(Coaching) Staff Infections

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.

The Interview

I really had no urge to join the coaching staff for a second year, but the fact it was the players conducting the interviewing process and it was players who asked me to consider coming back, it was hard to say no.

 

Plus, I feel taking interviews is always a positive thing, no matter the job. It is a good thing to sit and have people fire questions at you about your experience, work ethic, life philosophy. Even if you have no desire to take the job, taking the interview is a learning experience.

 

I have been involved with ton of different interviews. As a journalist, it was a crucial part of the job. I have interviewed famous people and people who thought they were famous and people who wanted to be famous. I have interviewed professional athletes and college students-athletes and Little League baseball players. I have interviewed chiefs of police, heads of fire departments and state politicians.

 

I have also interviewed for jobs. Lots of jobs. I have a friend who has moved quite a bit, once living in an apartment for just a few weeks before going somewhere new. He and I debated what happened more, the number of jobs I have had or the number of places he has lived. I beat him by double digits. In those job interviews, I have been asked standard questions (“What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?”) and not-so-standard questions (“What superpowers would like to have and why?). Amazingly enough, this interview for the coaching job was not even my first job interview at a bar, and I have never worked nor tried to work at a bar (unless you count restaurants, which I don’t.)

 

I was expecting to have four players at the interview. I arrived at the bar about 10 minutes early and had a notebook where I had written down questions/issues I wanted to bring up as well as two quick mock practice schedules. I had never been to this bar, but I knew where it was. From the outside, it looked like a dive bar. The windows were darkened and it was on the corner of a strip mall surrounded by fast food joints.

 

Inside, I was surprised at how spacious it was. Once you enter the front door (the only door, I think) there was a half-wall on either side, making a quaint entryway. One side of the establishment held a stage with rows of benches and seats facing it. The other side had probably a half dozen pool tables. At the end of the entry way was the bar with two people taking drink orders.

 

There were about 20 to 30 people playing pool, watching pool, or simply standing around the pool tables. On the stage were two men with gray hair, one playing a banjo and the other an acoustic guitar. They were singing something that sounded like a Kingston Trio song. There were three people sitting in the rows watching them. The music was amazingly loud. I do believe they could have played without any speakers, and they would have sounded better. Not that they sounded bad, mind you, but unless you are selling out Shea Stadium, I don’t think you need the volume as loud as it was in there.

 

There were two players already at a small table near the bar. One I had expected to be there. I think the other player was his ride. We gave each other bro-hugs (slapped hands, then pulled in for a one-armed hug while the clasped hands were in between, in an attempt to make sure we weren’t just getting man-to-man and chest-to-chest hugs.) It was nice to see them. Some of the other players live close to each and hang out on personal time. I, however, do not. Not because I don’t like them. It’s just I am pretty busy being a parent.

 

The two players tried to fill me in with rumors and rumblings with our organization as well as other teams. Other players follow the ins-and-outs of this league. They know opposing players and opposing coaches. Some guys have been playing for half a dozen years or more, and playing against some of the same guys every year. I, however, do not know the other players and do not know the other coaches. The two players were trying to tell me how difficult the upcoming season was going to be because we would play teams not in our league. They started rattling off mascots and cities as if I should be impressed or scared or worried. I had no idea who they were talking about.

 

After a few minutes the player who called to ask me to interview showed up. Another round of bro-hugs occurred. We went back to updating each other regarding former teammates, waiting for another player to show up. 

 

I ordered a pint of beer (this was a bar, after all), but I alone was drinking. My wife later chastised me for consuming alcohol during a job interview, but I have a clear conscience considering it was a volunteer position and the interview was at a bar. If the interview was at a Starbucks, I would have had a latte, but it was at a bar. If it was at restaurant, I would have ordered fries or something, but it was at a bar. And I only had *ONE* pint.

 

There really wasn’t much to the interview process. There were very few actual questions. We just talked about football. I told them what I thought was wrong with the team the past two years and I offered my opinion on possible solutions. The one thing, I think, that really impressed them was when I showed the mock practice schedules.

 

Previous practices seemed disorganized at worst and chaotic at best. There were times when no one – not players, not coaches, not coordinators – seemed to know what was going on. Too many times in practice we had a handful of players actually doing something while everyone else just stood and watched. Too many times it seemed as if the coaches had no idea what was going on. A simple solution is to have a minute-by-minute schedule handed out to the coaches so everyone knew what was expected. I literally took about two minutes and jotted down two different practice schedules. I think this little exercise pushed me over the top for the guys.

 

We left the bar with another exchange of bro-hugs and the players saying they would get in touch with the owner, who lived in a different state. A couple of days later the owner called. Our phone conversation was very similar to the interview I had with the players. I told the owner about my perceptions on the team and my ideas to fix the problems I saw. The owner and the players were not put off by my lack of total time commitment.

 

The owner offered me the job and I accepted.

A Little Background

I played four years of high school football. I got injured my senior year – right before halftime of our homecoming game – and never got looks from colleges to play. I did, however, rehab after the injury, earn a spot on an all-star team and even started the all-star game, beating out other guys who had scholarships to Division I schools.

