Bill Snyder: Miracle Worker

Given the success Kansas State is having (again) under Bill Snyder (again), it’s good to spend a little time thinking about how the 73-year old wonder does it. And, unsurprisingly, the reason K-State is winning now is the same reason K-State was winning before: because they play with great effort, great discipline, and they do all of the little things right (they also have some pretty good players, especially their quarterback Collin Klein and linebacker Arthur Brown).

Always building

Rightly or wrongly, coaches tend to look at football teams as reflections of their coaches: A hardworking team reflects a hardworking coach; an arrogant team an arrogant coach; a disciplined team a disciplined coach; and, most damning of all, a soft, undisciplined team for a soft, undisciplined coach.

There’s no doubt that Snyder’s teams reflect the man — driven, earnest, and, well, maybe even a little bit fanatical, as Tim Layden’s great piece explained a few years back:

When Snyder was 28, fresh from a year as a graduate assistant to John McKay at USC, he was hired to coach at Indio (Calif.) High, and he tried to have himself hypnotized so that he might compress six hours’ sleep into an hour’s trance. “The hypnotist just told me, ‘That’s not the way it works,’ ” Snyder says.

At Iowa, where Snyder coached under Hayden Fry from 1979 to ’88, his dissection of passing plays would reduce his fellow coaches to snickers. “Bill would’ve described a play for about two minutes, and he wouldn’t even have reached the point where the quarterback releases the ball,” says Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who was the linebackers coach on that Iowa staff.

Snyder has worn the same style of coaching shoes for two decades. When Nike stopped making the model in the 1980s, he hoarded as many pairs as he could find, and now on the sideline he looks like a character from That ’70s Show.

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Former Texas A&M Coach Mike Sherman’s letter to Texas High School coaches

Sometimes things don’t work out the way you hope they do; that’s certainly the case for any coach that gets fired. But sometimes there can be victory in defeat. In that vein, I enjoyed coach Sherman’s letter, which is reprinted below.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for allowing my staff and me to come into your high schools, recruit your players and share ideas with you. I am forever grateful for the access and opportunity you’ve offered me over the last four years.

Other than going to practice every day and being on the field with my players, the one thing I am going to miss the most is visiting with high school coaches, listening to you talk about your kids and your programs, and watching practices and off-season workouts. Since this will be my last letter to high school coaches, besides thanking you for the opportunities to visit with you, I wanted to share with you some of the things I learned over the years that might be of help to you down the road. Sometimes I think as football coaches we are so competitive we are reluctant to share ideas. This profession has been good to me. I believe giving back when you can is important. These are my ideas – not suggesting they are for you. They are some of the things I came away with.

I. Core Values

If a player learns anything from me, he’ll learn that you have specific core values to live his life. These ‘core values’ are his guiding light in the decisions he makes not just as a football player, but as a man.

Our ‘core values’ for our team were simple.

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How do you predict whether someone will be a good college coach?

We looked at the head coaches, offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators for the 66 major-conference schools, plus Notre Dame, and found that with a few high-profile exceptions, NFL experience isn’t a great recipe for success on Saturdays. Most notably, Pittsburgh’s Dave Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins head coach, resigned under pressure in December. Meanwhile, California, Virginia and Oregon State all finished below .500 despite the gaudy NFL résumés of their coaches. The staff that logged the most NFL years was Stanford’s. New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and his coordinators, David Shaw and Vic Fangio, combined to coach in the NFL for 35 years, and the 12-1 Cardinal were better for it.

But Monday’s BCS championship game was more proof that coaches can do just fine without NFL grooming. Of the game’s two coaches and four coordinators, only Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti made a pit stop in the NFL, while Auburn’s troika was one of 21 that’s never worked on Sundays.

