I was better at baseball than football but girls didn’t come to baseball games so I played a lot of football, ending my career after playing on a couple of teams early in my ten years in the Air Force, which I also coached. Then I would later help coach a middle school football team as a favor to a friend.
Exposed to pretty much all the coaching types from the age of eight, I learned to coach by not doing what most of the coaches I experienced did. I only yelled to get people’s attention, sometimes forgetting I had the whistle around my neck. I never berated a player and I never shamed a player in front of others. I also never lifted a player by his face mask or hit his helmet. And I never punished the team for one player’s cock up. Yep, had all those things done to me and guess what? They were all in college. My high school coaches yelled a lot but they never used profanity and never shamed a player for missing an assignment. Yes, they were strict and if you mouthed off or otherwise violated the appointed decorum you would run stands (that’s running up and down the bleachers for those unfamiliar) or innumerable wind sprints after practice. But they were encouraging in their manner and everyone got to play if the opportunity was there.
Yep, everything I learned about how to coach came from not doing to people what was done to me in college. Now I played small college football for what was then a powerhouse of small college teams. The head coach is a revered name in football and his sons would become All-Americans. To this day if you go back to the school you’ll hear his name spoken in reverent tones. But you won’t hear me speaking in reverent tones.
When I showed up my freshmen year we had over ninety players out for football. We had more than one All Stater from their home states and we had transfers from Tennessee and Alabama and the Air Force Academy. There was a lot of talent on the field but survival was the key to the first three weeks. Two three hour a day practices designed to weed out those not serious about physicality. Note I said physicality not football. If you know anything about Bear Bryant and his 1958 Texas A&M team and what he did in his early practices then you know what every year was like at my school. The result was those who could not or would not take the pain walked off the field and cleaned out their lockers. Regrettably, that included most of the talent like the Mr. Footballs and such. They saw no reason to be subjected to the sheer brutishness of the practices. Admittedly, one did get his arm broken and another his nose but still. Later in the year it was easy to say that the best football players on campus weren’t on the football team.
On one particularly difficult day, one of the assistant coaches asked for “a line” as in “gimme a line.” Well a couple of freshmen and some sophomore linemen jumped to and formed an offensive line. The assistant coach applauded them, “Good hustle.” The head coach said, in the hearing of all the players, “I don’t care how much they hustle when we play only the best players will be on the field.” The next morning I noticed the lockers for those five players were empty. They knew they weren’t the best and all they had to offer was hustle.
The coach was true to his word. Only his best players took the field. They were on the field so much that backups never got to play and the next season, having only three or four returning starters, the team would achieve the coach’s only losing season. Did I mention that my freshmen year we only lost one game, to a much better team with players who would sign with the pros, plus our All-Conference running back couldn’t play. After that game, our Monday practice lasted from three until after ten o’clock and the only reason it was stopped was because the coach’s wife showed up and told him that if he kept the practice going he wouldn’t have anybody to play in the last game of the season. You see it wasn’t really a practice; it was indeterminable blocking and tackling drills followed by wind sprints and repeat.
I really don’t know why I continued to play except that I had always played and hadn’t learned yet about quitting. Still, when I think back on my college days and football it isn’t with either nostalgia or fondness but rather a grim determination not to let them run me off. It was fun on the field and I still have one school first, but it wasn’t fun otherwise.
And that’s how I learned to coach.