 

I never played after high school. In fact, the school I went to did not even have a football team. The intramural team I played on won the championship both years I played. Instead of playing ball, I went into sports journalism and started covering football, along with other sports.

 

Journalism is a nomadic existence, moving from smaller markets to larger markets every few years. Once I settled down to start a family, my sports journalism days were put on the shelf. I became a stay-at-home dad, and traded in a pen and notepad for diapers and Sesame Street.

 

The upside of no longer having a journalism job was my weekends and nights were open. At a fairly late stage in life, I tried out for a semi-professional football team. I knew the owner of the team and he urged me to try out. I was quite sceptical, but the owner was adament I had a chance. I was merely aiming to make the team and see action on special teams, but, to my surprise, I was a starter from Day One and even won post-season recognition for my effort.

 

It was a lot of fun playing tackle football again, but I knew I was getting old. I was smarter than before, and actually probably stronger than I was in high school, but the bumps and bruises seemed to linger a lot longer than when I was young. In high school, I could have gotten hit in the back by a sprinting linebacker and would have shrugged it off. Now, a strong sneeze could send me to the floor in pain. Because it was taking longer and longer for me to heal between games, and because I feared I could be SERIOUSLY injured on any play of any game (or practice), I hung up my cleats after one year.

 

The next year the head coach asked me to coach the line, my old position. I had zero experience and decided this would be a stress-free introduction into coaching. One game into the season, the head coach asked me to become the defensive coordinator. I knew I was in over my head, but I was never one to back away from an opportunity (or a challenge), so I accepted. In the first game as the DC, our defense scored as many points as the offense! I thought I was the second-coming of Dick LeBeau. Actually, I knew I had little to with the way the defense played. The players made the plays, not me. It’s not as if I suddenly called in to the middle linebacker and said, “Not this play, but the NEXT play, I want you to rip the ball away from the running back.” I never told the safety, “OK, now is a good time for an interception.” The players made the plays.

 

As the season progressed, injuries whittled the team down. It got to the point where we were going to have to play a wide receiver at offensive guard. If you aren’t familiar with what that means, basically we were going to put a small, fast guy where you need big, strong guys. Someone was going to get hurt. So I put the cleats on one more time. I did OK. The quarterback said I was the best offensive lineman he had. The head coach said I would have garnered more post-season awards if I had played the whole season. The problem was, in my first game on the field, I got hit hard in my shoulder and my arm went limp. Luckily it was right before halftime, so I was able to ice it right away. I finished that game, and played two more. But there was little doubt my playing days were officially over.

 

My little dabble into coaching had whetted my appetite. I wanted to see if it was something I would want to pursue more vigorously. I sent emails to local high schools and colleges hoping someone would be interested in my services. Much to my surprise (and enjoyment) the closest high school needed someone to coach the freshmen offensive and defensive line. My season with the school was a real learning experience. It also made me realize that coaching was something I truly did enjoy, and the other (veteran) coaches said I had done my job well.

 

The head coach of the semi-pro team had asked me to come back as the defensive coordinator. I told him I could not commit to the time needed to perform the job to my standards. It was not a lie. I really could not be there for every practice and game. I had a lot of travel scheduled the upcoming year. But the organized practices at high school exposed the disorganization of the semi-pro team. Plus, the high schoolers practiced every day. The semi-pro team practiced once a week, and you would have less than half of the team still around before half of the season was complete.

 

But, deep down, I still wanted to do something with the semi-pro team. I had spent two years with the team and felt connected to a lot of the players and coaches. A few players contacted me and wanted to know if I was coming back to coach. A few even said they would only return to the team if I was on the coaching staff. Stuff like that really strokes your ego, but also makes you feel wanted and like you were pretty good at your job.

 

Then I got a phone call from one of the star players on the semi-pro team. He said he wanted me to interview to become a coach for the team. I told him what I told the head coach: I could not commit to the time needed to do the job properly. But I was confused. Why – and to whom – would I need to interview? All coaching positions in the past had simply been the domain of the head coach appointing whoever he wants (or whoever said yes).

 

There had been a bit of a player mutiny, apparently. The players went to the owner and said they wanted a say in who the coaches would be. The offensive coordinator the previous season was a bit of a head case and less-than-admired by the players. Plus he just wasn’t that good of a play caller. The owner agreed to the desires of the players and appointed a four-man “player representatives” team to lead the coaching search.

 

“But what about (who-I-thought-was-stull-the-head-coach),” I asked.

 

The player said he refused to go through with the interviews and was no longer associated with the team.

 

Uh, OK, I guess?

 

So who else have you contacted about coaching?

 

The player said a person who was associated with the team the past two years and me. That was it.

 

I told the player if there were no other candidates and they were desperate, I would *consider* coaching.

 

I talked it over with my wife over a couple glasses of wine. She was skeptical about the disorganization of the organization before, but she was surprisingly gung-ho for me to pursue the opportunity. It was a way to get even more coaching experience.

 

A few days later I contacted the player committee and said I would like to be considered for the head coaching job.

 

I have my interview at a dive bar in about two hours from now.