That’s from the Wall Street Journal. I’d like to see what factors do predict winning, preferably by running a regression analysis of BCS conference coaches, with, Y, the dependent variable, being winning percentage (with, say, a minimum of three years coaching). I’m curious what Xs, or independent variables, would be statistically significant. A non-exhaustive list of candidates:

  1. Years of NFL coaching experience.
  2. Years of previous head coaching experience (any level).
  3. Years of coordinator-level experience (college or higher).
  4. Rank of offenses/defenses in scoring, total yards, and yards per play.
  5. Rank of offenses/defenses in rushing or passing, individually, in adjusted yards per attempt.
  6. Years of total college experience (proxy for recruiting experience?).
  7. Winning percentage at prior coaching stops.
  8. Rank of punting and kicking units in net punt averages and kickoff/kickoff return averages.
  9. Red zone touchdown percentage of offenses and defenses at prior coaching stops (use both regardless whether offensive or defensive coach).

I’m sure there are other plausible ones; please add on in the comments. Also, please tell me why the test wouldn’t work if set up this way, and how it could be improved. I’d actually be surprised if any of these factors turned out to be statistically significant, but I’m also not aware of anyone working something like this out.

Improving a quarterback’s throwing motion

[The following is from noted quarterback guru Darin Slack. Check out his site and find out about his camps, materials, and the like.]

tombrady1There’s an old coaching adage that “you can’t change a throwing motion! A quarterback either can throw or he can’t. Period.”

You hear this all the time, this idea that a quarterback’s mechanics can’t be changed. Commentators, football dads, and coaches proclaim, “It’s impossible to change a quarterback’s throwing motion. Just coach his footwork.” Older quarterbacks in particular get subjected to this tunnel vision.

It says more about the coaches than it does the kid. The message it sends, however, is that, “We don’t have time to improve a kid’s throwing mechanics. Or we don’t know how — we don’t have the technical skills needed to coach them up. Why bother if we can just go find another kid who can already throw it better, without coaching”?

But what is passing talent? The mentality that some kids “have it” while others don’t shouldn’t apply to throwing in the same way it might to raw speed or quickness. Yet it comes up so often. There are many high-profile “athlete-quarterbacks” who are world-class athletes but aren’t very accurate. They can throw a spiral and an accurate pass or two, but because of their latent talent the theory is that the best thing to do is just to “let them play” and the last thing you should do is “overcoach” them. The old myth comes back: Just coach their feet; ignore the upper body.

But that’s only the most high-profile example. There are thousands of high school kids that receive almost no coaching of their passing mechanics. At best they get a few throwing drills. The result is thousands of young players who are given no the opportunity to develop. For the great-athlete quarterbacks, the lack of coaching puts a cap on their success and hurts their team’s passing games. For the less talented kids, they simply never see the field or get moved to new positions. If they ask for help, it’s that same refrain again: “Let’s work on your footwork.” Yet aren’t the feet are the farthest appendage from where you throw a ball from? Don’t you throw it with your arm?

Lack of coaching or not, the expectations remain: Perform at a high level or face criticism or the bench. The “can’t coach a throwing motion” myth prejudices the careers of many young men. Not all quarterbacks make it to the NFL but all want to succeed. Ignoring the upper body is like only coaching half the kid.

Ironically, the same coaches who preach a “footwork only” gospel also throw out plenty of meaningless buzz-phrases in lieu of actual coaching: “Follow through,” “Come over the top more,” “Raise your elbow,” “Turn your shoulders more.” This double standard of non-coaching and coaching-via-cliché is confusing — for both the coach and the kid.

If all you know are the same old cliches then you’re insulting your players’ intelligences, and if you’re insulting their intelligences then, over time, you will prove yourself to know very little. Because the stuff you’re saying won’t work. It might work a time or two, but you won’t have all the answers, as so much of it will be guessing on your part. And once that happens the players will start just fiddling with it themselves, drawing their own ad hoc conclusions about what works best. The result is typically not pretty.

Can you improve a quarterback’s throwing motion? Yes, but it’s important to use the right methods. As stated above, the old way is to focus on footwork only and then sprinkle in clichés throughout practice. Our way is different. We teach quarterbacks to “self-correct, not self-destruct,” through a central focus on the arm. We do this by teaching simple biomechanics concepts that are universal and non-negotiable, and yet provide powerful results that inform the footwork to support the entire process.

Here are two simple biomechanical examples to improve a throwing motion in the wrist and elbow. The wrist should be pronated, or turned over, on the release (see the images below), yet there are countless ways the wrist can move and only some are correct — the bad variations can create problems.

