Rebuilding a damaged team culture
Years ago, I was asked to become the interim head football coach at Santa Monica College (California) three weeks before the start of fall camp. They were on probation, had no full-time teaching position to offer and won five games in the previous two seasons combined. Although the existing staff felt that they had a good group based on spring and summer practices, there were no promises as to how many of those players would stick around for a new coach just weeks before the start of the season.
I had never been a head football coach and was unsure if I would be a good one. I just finished coaching at the University of Nevada for Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault, followed by a successful season at El Camino College (California), and I felt revitalized. I very much enjoyed working with the eternally energetic and positive junior college coaching legend John Featherstone and had found a kindred spirit in defensive coordinator Matt Kirk and the rest of the staff.After deliberating for two days, I decided that I was ready to embark on a new adventure and perhaps my biggest career challenge to date. I took the reigns at Santa Monica College.
Being hired so late, I made the decision to keep the entire staff together. I could have tried to bring in some guys late, but I decided that it was in the best interest of the program and the kids to keep the continuity of the staff. I was the outsider, and I was treated as such.
My goal that season was to calm the turbulent waters, give players and coaches some stability, and try and prepare the team for success. It also was an opportunity for me to build relationships and learn the culture. After many years as an assistant under diverse leadership styles, I knew what I stood for and how I wanted to get there. However, as a first time head coach, I was learning how to administrate and make decisions that were foreign to me as an assistant.
That season we were able to muster up three wins, matching the high for the past four years. The season ended, the program had moved forward, and I was encouraged to apply for the permanent job.
In March 2010, I was officially hired as the head coach. It didn’t come with a full-time teaching position, but I finally had the keys to the car. It was time to roll. It became clear that I had to start fresh. Obviously, I had created a list of coaches that I wanted to bring with me. That was my first priority. I had to do it without full-time teaching positions to offer, but I was looking for four criteria: the best coaches, guys I could trust, caring of kids, and positive energy.
Hiring the best coaches was critical. First, it would give me a head start in my recruiting philosophy of maintaining the area’s top talent. I inherited a team with mostly out-of-state players, and that was not my philosophy or that of the college’s leadership. Second, even if I had to have the best coaches part of the time, it was certainly better to me than having a worse coach all the time.
As the leader, I needed to be flexible and make it fun. I didn’t have a lot to offer guys in the way of money. So here was the deal: I would put out the fires, run the team, the administration, the budget and the recruiting. My assistants could coach their specialty and connect with the players. There were no long staff meetings, no three-hour practices and no second-guessing from me.
As an assistant coach for all those years, I thought it was a disservice to constantly deal with a tinkering head coach. I wanted to hire good people and let them coach. My job was to be an objective eye, push the tempo of practice, support the coordinators and not question their decisions. In five years, I haven’t made one offensive or defensive play call.
I needed coaches I could trust. I was looking for guys who could see my vision and be my extension, even when I wasn’t in the room. I hired an offensive consultant that I had worked for previously. I knew that I could only get him for half the practice, but he had the best feel of any play caller I’ve ever been around. And I trusted him.
We modified the practices to optimize his time and expertise. I put him with assistant coaches that knew his scheme and he did the breakdowns. On Defense, I hired Steve Garcia, who gave me my first college coaching job when I was 23 years old. He is an old-school grinder, and I trust him implicitly. I hired other coaches who were connected to SMC and coached at local high schools.
I’ve always believed that in order to be a good coach, you have to care about kids. Kids will run through the theoretical wall for you if you have knowledge that can help them get better and they know that you care about them. It transcends all ethnicities and age gaps. In today’s society, kids are different. They want to know how and why. You can coach a kid as hard as you want if they believe that you can make them better and you care about them.
Finally, I was looking for guys who exuded positive energy. Sure, there were obstacles. But I wanted guys to preach what they can be, what we can be — not what we aren’t. Nobody wants to be around negative energy.
A new season
We went into that first spring as a new staff with plenty of issues. I hadn’t had a chance to recruit the way I wanted to. We brought 140 guys into the spring, most of whom we had no idea who they were. We needed to upgrade the talent on the roster.
Meanwhile, I hit the local high schools, trying to re-establish relationships and trust with people and programs who had stopped trusting SMC. I had to sell them on our vision, one of football excellence, academics and character growth.
With holdovers from the previous year and players we acquired from half a recruiting season, we embarked on our first full season together. Our goal was to establish an identity on both sides of the ball, and to be fundamentally sound and competitive in the conference. Personally, I viewed a .500 record as the goal to show everyone we were headed in the right direction.
The staff was beginning to gel, and I was very clear in my vision. There were plenty of obstacles out there, but I wasn’t going to accept negativity. We were going to plow forward, stick to the plan, care about these kids and coach them hard. With all these new kids, we had a short amount of time to figure out what they could do, what they couldn’t do and who were the best players.
