One of the most important aspects of being a head coach is getting a group of assistant coaches who buy into how you want to lead the team. Nothing is worse for a team than having coaches who bicker and undermine each other. How can the players be positive and reach for a common goal if the coaches can’t come together and reach for a common goal?
The situation I am in is a little different because the head coach is not picking the offensive and defensive coordinators, the two most important assistant coaches on the coaching staff. Before I was even interviewed the offensive coordinator was already chosen. The defensive coordinator position was still up in the air. Because that position was still vacant, I was able to look around for candidates.
I wanted someone who had been a coach before and someone who was willing to look at things from a different point of view, someone who was willing to work outside of the box and bring in fresh ideas. I also wanted someone who could coach a position on offense as well as defense. The first person who came to mind was a coach I worked with on the freshmen team at the high school. He was upbeat and positive, had the high school kids doing crazy drills to keep them interested, and he could coach linebackers and running backs. The owner wanted to bring in his former high school defensive backs coach who was also a defensive coordinator.
The problem was both men were busy with family and other jobs, so neither one wanted to commit without thinking about it for some time. That was completely understandable. I had to do the same thing, so I couldn’t be mad at anyone doing what I did. But I was getting anxious and nervous as days turned into more than a week and still no one was dialed in as the DC (defensive coordinator.) There was also a third candidate, who actually was never really a candidate in the first place.
Let me explain.
Two years ago the team had a defensive coordinator. The guy was intense and in people’s faces, but he knew defense and some players really responded to him because he was on top of the entire defense. He was brash and full of bravado, calling out players’ manhood for not hitting hard enough, bragging that he could still dominate on the field and threatening to take players’ starting spots away and stepping on the field himself. Before the first game, he even offered two ecstasy pills to whoever took out the opposing quarterback and a bottle of liquor to whoever scored a defensive touchdown. I was playing at the time and raised my eyebrows in surprise at not only the prizes but also the task of deliberately hurting another player. I didn’t say anything at the time, mostly because I was an offensive linemen and the chances of me cashing in on either reward was non-existent. He didn’t offer rewards before other games, but he did before that first game. I don’t remember if he ever paid up on the prizes, but, then again, I don’t remember anyone knocking out the quarterback. Our defense that year scored more touchdowns than our offense (another reason some players liked him, I presume) but I don’t think he ever gave anyone that bottle of liquor.
About halfway through the season after a hard-fought win on the road, there was a commotion on the back of the bus before we left for home. I usually sat at the front of the bus. I tried like hell to find a seat by myself, not because I didn’t like my teammates, but because a seat by myself meant more elbow room, and I wanted all the elbow room I could get for the bus ride home. Some players did not shower after games. I could understand (sort of) for home games because you might shower once you get to your own shower. But road games? I didn’t want to sit next to some sweaty, stinky mess for two to three hours, that is another reason why I wanted my own row.
Apparently the defensive coordinator and a player got into an argument in the back of the bus and the argument escalated into a physical confrontation with other players separating the two. The argument wasn’t even about football. They were arguing because the player had been sleeping on the DC’s couch for a couple of days, promised to pay some sort of rent, never did, started sleeping on someone else’s couch and never paid the rent. The coach held some of the player’s clothes as a negotiating tool until he received whatever payment he was looking for. The player wanted his clothes. Bingo, bango, bongo…you’ve got a fight on the back of the bus. I don’t know if any punches were actually thrown, but I know a lot of derogatory remarks were flying freely.
The fallout of the confrontation was the defensive coordinator was fired. Last year he joined the cross-town rival, not as a coach, but as a player. Considering the amount of talking he had done the year before, I assumed he would be able to back it up. He was telling people he was starting on defense and was really gunning to take out the player he had gotten into the fight on the back of the bus. I was able to go to that team’s first game and he rode the pine. I think he saw the field three times. I don’t think he made any play that would wind up in the stat book. He then went on bragging that he stopped the other team from scoring. He then proceeded to say pretty nasty things on social media about the owner and the then-GM (now offensive coordinator) of our team. It got really bad, to the point my wife was afraid to go to our game against his team. But I always had a decent relationship with the guy.
When things got crazy when he was on the other team, I contacted him and tried to defuse the situation, calm him down and defend my team. He is the type of guy who thrives on confrontation. I am the type of guy who avoids confrontation. But I knew how to handle him. I was direct and to the point and told him threatening my players (I was the defensive coordinator at the time) would not be tolerated. I let him speak his peace, but I reiterated deliberately hurting one of my players would not be tolerated. He respected me for my approach. When we played, nothing happened. Well, nothing happened in terms of him targeting our players. There was a fight on the field because his team was trash talking and hitting late, but it didn’t really involve him.
Well, I wasn’t even the head coach three days and I had players telling me this guy wanted to talk to me about coming back to the team as a coach. I called the owner soon thereafter and he said he would never have that guy back on the team while he was owner. But I knew that I needed a DC and the top two candidates needed persuasion to join the team. This guy was enthusiastic about jumping on board.
