, 17 or 18 years of age are not normally equipped emotionally to handle the responsibilities that a “true” team captain/leader must assume. Why? Because most of them are too concerned about “approval.” Leading your peers is a difficult proposition. Some don’t want to be led by a friend so they “buck the system.” The voting for team captains is usually based on popularity… so the guys who are selected want to stay “popular” so they don’t step up and truly lead… for fear of losing their popularity status. Other players are selected as captains because they are the best athletes. Most of these guys are more focused on continuing their successful career than they are truly interested in helping others.

That’s the first point I emphasize when I talk to potential team leaders… that you have to be more concerned about others — about the team — than yourself! That is very hard for young men to accept.

We did a lot of leadership skills training with our leaders. I actually had 5-7 team leaders instead of the standard 2 or 3. I called them “Lieutenants” instead of “Captains”… for just like in the Army, there are more lieutenants than there are captains in the chain of command. I had an initial training session in pre-season that included lunch to start teaching leadership skills. Then, we met every Monday after practice to discuss what was going on with the team that I needed to be aware of and then had a “1 minute leadership training session.” As the season went along, it became easy to see if we had any true leaders. By that I mean: those kids, who as I stated earlier, weren’t concerned about their status and would speak their mind to their teammates; lead by example and show the level of hustle and enthusiasm that made them strong role models for the behaviors we wanted all of the players to exhibit.

So… what do you do as a coach if you can’t find or “grow!” good team leaders? You continue to work with the players. Part of your job is to teach leadership skills. What I found worked best was to simply impress upon your coaching staff that they are the real leaders of your team! They have to set the example. They have to speak up when things aren’t going right. They have to be the ones that the players look to for inspiration and motivation. They have to be the “hustlers.” They have to be the “cheerleaders.” It’s up to your staff to lead your team. If one can’t, then maybe you need to replace that assistant with a coach who will be an effective leader for you!

Leadership is an integral component of any successful organization! It’s one of those Little Things that can make a BIG difference in your team’s success. Since it’s hard to find strong leaders within your roster, then, while you’re preparing those players whom you’ve deemed as your team leaders… your assistant coaches (and you!) are the real leaders of your team!!!


Posted by admin April - 18 - 2018 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

I was honored to have been asked to speak at the inaugural 757 Football Coaches Symposium last Friday. A local assistant coach saw the need to bring together as many high school football coaches (head and assistants) as possible to 1) discuss the factors that successful coaches in our area have used during their careers that have propelled their programs to the top and 2) try to develop a “spirit of unity and cooperation” among the coaches in our area.

Having coached in this area since 1971, I have seen a lot of coaches come and go. Many more “go” than stay! Coaching high school football in our area is not a financially lucrative proposition. In fact, I’ve heard many coaches say over the years that “we do not do it for the money!” in Tidewater (757) Virginia.

What I gleaned from the other speakers on the docket was, to me, not revolutionary but… it seemed to be a common theme. That point was: If you’re not “in it for the kids” then you’re in the wrong profession!

What does that mean… being “in it for the kids?”

First and foremost, it means setting aside your own ego and focusing on what’s best for your players. Their needs must take priority over your own. What are some of those “needs” that your players have?

1) The need for discipline. I’m not talking about punishment; I’m talking about providing structure and guidance. Setting down rules of conduct and then expecting your players to follow them.

2) Secondly, the need for confirmation or… affirmation. This encompasses the need for love, acceptance and the knowledge that people care about you. We need to “confirm” in our players’ minds that they are appreciated and, yes, loved!

3) Finally, I’d say that coaches need to set an example for our players. Positive role models (especially male role models for teenage boys) are often lacking at home. The coach has to provide that role— NOT singers, actors or athletes. Players are watching you. I know this because we used to have “skit day” during pre-season Camp. We allowed the players to put on skits about “A Day in the Life of a Bruin Football Player.” The player assigned to the role of “Coach” in the skit was uncanny in how he mimicked that coach! Get “caught in the act” of doing things that promote maturity, responsibility and self-control. Set an example that will help your players become a successful husband, dad and worker in their adult life.

I hope that the 100 or so coaches who attended the Symposium walked away with some of the wisdom imparted by the coaches who spoke. There was some reallllllllly good information presented. Unfortunately, I did not see much (if any) note-taking by those in attendance and the “body language” was such that I left sensing that those in attendance did not allow themselves to be as impacted as they could have.

(Legal!) Recruiting

Posted by admin April - 10 - 2018 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

I received a question from a coach the other day that I thought deserved some commentary. He was asking about “recruiting.” I don’t know if illegal recruiting (poaching, I call it) is a problem in your area but it is a problem where I live. My policy was if a player from another school contacted me about possibly transferring to our school… my response was: “have your parents contact me or the AD and then we can talk.” Too many HS coaches are out there trying to “convince” kids to transfer to their school. Not good and not fair! Anyway…

The coach I was speaking to was talking about legal recruiting— primarily how to go about getting some guys who are walking the halls to come out for football. I asked him what he was doing about getting middle school kids to come out for the HS teams? This (recruiting middle school players) is the KEY to recruiting! And, again, only talking to players who would legally funnel into your HS!

For those guys “walking the halls”… a lot of times all it takes is showing them some interest. Invite them out for weight lifting. Or let them know you’re going to be playing 7 on 7— would they like to play? Most people respond positively when someone shows some interest in them. Tell them you’ve seen them in PE class or you like his physique. I’ve asked plenty of guys, “Have you been lifting weights at home?!” It’s a great conversation starter.