Although there were highs, there were games where we didn’t look good. We still weren’t at a point where we could execute consistently on both sides of the ball. We made strides that first year, but we weren’t fundamentally sound enough, or deep enough, and had some character issues.
Turning the corner
Entering year three, I finally had a full offseason and a settled staff. We went through some growing pains together the previous season, but I was very clear what we had to do to get better. We had to do a better job coaching fundamentals and bring in better, smarter talent with great character. We had a nucleus of returners and we were starting to make headway in the community. This would be my first year with a complete roster of players we had recruited.
We scoured the local high schools and we recruited every captain in our area. We recruited every overlooked, talented player who had a winner’s mentality. We discouraged out-of-state players who were contacting us by the hundreds, unless they were our type of person, our type of player and a guy who could be self-sustainable in the community.
We had a much better spring. We were working hard and starting to believe in our approach to team building. Our roster was turning around, depth was improving and our talent was getting better.
We finished the preseason 2-2, and I still felt that we might be a year away from competing. Before the bye week, we lost a tough one and I was curious how our team would react. On the ensuing Monday, we had 100 percent attendance and the guys were running harder than I’ve ever seen. We created a week of “competition” practices and the players responded. But we were definitely not out of the woods. Midway through the third season, we came out flat in a pivotal conference game on the road, one that we needed to win and I felt we should win. Although I’m very even keeled most of the time, I blew up at halftime. We came out in the second half, made enough plays to win the game and were able to move forward. I still didn’t believe we were ready, but I was wrong.
We started to get hot. We were still making mistakes, but we were also making big plays and taking care of the ball. We were starting to play harder, guys were beginning to believe, and our experience and philosophy as a staff was helping them finish games.
The wins were not blowouts. Sometimes we were up, and sometimes we had to come from behind in the closing moments of the game. Each game had a different storyline and a different hero. We ended up winning six straight on our way to our first conference title since 2003. It was one of the most joyous seasons of my life. We had brought the program back, it was my first championship as a head coach, and my vision and philosophy were validated. I felt best for the players and coaches who had believed in what we were trying to accomplish. We were champions together.
I was invigorated by the win, our players were starting to get recruited all over the country and I was excited to recruit more players who fit our system. I was also feeling pressure to try and repeat as champions. The true test of any greatness is being able to repeat, so we went back to work, refining things that worked and eliminating those that didn’t.
The offseason was exciting. The core players were back, and the majority of the staff was in tact. I felt the continuity of staff and philosophy was paying dividends. We didn’t have to try and convince the players that we were creating a winning culture, because we were there and we had the swagger.
Staying on top
We continued to attack our original plan and have since added two more championships in years four and five. At SMC, we’ve now won three straight conference championships and 20 straight conference wins, both school records.
I’ve been named coach of the year the past three seasons and am humbled by the players, coaches and support staff around me. It takes a village, but it certainly hasn’t been easy. Year four was about repeating as champs, and not being a one time champion fluke. With a veteran returning core and coaching staff, we had our most successful victory (68-0), an unthinkable comeback win down 28 points midway through the third quarter against our biggest rivals and we won the championship game in frigid temperatures on the road.
This past year was thought to be a rebuilding season. I hired a new offensive coordinator, who brought a no-huddle system and a different style of play. It forced me into a different thought process and formula as a head coach and game manager.
We also had 10 new offensive starters. On top of that, we had to fight against a sense of entitlement from new players who were joining a successful program but hadn’t necessarily been a part of the success and gone through the growing pains. The theme became “play hard, be physical and execute consistently”.
It was a fun, challenging year. I finally relented and gave the green light for a play we call “soft serve,” in which we throw a double pass and our offensive tackle throws the ball. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass and it was the dagger in our championship game.
Where are we now
I feel confident in our approach to the program, the kids and the game, but I continue to want to prove that we are here to stay. It’s the competition, and I love to compete. We continue to build a successful culture at SMC. Our focus is always on the next game, and right now that’s 2014.
We’re always striving to have more efficient practices, more polish in our performance and we’re more demanding of what we want. I keep reminding our coaches why we’re successful. You have to recruit good players and good people, care about them and coach them well.
You also have to remind a team to take one play at a time and one game at a time. We refuse to talk about the next game until it’s time to prepare for them. The players laugh and reporters shake their head when I have to be reminded after games who our next opponent is, but I refuse to move past our current matchup, even as reporters start to anticipate big games on the schedule. After all, it’s not about them. It’s about us. It’s about fulfilling our potential individually and collectively and playing with the right energy for each other.
That’s our formula, and that’s how we do it. We have a plan, we work that plan and we’ve created a championship culture at SMC.