Interview: Ivan Nedeljković & Vojin Milić - Star Players Turned Coaches

Belgrade's SBB Vukovi are one of the first teams in Eastern Europe to start hiring American Head Coaches to run the program. However, for the currently postponed season, Vukovi made big changes. Team announced that their former star players will be running the team - Ivan Nedeljković as HC/DC, and Vojin Milić as OC.

*TDEU sat down with Ivan and Vojin right before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vukovi were known as one of the Europe's top 10 powerhouses. However, switch of generations took a toll on the team. What are some of the things you feel were done wrong and/or what could have been done better?

Ivan: I don’t think things were necessarily done wrong. Football is an amateur sport in Europe and the amount of enthusiasm and resources are therefore limited. We play football for ‘only’ 16 years here in Serbia and every year brings a new challenge whether we’re talking about players, juniors, coaches, gamedays, practice fields. We learn each year and sometimes we manage to fix fast what seems to be wrong and sometimes we are just limited and it takes time.

In the past couple of years we have managed to better focus on something we believe is important and that is ‘investing’ in juniors’ program. We took a leaf out of Europe’s best teams book and we are following their footsteps. Hopefully, the results will show soon. As you have mentioned it, being a top 10 powerhouse in Europe means that a lot of our players will be tempted to make a move to any other European team (as we are known to ‘producing’ good players). However, that represents sort of proof that we are doing something right.

Vojin: Even the best European teams faces with some bad decisions as they try to get better. We did not put enough emphasis on youth programs, so it was matter of time until it caught up with us. This is an amateur sport, so we can not expect to keep core group of guys for more that 5-6 years. Those were the reasons we started rebuilding youth teams two seasons ago, and also, bringing dedicated coaches who will fill in those roles the best. Results showed immediately, as we had great success last two years with Junior teams.

Other thing where we also need to improve is to give those young players an opportunity once they reach senior level. Having a mix of veteran players with experience, who work hard at practice and cherish winning culture, with young and talented players is a recipe for long term success. I believe we learned our lesson, so Vukovi organization is going in the right direction.

Photo: Ivan Miladinović

What do you think has changed in football in Europe over the years, let's say 5 years ago and now? Many top teams couldn't keep up and many new teams have risen.

Ivan: Great teams started making long term plans and ‘investing’ in juniors‘ programs. Some teams we’re just not able to adapt to that fast meaning that they were losing their key players simply due to amateurism, which is how football works in Europe. On one side that is the beauty of it around here - everybody has a job and they play (and coach) football simply because they love it. They play for their each other, their families, local communities and their countries. How great is that... On the other side, teams have to react fast and adapt to a very turbulent environment. I mean, you need financial support as a team - you can’t survive without it. But, you never know how long that will last because it is so hard to find a sponsor that will put their money towards football in Europe. Even when you find them you never know how long the relationship will last.

Vojin: Similar answer like in previous question. A lot of teams focus so much on winning on big stage, so youth programs do not get a lot of attention. That success is not sustainable because players and coaches leave after couple winning years. Football is growing fast, so there is a great opportunity individually for players to move on from their domestic teams and compete at the top European level. Now days, there is much bigger exposure for those players to reach Mexican or Canadian league, even NFL, through combines organized in Europe, or get a scholarship to attend College.

Ivan Nedeljković, photo: Ivan Miladinović

What do you feel are some of the most important things to build a successful organization. In other words - what are the things you two are looking to implement and change in Vukovi? What was the response like? 

Ivan: Building up the juniors program. Giving ourselves to the idea that we need to give football back at least as much as football gave us - and that is a lot. All those championships, wins, practices, workouts - it is just priceless. Also, good and constant relationship with other teams in the country, region and Europe. We are all in the same boat. We need to share successful stories amongst each others just to give everyone at least a chance to make something great themselves.

Football community in Europe is huge but very fragile. We need to stick to each other in order to pass on this beautiful game to the you generations. That is our mission and responsibility.

Vojin: First answer is Junior program, for sure. Beside that, more experienced players that want to contribute to their organizations. Every team in Europe could use couple more people in coaching staff, or just somebody who wants to help with managing the team and game days.

One of the first thing we done is to bring back some of the people who were part of the organization, and try to find a way how can they help the team. Things are moving in the right direction, but we need more time to put everything in place.

Vojin Milić, photo: Ivan Miladinović

Both of you are Vukovi veteran players. How did the team react to this change now? How do you plan to overcome any issues and gain "authority"? What are some of the issues a player turned coach or manager needs to overcome?

