Thursday, February 18, 2016

Turning Around a Program

Perhaps the greatest reward in coaching is seeing kids accomplish things they think are impossible. I have been blessed to see this first hand in the classroom, in the weight room, and on the field. It is an awesome feeling when kids light up because they realize how much they are capable of. It is even more awesome when your players are successful as fathers and husbands because of what you were able to do in your program.

Recently I was speaking at a Nike Coach of the Year Clinic and the topic of turning around a program came up. A coach asked me how we took an inner city program that had lost 27 games in a row and had never been to the playoffs, and turned them into a championship contender every year. When we were hired people said we were committing career suicide. Even the principal said we couldn't win there. They had never been to the playoffs, and had never had winning season in school history. They had won about 12 games the last decade. How did we win 75% of our games despite having limited resources and no feeder program? I wish there was a simple answer...

It all starts with a vision, mission, values, and a plan. You have to have a picture of what you want your program to look like. You have to have a vision that others can buy in to. You have to articulate your vision so others can see it as well. You have to be passionate, positive, and enthusiastic, even when others think you should be disappointed.

 As you build your vision, you must develop a mission that is greater than winning games. You have to have values that are aligned with your mission and vision. These are four or five non-negotiable that define your program and what you stand for.  Finally, you have to have a plan of action. Your plan of action must begin with the end in mind as Stephen Covey says. Once you know where you want to go, you have to put a plan in writing to get their. If you don't have a plan in writing, all you really have is a dream you will never achieve.

At Columbus High School I was blessed to be the offensive coordinator for David Diaz. He is one of the great men in our business who cared deeply about our coaches and players. He identified three key areas that had to be improved if we were to build a competitive program.

First, we had to increase participation. For a school with nearly 4,000 students the participation in football was very, very low. Other sports had been competitive. We had to get kids to want to participate in football. To do this, we had to give them compelling reasons to be a part of the program. We brought a lot of passion and enthusiasm to our strength and conditioning program. We researched new and innovative ways to workout so we kept things fresh while improving our speed, quickness, and explosiveness, and preventing injuries. We added an element of competition into everything we did. A big part of increasing participation was putting kids in nicer uniforms and upgrading equipment. This took a lot of time and energy, but we made huge increases in participation. Everyone had very nice matching shorts and t-shirts to wear in the weight room. Gone were the 25 year-old shoulder pads. It took time, but upgraded every piece of equipment our kids would wear. We fundraised daily. Coach Diaz believed the only bad fund raiser was the one we weren't doing. It took a lot of time and energy, but our kids benefited greatly.

Second, we had to get kids to believe they could win. They had to believe that when they took the field we have a chance. Not one kid in our program had ever won a game at any level. Not one teacher, custodian, principal, or secretary in our building had ever experienced the felling of winning game. Not one kid in our program new what it would take to win. We worked tirelessly everyday to bring everyone in our building into our program. They had to feel like they were a part of it to believe in it. We gave gear to school staff. We invited them to events with our players and coaches, so they could get to know our team outside the classroom.

Winter and spring was a great time to build confidence in our student-athletes. We gave them record cards in the weight room and had them record everything they did. We had them compete to set personal records each day. We set daily and weekly goals that they thought would be very difficult, and began to build small victories. When we maxed out we wanted things to be very competitive. We wanted them to push each other. When players see other guys breaking personal records they want to to it as well. Our max out days were basically a party in the weight room. I remember one of our players saying, "let's have a max out party!" I wish we had cell phone cameras back in the late 90's and early 2000's to record the intensity and passion.

Another thing we did was built our players up every chance we had. No player in our program when we took over had ever won a game. We coached them as if they were going to contend for a state championship. We coached each kid as if he was going to be an all-state player. We constantly reinforced that they had greatness inside. We rarely talked about winning. We talked about being the best version of ourselves, and being the best team we could be. If we were able to give our best effort in the weight room and in the classroom, we would earn the right to be successful.

