Keys for building a successful high school football team
Most of what we believe was taken from other coaches we respect and have learned from. At some point, it’s hard to give credit where credit is due, because these concepts simply become who we are as a program and as coaches.
My strongest influences are my father, Ed Rux, Hall of Fame coach from Oconomowoc (Wisconsin); Ron MacBride, former coach at the University of Utah; and Jeff Trickey, a Hall of Fame coach and my quarterbacks coach.In the last few years, it has become more difficult to get out to coaching clinics since my family has grown, so I get the most out of spending a day or two watching and listening to college coaches whom I respect and who are gracious enough to allow me to hang around for a day.
Usually, I’ll take about five hours and study their film, but I get the most out of listening to them teach and fine-tune their concepts. I especially enjoy hearing how other coordinators call their formations and plays, and much of our terminology comes from that or from our own players coming up with a term we can remember. I also benefit greatly from reading books written by coaches or people who have gone through a challenging experience. I highly recommend:
- Leading With the Heart, by Mike Krzyzewski.
- Faith in the Game, by Tom Osborne
- Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, by John Wooden/Jay Carty
- Quiet Strength, by Tony Dungy/Nathan Whitaker
- When the Game Stands Tall, by Neil Hayes
Here are some quick thoughts on leadership within your program.
• Accept mistakes. Own them, learn from them and flush them. Sometimes, you have to screw it up to truly understand it. Continually making the same mistake is unacceptable.
• Risk being wrong, risk taking ownership. Take chances, and embrace your role as a leader.
• Develop a ‘Unity Council.’ Six players are chosen by teammates at the beginning of March to lead the team through the spring and summer months. Players have a lot of say in how the team will be run. They can determine if practice is too difficult or not rigorous enough. They have a say in playing time and suspensions. If a player has violated the code, and he is not ready to play because he has not changed his ways, they can extend his suspension.
No one besides the unity council and the head coach can be a part of the direct conversation. When we vote on team issues, the coach gets a vote as well. Whatever is decided, the team must follow, even if the coaching staff does not agree.
The Unity Council has an obligation to police the team. This means socially, during strength and conditioning, and negative comments and acts off the field.
• Everyone works. It’s as important for a player with Division I ability to train to his potential as it is for a player who is not blessed with the same gifts. This basic philosophy is what makes a team great.
Developing the football philosophy
- Respect your opponent, and then knock his block off in between the whistles.
- Straight answers are the best answer. If you want a coach to move on, say “Yes, coach.”
- We support freedom of expression. Nothing wrong with a blue mohawk in my book.
- We believe in collective responsibility. That means for successes, as well as failures.
- Leave everything on the field, and don’t leave anything in the tank.
- Don’t swear, don’t get 15-yard penalties.
- Have fun, and cherish the moment.
- The big time is where you’re at. Don’t get sucked into the belief that the grass is greener someplace else.
- Players who do more should have the chance to do more on the field.
- Don’t disgrace the gifts that have been given to you by not making the most of them.
- Luck is that place where preparation and opportunity come together, and it’s what you do with it at that very moment.
- Attitude, commitment, respect and performance. Attitude is how you respond to adversity. Commitment is how you go about you business of preparing in strength and conditioning, during practice, academically and socially. Respect is how you treat others. Performance is what you do when it’s show time. The first three everyone can control.
- Throw your helmet and you won’t sit on the bench — you’ll be on the bus. How will you answer adversity?
- There should be a place for everyone within your football program. We have had special needs student-athletes, foreign exchange players, and female athletes come out for football. All were coached, and all were treated with respect.
Thoughts for coaches
• As coaches, we have to decide what are our non-negotiable points. Everything else requires flexibility, but what do we hold true to our program philosophy.
• We don’t give out helmet awards from week to week. We’ve found that players start playing for the sticker and lose site of what’s important.
• We don’t grade our players. It consumes too much time for what it’s worth, time that could be spent on more important things.
• Coaches at the varsity level have to be year-round coaches. Lower level coaches need to be there when absolutely necessary. Coaches who do more should have the ability to make more decisions and have more responsibility.
• Coach within your personality. You cannot be anyone else, and no one can ever be you.
• I yell because I want to be heard. The coaches’ voices should be respected by all players in the program. Don’t allow them to ignore you.
• The ‘best-effort guarantee.’ The only guarantee in our program is that we will coach our players to the best of our ability, and do everything we can to put them in a position to be successful. Other than that, players have to earn everything they get, regardless of what they have done in the past.
The players sort it out. However, if we have two players that are playing at about the same level, they both play until one rises above the other.
• Two-way player flexibility. Players play on offense and defense if they are obviously head-and-shoulders better that the next man.
• Switching positions. Players can ask to play another position, but ultimately coaches must make the decision of who plays where and how much. The Unity Council always has a say in the matter.
• Player attendance. If a player needs to miss practice, he needs to call the head coach of his respective level. I like their parents, but I want to hear from them. It’s a part of growing up.
• Be on time or we all run. I don’t run, but the players will. It’s important to respect everyone’s time and show up when you’re supposed to.
• Conditioning should be done by position group. Be creative with your conditioning — don’t just run.
Our championship season
When our team was placed in the ”bracket from hell” during the Wisconsin Division I playoffs, we decided to take our fight to the field. There was no looking ahead, and we knew every practice and every down mattered.
Our team had a sense that we were playing for something more than just the game. There was a spirituality to our team that was demonstrated day in and day out, and it was player driven.
Players also gave support for me and my family. They knew that our situation with our daughter in need of a heart transplant could take me away at any time. They had a sense of our crisis, and they were there for us.
Our football program supports the multi-sport athlete. We find that players who compete in other sports are not afraid of competition on the football field because they experience it all the time. As a result, they don’t get rattled when the game is on the line.
If a player is not in a sport, we expect him to treat the offseason strength and conditioning program like a sport. If a player is not doing his part during the offseason, as a rule I will have a conversation with him three times before I leave him alone to make his own decisions. I encourage other players to encourage teammates who are sorting out who they want to be, but I never force it. Ultimately, it’s the athletes decision to make.
We train four days a week from December to August. During the season, we lift on Saturday and Monday. For the most part, we follow the Parisi Speed-Training Program. Our running program greatly intensifies the last eight weeks before two-a-days begin.
Players who do not play another sport and do not train like they should in the offseason are still allowed to try out, but they have to earn their playing time. The coaches and our Unity Council determine when this is.
Passing leagues are optional, but we want to know when and why you aren’t participating. It has to be a good reason. Family vacation and events count.
We have our five-day camp the last week in July. Everyone gets coached. We don’t get bent out of shape if players miss one day. Five days of camp is ideal, four is better than three, three is better than two, and two is better than one. If a player only attends one or zero, there better be a good reason.
We expect student-athletes who are in summer baseball to also train with us consistently. Players should participate in the make-up of our offseason program. If there are changes that need to be made, and the Unity Council agrees with them, then we will all change.
The YMCA and home gyms do not replace the offseason program we have set up for our athletes. Specialized athletic-training facilities with certified personal trainers are an option for players, but we prefer a blend of our program, training with teammates, and the time spent there. The team-chemistry created in the offseason program, where players spend hours working and sweating together, is critical.
Steve Rux has won two state championships and finished state runner-up twice as head coach of Waukesha West High School in Wisconsin. His teams have made the postseason for 10 consecutive seasons.