But, for those middle school kids… you need the personal touch there too! Ask the middle school principal or AD for a time that you can come to their school and talk to ALL of the 8th grade boys. Heck, if it works out… talk to all the boys in all of the grades! All you need is 15 minutes. Make your appeal; let them know how important they are to the success of the HS program and get them to fill out a Personal Information Sheet so you’ve got names, addresses and numbers.

I saw the tri-fold color brochure that a coach put together for “recruiting.” He was worried about just handing them out. That’s when I recommended that he go to the middle school in person. Let the kids see you, hear you and ask questions. Again, the personal touch matters.

Assistant Coaches

Posted by admin March - 27 - 2018 - Tuesday ADD COMMENTS

I spent about an hour on the phone this morning talking with my Defensive Coordinator when I played high school ball back in the 60’s. “That’s the 19— 60’s… not 18!!!!!!!!) Coach is 82 but still sharp as a tack. We kicked around some stuff and I asked him if he’d ever wanted to be the head coach at the high school I played at and he coached at for over 20 years. He went into administration and never looked back.

Our discussion did go into talking about being an assistant coach. He told me that “I never really had the desire to be the head man. I just wanted to be the best assistant coach I could be!” We talked about my “right-hand man” who coached with me for 15 wonderful years and, knowing him too, Coach Calhoun remarked about how organized Coach Burke was in the classroom. I told him that it was the same way on the practice field.

Coach went on to say that “it’s hard to find one good assistant coach. If you have 2 or 3, it’s a real blessing.” It made me think about what traits are we looking for in a great assistant coach??? I can state numerous things that I think are important but let me just list 3 here today. They are:

1- LOYALTY… to you as the head coach and to the program. You need assistants who you know are going to support you… especially off the field, in the community!!! What did President Lincoln say? “A house divided cannot stand!”

2- Work Ethic. Too many folks want “something for nothing.” I see a plethora of men who “just want to wear the shirt.” Just like we joke about those players who “just want to wear the jersey on Friday…” there are too many guys out there right now who want the recognition but don’t want to do the work that goes with it. I tell head coaches that they need to establish a policy of Responsibility and Accountability…. for their staff and players!

3- Purpose. Why are you coaching? It kinda ties in with #2 above. Too guys want to feed their own ego instead of being “in it” for the kids!!! It’s nice to get recognition— nothing wrong with that! but… if that’s the primary reason that you’re coaching, you are in it for the wrong reason.

A good assistant coach is worth his weight in gold. Make sure you, as the HC, let him know how much he is appreciated!

Effective Leadership

Posted by admin March - 21 - 2018 - Wednesday ADD COMMENTS

Three times now this week I’ve been “confronted” with situations where people are discussing leadership with me. If you are a coach or teacher or businessperson, effective leadership is a key to making a team or organization successful. I’m going to present some “notes” on leadership that I’ve gleaned over the years.

The first thing I should say is… if you want to be an effective leader, you need to study effective leaders! For me, that means reading biographies. Whether it was famous Americans when I was in school or since I started coaching high school football, I read every biography I can find about successful coaches. I learned about the man and his ways of leading and motivating. It has been invaluable in my career. I strongly recommend that you do this. It’s part of being a “student of the game.”

I just heard this recently and I think it is good! For assistant coaches (particularly those who want to be or… think they’re ready to be head coaches!), you need to know that you are already a head coach! If your position coaching assignment is linebackers then you are the HEAD Coach of the linebackers! If your position is offensive centers and guards, then you are the Head Coach of the Centers and Guards! Take pride in the responsibilities given to you and be the best coach you can be for those kids you coach up day by day. Remember: how well they perform on Friday night is a direct reflection on how good a coach you are!

I heard Jenni Catron, a Leadership Coaching expert, speak at our church’s Leadership Summit last night. She asked the audience what our definition of leadership is. I’m not going to tell you what she said; but, rather, ask you to define (in your mind) what leadership is! She did make the point when she asked another question! She asked, “Do you have a passion about leading… about influencing others?!” (That should help you with defining what leadership is!)

A friend shared with me what he felt were the qualities of an effective leader. One of his points was basically the same thing that Ms. Catron presented. An effective leader has “searched and discovered his (or her) authentic self.” If you don’t know what your strengths and weaknesses are as a leader, you need to do some research and get them clearly defined.

Finally, I would ask you: Who leads you? You may not want to admit it but we are all under authority to someone. If fact, it’s been shown that we operate most effectively when someone puts some “boundaries” on us. A friend of mine who’s a nationally-known motivational speaker, Jerry Gaines, talks about having “guard rails” installed when we’re driving across (around here!) the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. If you haven’t had the pleasure of taking that drive, come visit us in Tidewater Virginia. It’s… wellllllllll, exciting!!! Without guard rails on the Chesapeake Bay bridge, you better be extra careful! Those guard rails; ie, being under authority to another actually gives us freedom! Most would say it confines us; but, think of those guard rails and how you’d feel driving 12 miles from either shoreline out in the middle of the Bay!!!

Yes, we all have an Athletics Director and a Principal who we answer to. For me, though, my ultimate authority is the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the perfect example of what a great leader looks like. Check Him out when you’re doing your reading on great leaders!

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