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Is coaching overrated?

So asks Gregg Easterbrook, in an article titled “Coaching is Overrated”:

Changing the playcaller sure helped the Redskins!

In the cult of football, surely few things are more overrated than play calling. Much football commentary, from high school stands to the NFL in prime time, boils down to: “If they ran they should have passed, and if they passed they should have run.” Other commentary boils down to: “If it worked, it was a good call, if it failed, it was a bad call,” though the call is only one of many factors in a football play. Good calls are better than bad calls — this column exerts considerable effort documenting the difference. But it’s nonsensical to think that replacing a guy who calls a lot of runs to the left with a guy who calls a lot of runs to the right will transform a team.

One factor here is the Illusion of Coaching. We want to believe that coaches are super-ultra-masterminds in control of events, and coaches do not mind encouraging that belief. But coaching is a secondary force in sports; the athletes themselves are always more important. TMQ’s immutable Law of 10 Percent holds that good coaching can improve a team by 10 percent, bad coaching can subtract from performance by 10 percent — but the rest will always be on the players themselves, their athletic ability and level of devotion, plus luck. If the players are no good or out of sync, it won’t matter what plays are called; if the players are talented and dedicated, they will succeed no matter what the sideline signals in. Unless they have bad luck, which no one can control.

Yes and no. I wholeheartedly agree that playcalling is overrated, and he is right that much of the commentary after games involves a lot of second-guessing full of hindsight bias. Few ever pose the “should he have done X?” question in terms of the probabilities and tendencies at the time, or in the context of the 10 or so seconds available to make such calls. Indeed, I have even argued that there’s a case to be made that the best playcalling might be a controlled but randomized “mixed-strategy.”

The other coaching bogeyman is the aura surrounding “in-game adjustments” or “halftime adjustments,” both of which are supposed to be the “hallmarks of good coaching.” This is another thing where there’s a kernel of truth surrounding by a lot of speculation. Yes, a good coach will not do the same thing over and over again if it isn’t working, or if the other team has figured it out. And yes, coaching a game involves an ongoing process of what the other team is doing (this is one reason why I think, even if adjustments are part of the game, “halftime adjustments” are very much overrated). But if you want to see a bad coach then I’ll show you one who tries to “adjust” to everything the other team is doing with new schemes and ideas built-in midgame. Instead, teams with good coaching pretty much run only things within their plan — i.e. stuff they had practiced during the week. Indeed, much of what fans or commentators will pick out as an “adjustment” was something in the original gameplan that just didn’t get called until the second half because of the flow of the game. Yet how can good coaches both “adjust” throughout a game and also not deviate from what they have practiced?

This brings me to where I depart from Easterbrook, that coaching is minor. (I don’t really know how to judge “overrated” — in relation to what? overrated by whom?) While playcalling is definitely overhyped (hey, the talking heads get paid to talk about something), preparation is extremely important, and much of a gameplan involves contingency planning. It also means that the “base stuff” should have the counters built in, the constraint plays are already there, and the defensive adjustments are easy to make because they are a part of the system. A good offense “implies the counter,” meaning that if a defense adjusts in some way, then playcalling is simple because there’s an obvious counter play to be called. On defense you take away the other team’s best stuff, and focus on other things as it comes, though by dictating to the offense through aggressiveness and by trying to confuse it. Unlike Easterbrook I can’t hang a number on how many wins or losses “coaching” is responsible for (and if I could I’d imagine it varies by level), I can safely say that I think weekly preparation is underrated, because it is rarely talked about — other than platitudes like “we had a great week of practice” — has a long-tail in terms of continual refinement of technique and effort that can only improve incrementally, and that everything run in the games is stuff that has been practiced over and over and over.

Two final points on the Redskins situation. (more…)

Two coaching decisions, a review

Scenario 1: Your team is up 28-23, though the other team has moved the ball quite efficiently all game. There is 10:56 left in the fourth quarter, and you have fourth and goal from the one yard line. A field goal puts you up by eight points; a touchdown probably ices the game. (“Checkmate,” as Urban Meyer would say.) What do you do?