Ivan: Well, like any other decision in life, not always everybody will like what you do. But, that is ok, it comes with the territory. As a coach, you need to be able to see the big picture and to have a vision. Being a coach is not a one year thing. It’s a process. And our job is to make everyone trust the process. It’s a challenge no doubt about it, but it’s fun as well.

Vojin: First year as a coach when I became an OC, the team reacted great. I was coaching players who were mostly my teammates from playing days, with whom I played a lot of games together, and won a lot of Championships. I think they respected me from the start, since we share all good and bad that comes with the grind. The best way to gain and keep authority is with knowledge. I was always well prepared for practice, and I wanted to have all the answers for my players. Also, useful drill that will get them better but provide them some fun with the work that they put in. World is not perfect. There will be players who can not get along well with authorities , and their excuse is always non-football related. It is very important to see does he share same passion and have same goals as the rest of the team. That way, it will be created environment where only thing that matters is working hard at practice in order to win games and championships. The ones who can not contribute to that goal will be easily exposed and will eliminate themselves.

In the beginning the transition from player to coach was hard. As a player you just worry about yourself, come to practice and go hard. But as a coach, a lot of small details comes your way beside X’s and O’s. It’s weather conditions, practice schedule, practice equipment, and a lot of other staff. Coaching job is demanding but brings a lot of challenges.

Photo: Boško Bunuševac

Does this mean both of you are done playing? How does the transition feel like?

Ivan: Yes, it does. A man needs to know when is the time to leave. It’s been a hell of a ride but the time has come. Being a coach means that you have to look after every player, help them get where they want to be and bring the best out of them. I can’t do it anymore on the field but my dedication and desire needs to be at the highest level, because that is what I believe that motivates the guys.

Vojin: Most definitely. I enjoy being a coach, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to win championships on this side of football. I became part of the Vukovi Team in 2006. and now i am one of the coaches for the team, and I can’t be happier to still be here and do what I love!

Ivan Nedeljković, photo: Branimir Milovanović

Back to Vukovi. How has the recruiting process been coming along? What are some of the signings you're proud of the most? Are there any other coaching staff changes as well? Could you explain your recruiting process?

Ivan: We have identified where we want our strengths to be and what we want our identity to look like as a team. Once we have figured that out we proceeded to interviewing guys and sharing with them our ideas and approach. Not everybody is ready to follow you on that path but that is ok. We need the RIGHT guys for the team not the best guys on the paper. So, that’s how we approached to the matter and that is what we are dedicated to achieving. Vukovi are the team and not the group of individuals. We need the synergy so that 1+1 becomes 3, and not 2.

Vojin: In November, as soon as Junior season concluded, we started with assembling the team for the next season. I already had a plan in place where the team needs to get better and what kind of players we need to bring in. After having conversations with players, getting familiar with their plans, we knew where we lack depth so we focused on those areas. We focused on our players, and the ones that live in our city, because bringing players who do not live in Belgrade we just delay the problem for the future, and we do not want that as our priority. We will have Import player at QB position this year, so main focus was to find the right skill set for what we want co accomplish as an offense. Other import player for us is an athlete that can cover couple skill positions, so we were lucky to find both.

Vojin Milić, photo: Ivan Miladinović

Vojin, what is your past coaching experience? How is the prep coming along, and your plans pre/during the season?

Vojin: Last year I was not involved with football due to the personal reasons. Year before that I was the OC for Vukovi. And years prior, I had experience in coaching all of the youth selections.

Most important for us is to practice hard, and have no doubts and regrets. That way we will build confidence, and will look forward to compete against the best teams.

Ivan, not to add more stress, but, you have a big task in front of you. Head coach. Tell us more about the pre-season and plans for the season. Also, what is your past experience in coaching?

Ivan: The biggest one yet and the most responsible one so far. Pressure is a good thing, it helps you get to know yourself better and to see if you are cut out for the job. The biggest breakthroughs are made under pressure. We will have a bit different offseason this year but not drastically different. We were not bad in the past couple of years - yes, we haven’t managed to win Serbian league for a while but we played in each final.

We have set the bar high in the past and every time we don’t win the championship now we see that season as a fail. However, it doesn’t necessarily means that. If you learn from the past mistakes than you have a chance for redemption; if you don’t, then it’s a waste of time. I believe we have learnt. Some of the things we learnt from the past we have already implemented on the junior level and it gave results. To conclude it - I believe we have a great group of guys who are capable of achieving great things.

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