Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Change in the Air

There is no doubt that this is one of the toughest blogs I’ve ever written. Last night I told my Surge OL that I wouldn’t be back with them this year. Previously, I’d told Coach Suggett. It’s been awhile since I’ve left a team that I had a great relationship with – probably 1993 when I left Westminster La Quinta for Fountain Valley. I loved the kids at La Quinta, it was just that Fountain Valley was such a great opportunity for me that I couldn’t “not” do it. The situation I’m in this year is similar….I can’t announce the new team yet (that will come out tomorrow or Friday), but it is a men’s team here in San Diego that is doing everything the right way. But more so than that, it has a culture already somewhat ingrained of a blue collar work ethic. These guys will put in the work to become great.

The best part of coaching is the relationships you forge, not only with your other coaches, but also with your players. I’m still friends with a couple of players from that 1993 La Quinta team. There are Surge players I’ve had the unique opportunity to coach a couple of for 5-10 years. I’ve watched them go from raw rookies to, in some cases, All American players. I’ve won multiple national championships with a couple. They mostly know what I’m going to say before I say it. Those are the types of relationships that you don’t leave without a lot of regret.

Plus, there are three second-year players that I’m really going to miss in their development. We had a great time last season bringing them along and I feel certain that a couple of them will end up being really good players. I’ll be watching from the stands, at the very least.

The Surge coaches and the good natured ribbing we indulged in will definitely be missed. When you’ve coached with someone as long as I have with Mike Suggett, Mike Vargas and Rashoud McCoy (on and off, mostly on, since 2003 for all of them) then you’re gonna miss them a bunch. Carrie Suggett, Andrea & Bill Grant and Will Harris are others that make the long days of practice bearable with their wit and humor.

This will in no way curtail my support for women’s football in general, or the Surge in particular. Nor do I see it as interfering with the RS Football Camp in November. I’ll be keeping an eye on what is happening around the league, and call it as I see it.

So, what exactly is the attraction of this new gig? Well, I wanted to see what would happen if I was “all in” with a men’s team from the very start.  The last time that happened was 2010, and we had a pretty decent season. We were definitely outmanned at a few spots on both sides of the ball, but overall it was a fun season. Once I saw the Surge come into existence (rising out of the old SoCal Scorpions who I was with from 2003-07), I knew that playing for national championships again was something I wanted to do. That opportunity is still there with the Surge, but the desire to better myself as an all-around coach was too much this time.

In this case we’ve got very solid ownership, a good coaching staff and a great group of players to choose from (yes, we will probably be cutting some people that would otherwise like to play). That’s a rare combination. So in order to give us the best chance of success with everything that is in place, I felt I needed to concentrate on only the guys as the OC. I’ve got some new assistant coaches to get up to speed on my offense, and I’m still in a post-mortem analysis of things in last year’s offense that can be changed to make things more streamlined. I alluded to the high I get when creating and nurturing an offense here, so those that know me shouldn’t be too shocked about this move.

We’re going to start coaches’ meetings in January, then start off season weekly OTA’s in March. Twice a week practices start in May, then first games in early July. Last year we only had 8 practices before our first game, this year I want to have 16 in addition to the OTA’s. I took last season’s opening loss very personally, and that kind of thing isn’t going to happen again. Plus, we’re playing in a much more competitive league….we’re going to have to be hitting on all cylinders to win the league, and if we do, it’ll mean something. Whether we’ll play for a national championship or not, I don’t know. Considering that there are over 600 men’s teams across the country, I’ll settle for recognition in the Top Twenty. Then we’ll win it all in 2017.

That’s what is new with me!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Identity Crisis

One of my very first posts was sort of a background piece on what my favorite offense is. You can read that here. What I’ve noticed over the past couple of weeks is that some teams have lost their way, strayed away from what got them good. In particular, my favorite college team, Texas A&M, has really strayed….they’re almost unrecognizable from when Johnny Manziel was lighting up the scoreboards.