Scenario 2: Your team is up 21-17. The other team has the ball on roughly your two-yard line. Thirty-six seconds remain; they have just run the ball on second down so the clock is moving. They have no timeouts, but you have all three of yours. The other team has just quickly driven the field to get into this position. Question: do you call timeout to preserve some time for yourself in the chance that they score a touchdown on third or fourth down? Or do you leave the pressure on them to execute on those two downs over thirty-six seconds. What do you do?

Analysis (and identities of the coaches) after the jump.

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Big balls Pete Carroll

petecarrollThat’s the title of the new profile of USC’s Carroll in Esquire. Lots of interesting stuff, but here are two of the best bits. The setting for both anecdotes here is during USC’s summer camp for high school kids, some being recruited by USC, others just there to be coached for a week by Carroll and co.

The [coaching] staff met in the War Room. (In a culture so steeped in tradition, everything has a fancy name.) The mood there always seems part frat house, part locker room, part battlefield HQ. There’s much scathing humor and shit-giving, bro love in its highest form. Around the rectangular wood table are fourteen high-backed leather swivel chairs; each of the coaches takes the same chair every time, with Carroll at the head. Behind them, a hodgepodge of stools and folding chairs for the graduate assistants — some of them former players, some manager types who never played a down. Two walls are dominated by double whiteboards; panels slide to reveal depth charts of players and recruits; another whiteboard lists the name of every offensive play and the number of yards the play averaged last season. With desks occupying two corners and video-projection equipment in a third, the room is tight. Deep into a session you will find some of the larger guys reclining so far back they’re practically in the lap of a GA.

At one minute before seven, one of the GAs walked in with two giant sacks of Egg McMuffins.

“All right!” somebody screamed. “The hockey pucks are here!”

“Pucks!

“Go Pens!” hollered BC [Carroll’s son, an assistant coach].

A feeding frenzy ensued. Large men reached and grabbed for the various bottles of hot sauce and mini containers of jelly that live permanently at the center of the table.

“It’s time to get ready for some football around this muthafucka,” yelled Ken Norton Jr., son of the former world-champion boxer, himself a former All-Pro linebacker. Norton had retired after thirteen seasons when he happened to meet Carroll; things just clicked. Now he’s going into his fifth year with USC. Nobody gives him shit for being a UCLA alum, particularly at noontime basketball, where he’s been known to let out the monster, playing Shaq to Carroll’s Kobe. Since the last NFL draft, when three USC linebackers were scooped up in the first two rounds, people have begun joking that USC, once known as Tailback U, needs to be renamed. Norton’s Egg McMuffin appeared tiny in his giant paw. His rocklike mandible made quick work of it. He helped himself to another.

Carroll entered from his office across the hall, McMuffin in hand. His mouth was full, he was chewing, he was wearing the silly/happy expression of a guy who’s just come to work after his morning surf. “What’s happenin’ boys?”

“A little camp today!” hollered the defensive coordinator, Haruki Rocky Seto, “Rock” to his friends, a second-generation Japanese American named for the boxer Marciano. (His brothers are named after Sonny Jurgensen and Johnny Bench.) An undersized junior-college fullback who made the Trojans as a walk-on, Seto entered the coaching ranks as a video assistant, filming practices. When Carroll came to town for his first USC press conference nine years ago, Rocky was the kid who picked him up at the airport. Now he’s in charge of Carroll’s first love: defense.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” hollered offensive-line coach Golden Pat Ruel (his actual full name). He’s known Carroll since 1977, when they were both graduate assistant coaches making $172 a month at Arkansas. Like most of the veterans in the room, he’d coached in the NFL. He chose to work for Carroll for less money. “How many people do you know who enjoy driving to work every morning?” he’d testimonialized at the chalk talk.

Carroll talks a lot about his coaches “growing up in the program.” He likes grooming his own people instead of bringing in established stars. He is proud of the fact that former assistant coaches, like Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who recently departed for Pac-10 rival Washington, have gone on to head-coaching jobs themselves. “I want guys to come to the program knowing that I’ll do everything in my power to get them the job of their dreams at some other place,” he says.

