Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Win One for the Gipper and Other Nuggets of Advice from Coaches

Now is a great time if you are a sports fan – college football bowl games having just completed (except for this BCS thing that drags on until mid-January) plus the NFL playoffs and the college basketball conference season getting rolling.

Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of listening to a number of college coaches from the state of Iowa talk about their teams and their approach to coaching. With each one of them, I ask one question, “What do you do between games to prepare your team for the next game?” It is a question about how a team moves from a win or a loss in its previous game to focus on the challenge ahead. I think it is a question that goes to preparation in any endeavor – sports, business, drama or music.

Nick Saban made business journal and blog headlines this past summer after a Sports Illustrated article talked about how Alabama prepared for games (click here for article). This was followed up with a sister publication, CNN Money, adapting this for the business world (click here for article). He is entirely focused on “the Process.” I remember watching an interview when he first took the job where he said, “the process will work here.” It was less about the location or the storied history of Alabama football than it was about his process. The process is so scripted that he eats the same thing for lunch every day so as not to distract him with one extra decision in the day that isn't about moving the team forward.

In early November, I had a chance to hear University of Iowa Basketball Coach Fran McCaffrey and his comments reminded me of “the question” I have asked coaches and their answers. I thought I would share some of their wisdom with you. Their comments are paraphrased from my memory and my notes.

Fran McCaffrey, Head Basketball Coach at the University of Iowa

Coach McCaffrey spent a few minutes talking to the YPO Iowa chapter on the floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. To be fair, I will probably remember his graciousness to a family group as much as his Xs and Os (Lisa and our kids were all there, and the kids got to shoot on the practice floor with Coach McCaffrey rebounding).

Iowa was in the middle of a five games in nine days stretch, including a tournament in Mexico. As we entered the arena, the team was working on a drill where they were down five points with two minutes remaining. It was a controlled scrimmage, focusing on executing, then teaching, then executing again. As Coach McCaffrey came over to talk with our group, I was amazed at his attention to the details of the game. Spending valuable practice time in specific situations and teaching game-specific tactics will prepare them for the season to come. I am quite confident there will come a time during this season when the work from that practice, plus the countless practices before and since, will make the difference between winning and losing.

Another thing struck me in his comments. Iowa had just beaten Central Michigan (coached by former Drake coach Keno Davis – see below). Central Michigan had played a five guard offense to throw off the Hawkeye game plan and had kept the game close with the unusual approach. McCaffrey countered with a four guard offense and a number of players that were expected to play significant minutes sat on the bench. He talked about how he would need to spend time with those players to boost their spirits coming into the next game. Handling players who have been successful in the game, and were most often the star on their high school team, is an underrated skill. Coach McCaffrey knew exactly that those players would be disappointed, but he adapted his tactics for that game and to come out victorious.

Learning: Practice must be about learning game-specific situations. Spending time preparing for inevitable scenarios will prepare a team to execute when the pressure is on. Also, adaptability in the face of a surprise game plan is important, but so is the care and feeding of players whose role changed based on the new strategy.

Mark Farley, Head Football Coach at University of Northern Iowa

Coach Farley's most memorable nugget was that his team's weekly preparation was dependent on their opponent for the coming week. He said that if his UNI team was likely better or more athletic than their opponent, they would work on putting in more new plays and schemes. This would make team focus on what they were doing and not get too complacent or overconfident as they were thinking and engaged in a new game plan. If his team was less athletic than their opponent (he mentioned playing a Big Ten team like Iowa), they would work on being crisp and fast by slimming down the playbook and focusing on execution. This provided confidence to the team as they felt they could master what the game plan was and they would go into the game focusing on execution and instinct, rather than thinking about what was coming next.

Learning: Staying fully engaged every week is important for a team and the coach should change the practice plan to keep the team engaged and primed for the upcoming game.