I talked with him over the phone for about 30 minutes. He kept pitching me his ideas for defense and offense. He told me his goal to become head coach of a football team in the league. Considering his history and personality, it was in the back of my mind while we were talking that this guy would stab me in the back during the season (figuratively, maybe literally) so he could take over. I told him point-blank him coming on board would be difficult considering his relationship with the owner and the offensive coordinator, the two people he trashed all over social media. I said it would be a hurdle. He laughed and said that was better than what he anticipated. He thought it would be “a fucking mountain.” I also told him we were considering other candidates and nothing would be finalized until he talked with the owner.
About three or four weeks later, he posted on social media he was going to be our defensive coordinator and players needed to prepare for him coming back to the team. I was shocked. I called the owner immediately. He said he never talked with the former DC and if he did he would tell the former DC he would never be with the team as long as he owned the team. I tried calling the former DC to find out where he got the impression he was back on the coaching staff. Apparently he thought he had the job because he talked with a player weeks ago and assumed he had the job. I let him know it was entirely premature to jump to that conclusion and reminded him of our conversation regarding other candidates and nothing would be final until he talked with the owner. I am almost 100 percent positive he was trying to paint me and/or the owner into a corner to just accept him on the staff rather that tell him to take a hike.
As for the other two candidates, the owner’s former high school DC said he would be our defensive coordinator. The guy I worked with at the high school was enthusiastic about becoming the special teams coordinator. This was the best possible scenario imaginable, especially because special teams are an afterthought on most teams and this guy WANTED to do it.
Our first practice was one day away and we had a coaches meeting scheduled that night to make sure everyone was on the same page about was going on. I got in the morning telling me the defensive coordinator no longer wanted to do it. We started the season the next day and now I didn’t have a defensive coordinator. At the coaches meeting I asked the special teams coordinator if he wanted to be the DC. He said he had to talk it over with his family because he didn’t want a big time committment. The owner and I tried to convince him it wouldn’t be a big time committment. He was hesitant. But I needed to have a plan the next morning. I was going introduce myself as the head coach and then the offensive coordinator. It would be suspicious if there was no defensive coordinator. I did not want to scare off any new guys (or any veterans, for that matter) thinking this team was a disorganized mess. I went through a couple of scenarios where maybe I don’t mention anyone’s title, maybe I say I am acting defensive coordinator, maybe I just try to play it off like I just forgot to mention who was the defensive coordinator. Finally, the special teams coordinator said he would run the defense. Finally, with about 12 hours before our first practice, I had all of the major holes filled for the coaching staff.
But we would be a pretty small and hard-working staff if there were only three of us. A guy who had been with the team for a number of years had been the defensive backs coach. In truth, I don’t think he coached anything or anyone. We had veteran players in the secondary basically running the defensive back drill during practice. This coach was more like a mascot. The plus side was he actually did know football from a coaches’ perspective.
Then there is “Joe.” Joe (not his real name) was an assistant coach the past two years. He did not coach a position. He could not coach a position. He never played football. He didn’t watch football like a coach. He watched it like a fan. There is a big difference between the two. A coach can see a positive out of a play that may not have worked and can see a negative that might have turned out alright. A coach sees technique and assignments. A fan sees the ball. Joe could not coach wide receivers. He could not coach running backs. He could not coach tight end. Not quarterbacks. Not defensive backs, or linebackers. He tried to help with offensive and defensive linemen one practice, but he was telling the defensive linemen to do things that could either give them a concussion at the worst, or blocked into linebackers at best. He had no idea about proper footwork and stance for offensive linemen. The previous head coach held his hand while trying to turn him into the special teams coordinator, and he finally seemed to possibly understand it by the end of the season. But the current defensive coordinator was enthusiastic about special teams and wanted to do that still, so Joe was left to be an “assistant” with no specific task.
And let us not forget “John.” John (also not his real name) is a former player who sort of tried to be a coach but really wanted to hang around to be the emergency kicker. John kind of annoyed the hell out me. John would yell things from the sideline that a coach would yell, but he would yell them at the wrong time. For example, the other team is up by 5 points with 2 minutes left in the game, and they have ball but it is fourth-and-forever deep in their own side of the field. That team lines up for a punt. He would scream, “Watch out for the fake punt!” There is always a chance for a fake punt, mind you, but a coach who decides to go for a fake in that situation should be fired, even if they successfully catch the other team off-guard and get the first down. The risk is too high. If you do not get that first down, the other team gets the ball with less than 40-yards for the game-winning touchdown. It makes no sense at all.
I had actually talked with the defensive backs coach and was OK with him coming on board, mostly because I talked with the players in the secondary and they wanted him to stay. I left a message with Joe and wanted him to know I had no position for him on the staff. I had no way of getting in touch with John.
But at that coaches meeting the night before our first practice, Joe was already there. And I learned John was going to be there the next morning.
I sighed and (hopefully) secretly rolled my eyes.
Hey, I need all the help I could get, right? More hands make for lighter work? The more the merrier? Or would it be too many cooks in the kitchen?
Our first practice would decide that answer.