Carroll gulped down the last of his sandwich and took his chair; the GA in charge of statistics fired up the iPod. Carroll ran the meeting briskly, a stylized form of controlled chaos. And then a few final words:

“Let’s come out of our shoes today on these kids, man,” he told his staff. “Let’s just coach the shit out of these guys. I want lots of enthusiasm. I want you frickin’ screamin’ and yellin’ and makin’ ‘em feel it. Make it memorable — but don’t abuse anybody.”

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Gregg Easterbrook: NFL should hire more high school coaches

Well, I know a lot of high school coaches who would agree with this:

[T]he larger coaching issue is that once again, the NFL is stocking up on head coaches who have never been a head coach at any level, even high school, before becoming the boss in the pros.

Steve Spagnuolo, the new coach of the Rams, has never been a head coach at any level, not even when he worked for the Barcelona Dragons. Spagnuolo has been an assistant coach or scout for the University of Massachusetts, the Redskins, Lafayette, the University of Connecticut, the Dragons, the Chargers, the University of Maine, Rutgers, Bowling Green, the Frankfurt Galaxy, the Eagles and the Giants before landing the Rams headmastership. Twelve previous employers — he must have quite a collection of team apparel! But no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach.

Rex Ryan, the new head coach of the Jets, has been an assistant at Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico/Highlands, Morehead, the Cardinals, the University of Cincinnati, Oklahoma and the Ravens. . . . Raheem Morris, the new head coach of the Bucs, has been an assistant at Hofstra, Cornell and Kansas State. Lots of college pennants for his dorm room — but no head coaching experience. Morris has never even been a coordinator at any level, and now he’s an NFL head coach. Todd Haley, the new head coach of the Chiefs, . . . [had] no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach. Josh McDaniels, the new head coach of the Broncos, has been an assistant for Michigan State and the Patriots. He didn’t even collect much team apparel, in addition to less than a decade of experience, before becoming an NFL head coach.

Meanwhile Jim Fassel, Jon Gruden, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan — a combined 701-536-4 as NFL head coaches — aren’t working in the NFL this season. Schottenheimer and Shanahan each have more career victories than any active NFL coach, yet neither wears a headset. Only four active NFL head coaches have at least 100 victories (Bill Belichick with 153, Jeff Fisher with 133, Tom Coughlin with 123 and Andy Reid with 107). Yet 100-plus winners Shanahan and Gruden were just shown the door and 100-plus winner Schottenheimer can’t get his phone calls returned.

Why do NFL teams keep hiring head coaches who have never been head coaches? This year, inexperienced head coaches sound good because Mike Smith and John Harbaugh, neither of whom had been a head coach previously at any level, just did great jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore. But other factors are at work. One is inexperienced gentlemen earn less than experienced head coaches. Going into the next round of collective bargaining talks, NFL owners are attempting to project a “woe is me, the wolf is at the door” financial image. There will be internal league pressure come late December for no owner to give Bill Cowher the $10 million a year that is reputed to be his price for returning to coaching, as this would counteract the league’s poor-mouth campaign. Hiring inexperienced coaches to moderate salaries, on the other hand, fits the times.

Another factor is that inexperienced coaches kowtow to owners and general managers. For bureaucratic reasons, some NFL front offices prefer a head coach in weak political position. . . .

Next, the track record of major-college head coaches who jump to the pros — Nicky Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier — isn’t good. Few Division I coaches even want NFL posts. Who in his right mind would give up the job security and fawning treatment that football-factory college coaches enjoy, in order to be knifed in the back for a couple of years in the NFL, then fired? If big-college head coaches either won’t take NFL jobs or don’t do well in them, owners may assume that NFL assistants without head coaching experience are the only option. But what about the universe of small-college and high school head coaches? The more coaches I meet and the more I learn about football, the more I become convinced that some of the best coaching occurs at small colleges and in high school — where coaches must succeed without huge staffs and unlimited budgets. But the NFL looks down its nose at small colleges and high schools; Mike Holmgren was one of the few successful recent NFL coaches to begin as a high school head coach.

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Get fired up: Wide receiver video from Dub Maddox

Maddox is a coach at Jenks High School in Oklahoma.