So You Wanna Coach Football?

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Football coaches at all levels will tell you that winning is only a small part of the job. Passion, dedication and the ability to mentor young players can lead to a winning record. We all know that! But.... is that really everything!?

Being a Coach is not just teaching football, its teaching life too!
Maybe it was Red Sanders who said, "Winning isn't everything, it is the only thing." Maybe it was Vince Lombardi. Whatever the origin is, those words suggest that winning is the ultimate definition of success in football. There are different paths of becoming a football coach, and to reach sustained success at any level requires more than just understanding X’s and O’s. Whether one aspires to excel at the high school, collegiate or professional level, there are some common elements they all share.

Before everything else, you must have passion for the game, because the hours and pressure can be daunting. A desire to teach, mentor and observe.

A typical day for a head coach can be stamina-testing. To repeat it week after week can only be achieved if one truly loves teaching the game. While the intense workweek coaches put in may have become the stuff of legend, the hours are real.

“Know that they will be long. Seventy to 80 hours a week is typical," said Joe Taylor, head coach at Florida A&M. "We start off with staff meetings, break into functional specialties, deal with fundraising and administrative issues, practice, watch practice and the upcoming opponent on film, more staff meetings then start all over the next day”.

High school coaches aren't an exception, either. At that level, it might mean splitting time to include academic prep duties for teaching a subject like math or history, creating lesson plans, exams and grading papers, in addition to devising a game plan for the next contest.

Because the hours can get out of hand, it's the best to maintain a sense of balance, or it can be very hard.

Brian Billick, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win, after working his way up as an assistant coach in the collegiate ranks, starting at San Diego State, talks about keeping things in perspective.

“The hours are hard, but they are for a lot of people. But I never thought of it like working in a coal mine," Billick added: "At the same time I worked with coaches that also believe one can spin their wheels with too much work. You can work to 3 in the morning putting a game plan together. You have to be your most vibrant and productive in front of your players and you can’t do that if you’re grinding away until the wee hours.”

Billick counts Hall of Famers Tom Landry and Bill Walsh, and veteran coach Dennis Green among his mentors. One key lesson he took with him into his own job as a coach was the quality of the work outweighs the quantity.

“The coaches that influenced me stressed the importance of working hard, but maintaining a balance," Billick said. "The motto was ‘plan your work, but then work your plan.' A lot of coaches make the mistake in spinning their wheels thinking they’re going to outwork their opponent. Well, no they are not.”

Successful coaches share a common trait: They have learned the nuances of the game from mentors, whether they were playing for them, were on their staff as assistant coaches or participated in several coaching clinics all over the world.

The primary lesson? The game itself is only one element, often the smaller piece. Coaches in the NFL are dealing with professionals, players for whom the game is a career. But the vast majority of players will not draw a paycheck, so the impact of a coach extends much deeper.

A foundation of building players and character is often laid at the high school level. Providing those building blocks and laying that base is often a man who won't gain the celebrity of those in the NFL or high-profile collegiate programs. But his value reaches well beyond rings. Indeed, a successful high school football program can be the bedrock of some communities.

John McKissick has been impacting young lives since the 1950s at Summerville High School in South Carolina. The Hall of Fame legend with nearly 600 victories and 10 state championships talks about the important of controlled leadership.

“My coaching mentors instilled in me the value of running a tight ship. When you start out somewhere, if you keep a steady course they know what to expect," said McKissick, who is prepping for his 61st season at the same high school this fall. "So those not up for a disciplined approach won’t come out. But I don’t cut anyone that comes out, either. If they do as we ask and give their best effort, we keep them.” A great tip, wouldn't you say!?

In developing the skill sets that hopefully they'll lead to success on the field. The key is to incorporate what you see as positives from your mentors, but also remain true to yourself in developing your own coaching philosophy. In the end, successful football coaching comes down to being an instructor and good communicator.

“Bill (Walsh) was a believer that for every hour you spend coming up with these genius plays and brilliant schemes, spend an equal time refining it and know how you’re going to impart that to the players because that is what it comes down to. At the heart of coaching is your communication and teaching ability.”-Billick said.

Football is certainly an emotional game. And while Hollywood, with famous scenes in films like “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All-American,” has embellished the true impact of fiery speeches, successful coaches often think that it's overrated as a motivational tool. All of these men agree that the message will fall flat if the work does not back it up.

“I don’t really believe a fiery pregame speech means much because if there is no prep early in the week, players won't be helped by a few words (before kickoff)," Taylor said.

Regardless of the methodologies implemented in trying to maximize the talent level of the team, a coach must learn how to deal with wins and losses. Rightly or wrongly, that is how most will be evaluated in the end. For most coaches, the wins go by fast, and the losses linger way too long even for a coach that has won 594 games.

“I can’t remember nearly as many wins as I do the losses,” McKissick said with a laugh.

One thing successful coaches share is that they view a defeat as a short-term setback and learn from it to propel the team forward.

“While I believe it is true that character is developed when your backs are against the wall, one has to have the mindset of turning trials into triumphs, “ said Taylor, author of an upcoming new book entitled “Success Is an Inconvenience.” "Look at a loss as a temporary setback and use it in preparing for your next game."

In the end, coaching means taking what you've learned and applying that to your own convictions of what you believe about the game and life, and what you've experienced.

“I see too often coaches trying to be someone else. ‘OK, this guy has been successful so I’m going to emulate him,’” Billick said. “You have to find the right balance of what your core fundamentals are and stay true to them within your own personality.”

But above all else, the greatest attribute a coach can have is a love for the game.

“You’ve got to maintain enthusiasm," Billick said. "This is a demanding career. It is not worth doing if you find your passion waning.”

A coach is a teacher, plain and simple!

Nikola Davidovic
Various sources, eHow