Paul Rhoads, Head Football Coach at Iowa State University

I had the chance to hear from Coach Rhoads at an event just before his first season at ISU. He was working with his players and was clearly focused on building a program. I asked my usual question on preparation and he launched into the answer with the enthusiasm he shows in many situation (see his post-game speech that was viewed more than 150,000 times on YouTube here). His focus was on planning the schedule for his players minute by minute for the entire week. He said that with restrictions on practice time from the NCAA and the complications of students’ schedules, it was important to manage every minute to maximize their preparation. He talked about the complex schedule that had sections for offense, defense, special teams, position meetings and even where coaches should be at every point in time. This discipline allowed ISU to exceed expectations that first year and now has been in bowl games three of the first four seasons for Coach Rhoads.

Learning: You never get back a wasted minute. Time is a precious commodity in preparation and planning is a key element in winning. The logistics of preparation are underestimated.

Keno Davis, Head Basketball Coach at Drake University (now at Central Michigan)

2007-08 was the magical season for Drake basketball. They were undefeated throughout much of the year and won the Missouri Valley post-season tournament. They lost a heartbreaking game to Western Kentucky on a last second shot. But during the season, Coach Davis (who was selected as the AP coach of the year that year) talked about this particular basketball team and the advanced basketball IQ of the team. He said time and time again that it was this particular team that allowed him to implement new offensive scheme, as well as wrinkles that kept opponents guessing. More importantly, they kept working hard, no matter what their record was and how many times they made SportsCenter (which is not a regular occurrence for a Drake basketball player).

The Drake team was not the most athletic on the floor most nights. Most of the players weren't highly recruited but they were a team that thirsted for more. Their enthusiasm for learning never stopped. While they didn't take a magical Hoosiers-like ride through the NCAA tournament, they will be recognized as one of the best Drake teams of all time.

Learning: An unquenchable desire for learning and improving can propel a team to greatness where the whole is certainly more than the sum of the parts.

Mark Phelps, Head Basketball Coach at Drake University

Coach Phelps replaced Coach Davis after the 2007-08 season. He was a well-regarded assistant coach from Arizona State and looked to take the underclassmen from the Davis team on to new heights. I had the opportunity to ask him “my question” shortly before the season started. As I reflect four years later, what strikes me is that most of his answers could have come from the movie Bull Durham, “We just need to get better as a team,” and “We continue to set our team goals and work hard to achieve them.” It struck me that there was no specific philosophy or program that was his at that point. It could have been an off-day, we certainly all have those. However, I would guess after four somewhat difficult years that Coach Phelps would probably answer the question differently today. Coach Phelps brought experience to the job as an assistant, but may not have brought "experiences" to his first head coaching job. I have always sought to distinguish between “experiences” and “experience.” Experiences are the learning events that create wisdom for future challenges. Experience can do this, but a repetitive role for many year doesn't always create the experiences that position a person to adapt to the challenges ahead. These past few seasons have certainly provided many experiences for Coach Phelps that likely have brought learning.

Learning: The top job is appealing to those not there. Most times it is a lot harder than it looks. Wisdom isn't something you can read in a book (or a blog), but the sum of many experiences.


I love asking "my question" to successful coaches. Most often the coach will pause reflectively as the question isn't about the latest opponent, offensive scheme or player controversy. Coaches are experts at their craft, which often goes beyond the Xs and Os. The best coaches are the difference between a team that is a perennial loser and one that begins to win. To be sure, talent matters. But preparation and how coaches approach practices, player development and each game can make the difference.

I will continue to ask the question. In fact, someday I hope to spend a week or month with a team that is known for its preparation – maybe Nick Saban or Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots or Kirk Ferenz and the Iowa Hawkeyes (even as they are coming off a down year). I believe the focus on preparation is key to their success. The approaches of these successful coaches are all slightly different, but there is one commonality – they know exactly what THEY must do to prepare for the upcoming game. That focus radiates to the entire team and in the end facilitates their success.

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