Certainly, differences in personnel have something to do with that. The Aggie’s QB’s are inexperienced (although so was Manziel) and both sometimes seem a bit lost. Also, it doesn’t appear that A&M’s list of NFL-ready OL is going to continue this year. Both the run blocking and absolutely the pass pro have taken steps backwards this year. But to go from a team who rivaled Baylor and Oregon in how fast they got plays off to one who almost seems like they want to milk the clock, and who went from a pure version of the Air Raid offense to some sort of “almost Auburn, but sort of something else” offense created nothing more than some mush. Offensive Coordinator Jake Spavital is taking a lot of the heat (and rightly so – it’s his name on the offense), but I’m wondering if the off-season hire of Dave Christensen doesn’t have more to do with it. Coach Christensen was hired as the OL coach and run game coordinator, and it appears that the move away from Air Raid style play calling may be related to his influence. That’s not necessarily a knock on Coach Christensen either – he was hired to bring his experience in.

That extra influence gets to my point about an Identity Crisis… can’t have too many cooks in your offense. When I was at Fountain Valley High, there were some things we just weren’t going to do – it wasn’t in our DNA (or that of our OC). Right now, there are some things I would only do in an extreme situation – like line up under center in an I formation. That’s just not what I want to do.

My base offense these days is shotgun spread. We feature a zone and gap-based run game, some fly sweep, various screens and a complete drop back package, mostly out of one back sets. Now, within that base offense, I can tweak the playcalls to fit my personnel.  In 2012 with my men’s team, we had two absolute studs at RB, so I ran more two back sets than normal. But it was still out of the ‘gun, and we still had 3 WR (didn’t have much in the way of a TE). If my QB is a runner, then I add in more options for him to do so. But it doesn’t change the base offense!

If my OL is huge, then the zone game becomes more prevalent, while if they’re more mobile (read: smaller), then I use more of the gap schemes and perimeter game. Again, it doesn’t change who we are. If a player comes to me and says, “Hey Coach – why don’t we run this XYZ play?”, I’ll consider it, if there is a good way to work it into what we do already. I don’t want to stray too much from our identity, at least during the season.

The time to look outside for ideas is now. There’s stuff that I see from time to time that I really like. The first thing I do when I see something is write it down, in play diagram form. Then, I look at it to see if what is being done fits into existing terminology. If it does, then great – it goes into the playbook. If not, then I see if I can either a) tweak a piece of the play to fit into existing terms without losing what I liked about the play in the first place, or b) see if I can add a piece of terminology that can be used in future situations as well. If I can’t do either, then chances are I won’t keep the play. I really don’t want to add terminology if it is just going to be used in one play. (The exception is for trick plays – those can be one-offs.)

The coaching point to all this, is stay true to yourself. If you’re the coordinator, it’s your name out there. In Coach Spavital’s case, he’s probably going to get himself fired after this season. It’s OK to consider outside ideas, but you’ve ultimately got to do what you think is best for the team. Getting too far away from that slows down your thinking during a game, and probably (my guess only, as an entirely unqualified psychiatrist) means you don’t exude as much confidence in your game plan to your players as you normally would. That can start a death spiral that overcomes your offense.

Know yourself and be true to yourself.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Silly Season

One week after everyone sharing what they’re thankful for, many coaches have a little less to be thankful for – such as a job. Others have more to be thankful for – usually a better job. But we all tend to lose sight of the fact that coaching changes are hard on an awful lot of people. Rex Ryan had an interesting piece on that here – it’s worth a look.

And to think that it is only December 02, here’s a list already of all the head coaching jobs that have come open – jobs list. Crazy, huh? I mean, you’ve got a guy down in Georgia, Mark Richt, who all he does is go 9-3 pretty much every year, and he gets fired.

