© April, 2012
by Bjorn Zetterberg
Taking on a program that has fallen on hard times and attempting to change its direction is a serious challenge for coaches at any level. Changes in personnel and philosophy become necessary as does patience in letting the staff implement changes to make their footprint on the program. To help in undertaking this difficult task, we talked to three prominent high school coaches.
Coach Luke Salmons, a former Marshall University lineman, was 0-11 in his first year at Lawrence County in Louisa, Kentucky in 2008. In 2009, he followed it up with a dramatic turnaround, achieving a 12-1 record. Salmons is now head coach in his home state of West Virginia at Cabell Midland High School, the largest school in the state. He took a 2-7 team from 2010 and instantly turned them into a contender this past season with an 8-4 record and an appearance in the state playoffs.
Coach Bob Buckel was a veteran coach at Flushing High School (MI) and became a Michigan High School Football Association Coaches Hall of Fame Inductee during his time with their program. In 2010, he inherited a 1-8 Powers Catholic program that had fallen from glory. After starting with a 2-4 record at Powers in 2011, he quickly turned the Flint, Michigan private school program into the Division 5 State champions on their way to a 10-4 record.
Coach Faustin Riley is a 30-year coaching veteran in Oregon that has amassed four league titles in the highly regarded Metro League and a state championship during his time at Beaverton High School. Riley recently became head coach at rival Sunset High School, one of the bigger high schools in Oregon, which had not made the playoffs in six seasons. They had a 21-33 record during that span. In the two seasons since Riley’s arrival, they changed to the spread offense and Riley was recognized as the 2011 Metro League Coach of the Year. Sunset has reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons on their way to 5-6 and 6-4 records in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Each coach offered their expertise about engineering a turnaround. There are seven main themes consistent to conducting a successful turnaround.
1. Relate to the Players and Build a Connection
According to all three coaches, players are the heart and soul of a program. If they can understand, respect and trust what you are doing, the bar for a quality product of football and working relationship can be raised. Coach Luke Salmons builds relationships with his players.
“I have meetings at my house once a week and feed the kids,” said Salmons. “This year, we had eight kids that really made that difference on our team from a leadership standpoint and we would sit down each week to talk about the plays we could run as well as home life. The relationship part with the kids and being close, texting, talking to them about personal matters, all of that is important because it lets your players know that you care about them. If the kids know that, they are going to want to be there. Kids need and want that support, guidance, and discipline. I think the kids like all of the coaches, and while it’s not like we are friends with them, they know they can come talk to us.”
2. Create an Atmosphere to Renew Enthusiasm and Embrace Change
The coaches felt that changing the behavior of their program and players was a priority. It involved creating an environment of optimism and excitement, not only from the coaches, but to the parents and school administration.
“The big thing was that they believed,” Salmons said. “This lead to a seven game winning streak and Cabell Midland become a top-five team in state as a result. My first year at Lawrence County, we were 0-11, then we went 12-1. I felt like they didn’t work hard and or how to work, and it was the same thing here. We started 0-2 this past season, and while we lost close games, they knew how to work and compete. Once they got a taste of winning, and the atmosphere was changing, it was over.”
Creating pride and building on tradition with your program can go a long way, but Riley found that mindset on the field was equally as important. “We tried to emphasize being physically and mentally tough, which most males respond to, and we reward that type of behavior,” Riley noted. “There’s a fine line between pushing people and exploiting them, and that’s something we are mindful of. We tell parents and coaches to treat every team member like their own son and I think the kids realize that no one is asking them to do anything that would put them at risk or in jeopardy, outside the inherent risks of the game.”
With a renewed buzz surrounding the football program, it becomes essential to sell the best athletes who are uninvolved with football at your school on the program and the experience. “We’re constantly trying to pick up a kid or two within the school,” Salmons stated. “I feel that if the best kids are not playing football and they’re in your school, then you’re not doing your job. We don’t promise anything, but we sell them on the point of having fun, being part of a new culture and that we need them. If you’ve got two or three kids that can make a difference on your football team, and they’re in your hallway, you need to be resilient until you get them. If you have to call them, talk to their parents, go to their house, pull them out of class, whatever it may be, then you are laying the foundation for them to get out and play football.”
3. Promote Competition and Desire to Play at a High Level
To raise the bar for a program, the coaches had to elevate the standards for their players and have them buy into a renewed work ethic. They all agree – motivate your players to embrace a role, work toward getting better daily and encourage them to compete so that their best can become better.
“Powers High School had been State Champions in 2005 and then fallen on hard times - they were 1-8 last year,” Buckel said. “One thing we noticed right away was that the kids still had that desire to play at a high level. We set off the fact that, even though they hadn’t done well, they still had a chip on their shoulder and wanted to get Powers back to the level of football that they had been at in the past. I heard a line from Hayden Fry many years ago at his football clinic, and one of the things I ask the kids is ‘Did we get any better today?’ Depending on the competition, you can’t always make a judgment on your team by wins and losses. The biggest thing is ‘Did we improve?’ Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes improvement. We try to tell the kids that every day we are getting better. A lot of teams that saw us in the state finals were pretty shocked because we lost our first game, 55-14. The one thing everyone said about our team is that we really got better as the season went on, and that was our goal.”