I recently visited with Randy Jackson, of Grapevine High in Grapevine, Texas. He has been very successful and changing culture and turning programs around. They use their off-season program to set high expectations and help kids achieve them. They do a boot camp program that many successful coaches have modeled. They intentionally put the kids in pressure based situations to teach them to work through adversity. When they get through the boot camp portion of their off-season they feel like they have accomplished something as individuals and as a unit. When you accomplish something you build confidence.

When student-athletes see positive progress they are going to begin to believe. When they can look at a record card in the weight room and see themselves getting stronger, they begin to believe. When you put them into adverse situations and they work together to make it through, they begin to believe. Confidence is not something that can be given, it has to be earned. It isn't rocket science. Set high standards, give kids the tools to achieve them, and support them when they do well and when they struggle. We built them up everyday and told them what we thought they were capable of. We told them they were going to be a championship team.

Third, we had to build a program into something they "belonged" to. We had to build a family that they felt like they were a part of. We wanted them to learn to trust, something that was lacking in their lives. We spent a lot of time getting to know our players and learning their hopes, their dreams, and their fears. We wanted to know their why. What was the reason they wanted to excel? What obstacles did they face? How could they help us overcome those obstacles? We wanted to take our relationships deeper. We wanted them to understand what FAMILY and unconditional love were all about. We wanted them to trust each other and depend on each other. We wanted them to know they were a part of something bigger than themselves. You can't just say the word family and put it on a t-shirt. Family starts with relationships, and you have to spend time with your players outside of football to get to know them. We loved our players unconditionally. We loved them on their worst days as much as we loved them on their best days. We reminded them everyday through our words, deeds, and actions, that we loved them and wanted great things for them. This was a huge part of our success.

Perhaps most importantly, we held them accountable to our standards. Everyone talks about having a standard, but how many leaders have communicated those standards? If you asked your team what your standards are, could they articulate them back to you? The first thing we did was came up with a simple slogan, "committed to excellence on and off the field." We put this on every piece of stationary we had. We talked to our kids about what this meant. We talked about commitment and excellence, and how important those words would be. This was our mission.

Standards of Performance

Next, we talked about standards of performance. Coach Diaz had read Bill Walsh's book Finding the Winning Edge. That book helped us to better understand that we had to have clear standards and expectations for our guys. What does parallel mean on squat? What is a perfect rep? What is our expectation for being on-time? If you ask anyone who played for us 12 and 15 years ago what our standard for being on-time was, they will tell you being 15 minutes early is on-time. If you were on-time you were late! If we told them to be somewhere at 5pm, they would arrive ta 4:45. They know that parallel was the top of the thigh parallel to the floor.

When you set a standard of performance you have to hold guys accountable. Without accountability you can only go so far. You are never going to be as good as you could be. When a player didn't get to parallel, we did the rep again. When we didn't finish through the line, we did the rep again. When we didn't get all 5 reps, we did some sort of accountability exercise. We wanted our guys to learn to do things right. This starts with a set of clear standards that your players understand and can define. Holding people accountable on the little things sets the foundation for doing the big things right!

What it all comes down to is your culture. You have total control over your culture. What does your culture look like? How can it be improved? Your culture starts with you expectations and standards, and is built with your accountability. If you have high standards and low accountability, your culture will suffer. If you have low standards and high accountability, your culture will suffer. If you have high standards and high accountability, you will build a culture conducive to consistent success.

What Coach Diaz understood was that the weight room is the best place to build accountability to self and to the team. He understood that accountability is very hard and requires confrontation. He also understand that confrontation is necessary to build love. To built love you have to confront the act, not the person. What I mean is, you never make it personal. You don't degrade the player, you degrade the act. Coach Diaz was and still is a master of this. You see, this is how you build discipline, and discipline is love. Your players must know you care about them at their best and at their worst.