Now, I know that some people say, “Well, that’s what happens when you make a boatload of money – your job security is nil.” That’s true, and I know that everyone signs up for the gig. But still….just the thought of having your livelihood depend on a bunch of 18-21 year olds would keep me awake at night. Sure, I’d love a shot at it sometime. I always figured that if I won the lottery, I’d head up to San Diego State and volunteer my time. I’d make them hold me accountable to whatever they assigned me, even if it was Assistant Tight Ends Coach, or maybe I’d go over to University of San Diego (FCS) and be a position coach (yeah, I think I’d do a good job) on a volunteer basis. But having to do it for a living?

Some have asked me why I don’t give it a shot. The answer is simple: I believe that coaching collegiate football is a young, single man’s game at the entry level. You’ve generally got to put in your time as a GA or coaching intern. The competition for those spots is insane and the reward is making about $12,000 a year to start and doubling as a RA in a dorm somewhere in Kansas or South Dakota. I’m 54 and a home owner, with multiple kids. I’m not interested in moving every 2-3-4 years and taking an initial wage cut. But would I like to compete at that level? Hell yeah.

Really, the high school ranks are extremely competitive. You look around at the top programs in Southern California, and you won’t find better coaching anywhere. As far back as in the 90’s when I was coaching in Orange County (as I mentioned last week), and going up against some of the coaches I did, heck – even back then I saw more stunts, twists, varied fronts, blitzes and disguised coverages than I see in the semi-pro level now.

Here’s the thing about top-level high school coaching: If you’re not somewhat of a “grinder” (at least by today’s standards) chances are you’re going to get exposed. Back then, I put in 44-48 hours a week during the season – on top of my “real” 40 hour a week job. Monday through Thursday I was at the school from 3:00 until  about 7:00. Friday it was 3:00 until about 11:00. Saturday morning we were in at 7:00AM and out at about 6:00PM. Sunday it was 9:00AM until 7:00PM (or when we were done). Granted, that 1990’s technology didn’t include great timesavers such as Hudl. But I hear now of a lot of staffs doing their film review on their own, and I can tell you from experience that there’s nothing quite like reviewing your position’s film with your head coach (and/or OC) also there, asking questions.

I can tell you this, I can think of only one time (thanks, La Puente Bishop Amat) that I was truly surprised by something an opponent did. (They broke out a zone blitz in the ’96 playoffs. Caught us off guard.) Other than that, we were *prepared*….

Getting back to the jobs situation, I’ve also heard people ask why more high school coaches don’t go to the collegiate ranks in California. In some states, like Texas, you see it all the time. The coaching there isn’t any better, but the high school job security is non-existent. In Texas, if you’re a high school coach, that’s pretty much what you do. You may have one other class, but if you’re a Head Coach, you’re paid to do just that. If you get fired, you’re out of the school (and many times, so are your assistants). It’s a very collegiate-like experience, so they have absolutely no hesitation in jumping to a higher level. They don’t have job security now, so what difference does it make?

In California on the other hand, coaches (at public schools anyway – private may be different), only receive a stipend for coaching, maybe $5,000 a year on top of their teaching salary. If they get fired from their coaching job, they’re still teachers and still get their teaching salary. They just lose their stipend. They may or may not look for other jobs in their district. If they’re a long-tenured teacher, their opportunities outside their district may be limited – maybe the new district won’t accept all their years of service, for example. So what eventually happens is that you have schools who have a surplus of teachers and a shortage of coaches. That’s where guys like me come in – “walk ons”, or staff members but not faculty members. I would get the same stipend (although as an assistant, mine was generally in the $2,500 range for the season). At Fountain Valley, besides me, there were three other former varsity offensive line coaches at the school. One was the AD, one was the JV OL coach, and one was the frosh OL coach. Me, as the walk on, was the varsity guy. Sort of a weird situation.

But that is why you don’t see a lot of people jumping to the collegiate ranks out of California – they have job security now, and are hesitant to give it up. Makes perfect sense to me.