Salmons had a similar experience. He tried to preach to a team that lost early in their season that anyone of his players could be needed at a moments notice throughout the season. “We try to teach them how to compete, be accountable, and teach winning – we try to put them in situations they will be in on Friday nights,” Salmons asserted. “We work hard in the weight room, but at the same time we’re not teaching them how to be weightlifters. We never choose a starter. We try to pit kids equally on two different squads, and I think that’s key. That way our team is prepped. We can develop them and they feel like they’re a starter when they are competing for a job. So, instead of having 22 starters, we have 44 starters plus guys who rotate in. The psyche of a kid is that ‘I’m a starter’ and ‘I’m earning my spot,’ which they are, but at the same time, it’s about discouraging that mindset. They have to prove themselves each day and each week. We don’t just take 20 kids and work with them. We want them to believe they all have a chance, which they do, and make them fill a part.”
4. Establish a Common Goal and Focus Throughout The Season
The coaches all brought their teams together to work toward a common goal. At seasons end, they can then evaluate their progress and use that as an indication of what was accomplished and where they stand in re-directing the path of a program.
“The biggest expectation was to get better than 1-8, and we knew it could be a slow process,” Coach Buckel expressed. “We started off 2-4, so we barely snuck into the playoffs at 5-4. That was our goal this season, to win some type of championship, whether it be league, district, or regional.”
Coach Riley didn’t have a set theme for his team’s season, but fueled his player’s work ethic daily. “We try to stress doing our best,” Coach Riley said. “We don’t have a fancy slogan for it, but we keep hitting on hard work, doing your best and an ‘every day, every play’ mentality. We have done weekly themes and emphasized points to keep that mindset fresh for our players.”
5. Bring Trusted, Experienced Staff Along
All three coaches brought staffs that had experience working with them and were familiar with their ideals, style and philosophy. Some programs had established position coaches already in place. Trusted and tested relationships with coaches can ease the turnaround process in a new environment during the most difficult of situations.
“It’s about fitting the pieces together,” Salmons said. “Almost every guy on our staff has played in college. They are all younger, highly energized, prepared, hands on and can relate to the kids. We are all on the same page. We don’t ever just give them a workout to just workout. Everything is for a purpose and a reason.”
At Sunset High School, Riley found success with staff from other schools he coached and with coaches already integrated into the program. “I brought over a couple of coaches, but most of them have been here,” Riley stated. “There’s a former Sunset head coach on staff and guys that have been coaching here in the Sunset community forever. There are a lot of ties within the varsity staff that have been here and are pretty well established with the youth.”
Over at Powers Catholic, Buckel turned to a former player and friend. “My defensive coordinator had played for me at a prior school years back, in addition to having plenty of defensive coaching experience,” Buckel noted. “I brought with me a skill player coach who’s a young coach that had coached my son in multiple sports. Both relate well to young people and have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and determination. My experience and their youthful enthusiasm seem to be a good combination.”
6. Develop Team Chemistry and a Belief in Winning
A team has to be brought together, bonded and familiarized before it can produce a winning outcome on the field. The coaches emphasized different ways this can be done.
“We told them it’s up to them and we gave them a lot of ownership and input on things,” said Riley. “We try to communicate, use surveys, get input, discuss starters, group and individual meetings. While coaches do pretty much the same thing every year, it’s just a matter of getting the kids to make a bigger commitment. A lot of it is the competitiveness they have inside them and when you make a certain level of commitment and pay a high enough price, you don’t want to let go. We ask quite a bit of their time in conditioning and skill work so they are invested.”
Similarly at Cabell Midland, Salmons counseled his players on being part of a unit and operating as such to build cohesion. “We teach that it’s never about them, it’s about this team, and that’s what they say was the big difference from the past,” stressed Salmons. “All our kids knew the name of the last man on the depth chart and cared about him, and that goes a long way. Everyone’s treated equally, and the kids see that. We are going to be just as hard on an all-state running back as we will be on a kid that might never play. The kids know that it’s part of being a team, and they believe in that. Everywhere we’ve gone, we have done a good job of getting them to buy into what we are teaching. and when they see that you believe in it, they are going to believe in it.”
Buckel united his squad under senior leadership and the belief that his Chargers could achieve the improbable. “Our team chemistry was built around our senior class, having gone through a 1-8 season,” Buckel said. “We did have a Division I player, and the first day we met for weightlifting last January and he was the first to utter the words ‘State.’ He kept at it all year, and even when we were 2-4, he and the other seniors had a positive outlook on it. Losing games early in the season made us appreciative of when we finally got to the playoffs. I don’t think we ever got overconfident and the kids bought into everything we did.”
7. Keep it About the Kids
The three coaches all pointed out that every coach on their staffs should keep a perspective on what the game is really about. “We started finding that our quarterback asked receivers and running backs to stay after practice to catch some passes,” Buckel said. “It began with the premise that none of those guys could leave until they caught two passes, then became five, and then blossomed into a 15-20 minute group trying to do more on their own to get better.”
The key point, though, is caring. “If the kids know you care about them and you’re willing to feed them, drive them home, care about their academics, what’s going on at home, and work with them on a whole different level, they’ll be with you 100 percent” Salmons emphasized. “To be the type of coaches they know they can turn to goes a long way because they are going to give you more and believe in what you’re preaching. We talk about what we are selling them as coaches, experiences with success, and changes that come from hard work paying off. We continue to sell the vision every day, and when they can see and get excited about what they believed in coming true, it’s a neat experience.”