One of the hardest things we had to do was to suspend players who didn't meet our standards. Sometimes this meant suspending our best players. I remember having to suspend our best lineman for a game. This hurt the team in the short term, but in the long run it improved our program. Our best running back, and arguably the best in school history, missed at least half of 3 games his senior year. He was late to meetings a couple of times and late to school on a Saturday morning. It hurt to have him sit, but it would hurt more if he and the team did not learn that lesson. He learned to be accountable in high school so he didn't have to learn a harder lesson later in life when more was at stake. Our ultimate goal was that they become better fathers and husbands.

This is where most people fail. They fail to hold athletes accountable. It is hard. It takes effort. It takes time. Sometimes it takes time away from other activities that are very important. It is hard to tell someone they are not doing something as well as they can. It is hard to tell someone they are not meeting expectations. It is hard to tell them they are letting their team down. But if you are not doing those things, you are setting your players up for failure down the road.

"We care about you enough to tell you the truth"

Coach Diaz cared so much about each player as a person, and not for what they could do athletically. He taught me how to love players unconditionally, when they were at their best, and when they were at their worst. He taught me that kids will always rise to the standards you set for them if you hold them accountable. He used to remind me, "no excuses, get better."

When I was in my first or second year coaching we had a situation with a very good player. I didn't think we could win without him, but he had gotten into trouble and we had to sit him out. I was frustrated. Coach Diaz told me, "if we play him now you better plan on not having him in the playoffs." He then added that we would be a better team later if we handled this now. He was right.

You have to be willing to make some very difficult decisions. You have to be willing to hold kids accountable on the field and off the field. You have to be willing to sacrifice something small now for a greater gain down the road. Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching says, "don't make me choose between your behavior and the greater good of the team. The team will win every time." This doesn't necessarily mean you get rid of a player. This means you are going to hold them accountable to the standard of the program. When they make a mistake, you are going to coach them through it.

"Don't make me choose between your behavior and the greater good of the team. The team will win every time." 

Finally, we didn't panic when things didn't go well early on. We had some real struggles. We didn't walk out and set the world on fire. It took time to build a solid foundation. At each step of the way Coach Diaz kept us grounded and focused the process. When things didn't go as well as we had wanted them to he reminded us of the vision and mission. 

There are so many factors that go into turning a program around, and none of those factors are easy. Each school is going to be different, but there will always be problems. If you can identify three key areas that need to be improved, and you can focus on solving those problems, you will have success. If you can set high standards and get players to achieve those standards, you will have success.

If you are looking for a great resource to talk to about building culture, I would recommend you reach out to Randy Jackson at Grapevine High School. He is very open to helping schools improve their programs, and loves giving back to this great game that has blessed so many of us. Another great resource is Jeff Riordan at Crosby High School in Crosby, Texas. He has turned that program around and is building a monster. There are so many great coaches that are willing to help, and I would recommend you take the time to seek others who have successfully done what you are trying to do. Jason Sims at Childress High School in the Panhandle of Texas is another master at building programs.

Whatever your situation, your belief and expectations will drive the belief and expectations of your coaching staff and players. If you don't believe you can be successful, your players will not believe you can be successful. Notice we did not mention X's and O's at all. Our X's and O's were very good. But the real key to our success was what we did every single day to build and develop our family.

A few months back I published a couple of iBooks that can help your program with X's and O's. The first is on Installing RPO's into any offense. Here is a link to the iBooks version: The ibooks version includes explanations, diagrams, and video clips on multiple RPO Concepts. It will give you a simple process for implementing them into your offense.

If you don't have an apple device, you can order the paperback version! It is available on Amazon!

I also wrote a book on Tempo. It will greatly help you build a multiple tempo system with simple communication that will allow your kids to play with confidence. It also had over an hour of video clips! You can order the ibooks version here:

Order the Amazon Kindle version here:


  1. Good Stuff coach. I can't get enough of the culture, progam philosophy stuff!

  2. Thanks for these thoughts
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