(Over the weekend, a letter attributed to former Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman has made its way across the Internet and it's worth reposting in knowing why good coaching matters. While works like this can be apocryphal (the Kurt Vonnegut commencement speech being a popular urban legend), Sherman was known for letters to high school coaches as part of his recruiting effort, so this is not in that category.)
I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for allowing my staff and me to come into your high schools, recruit your players and share ideas with you. I am forever grateful for the access and opportunity you’ve offered me over the last four years.
Other than going to practice every day and being on the field with my players, the one thing I am going to miss the most is visiting with high school coaches, listening to you talk about your kids and your programs, and watching practices and off-season workouts. Since this will be my last letter to high school coaches, besides thanking you for the opportunities to visit with you, I wanted to share with you some of the things I learned over the years that might be of help to you down the road. Sometimes I think as football coaches we are so competitive we are reluctant to share ideas. This profession has been good to me. I believe giving back when you can is important. These are my ideas - not suggesting they are for you. They are some of the things I came away with.
I. Core Values
If a player learns anything from me, he’ll learn that you have specific core values to live his life. These ‘core values’ are his guiding light in the decisions he makes not just as a football player, but as a man.
Our ‘core values’ for our team were simple: Truth and Love. I believe these are essential elements to run a football team, a business, organization, government or family.
Be who you say you are. Do what you say you are going to do. Be truthful to yourself and others.
Be accountable. No excuses. Seek the truth. Demand the truth. Tell the truth. Live the truth.
If there is no truth, there is no trust. If there is no trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no value or substance to what you are doing.
As coaches we must:
Never, never lie or mislead a player. It’s simple. He has to trust you. You have to trust him. There is no trust when truth isn’t at the forefront.
You cannot fix something unless there is absolute truth.
Never, never let a player get away with lying to you. Go the Nth degree if necessary to confirm what he is telling you is true. He’s got to know you will not accept dishonesty and there are consequences for not being honest. Without absolute truth, there is no relationship. Without relationships there is no chemistry. Without chemistry, you lack a major component towards winning championships.
Love your God. Love your family and friends. Love your country. Love your freedom and those who protect those freedoms. Love your teammates, coaches and school. Love the game of football. Love competition and winning. Love all things that equate to winning.
Love is a passion that can bring great success to your life and to your team.. It is one emotion that always plays out positively. It is the glue for your team and promotes great chemistry. Watching this year's Texas H.S. State Championship games, I saw a lot of this on the field and on the sidelines.
I must admit, this is something I’ve learned over time. I have not been a "touchy feely guy" and have been a fairly private person with my words and actions, but once I began to tell players that I loved them I could see it started to make a difference in their lives. I’ve said it to my wife and five kids often but it was not natural for me to say it outside that circle. A lot of my players like yours never hear that word. It took a conscious effort on my part. After disciplining a player I always would say, "you know I love you, right?" Reluctantly they would agree and eventually say it back. When I was dismissed as the HFC, I can’t tell you how many players texted me to tell me "love ya coach." This brought great closure to me because I feel we impacted them in a positive way - even beyond the game of football. This was a great lesson I learned that will stay with me forever.
II. Be Honest But Positive
One thing I’ve learned is that young men respond better to honesty than "blowing smoke" at them. Too many people - parent and friends - tell them they are all this and all that. People tell them they are great. Everyone is worried about self-esteem so much , no one tells them what is real. Kids today have a false sense of confidence and bravado that when the first time things go bad in their lives or on the field, they can’t handle it. They have to know where they truthfully stand and what they need to do to get better. I do believe this is the best approach. Honesty however, must be buoyed by positive encouragement not negative criticism.
III. Embrace Your Players
Another thing I’ve learned the past four years is that you need to physically embrace your players with a tap on the back, arm around the shoulder, hand shake, hug. They not only need to hear your care about them but feel you care about them. They need to know you love them and care for them beyond just their ability as a football player. They have to feel you are going to be their coach for life, not just until they graduate and they are done playing for you. They have to trust that you will be there for them in the long term.
IV. Be Harder On Your Star Players
To become a great team I believe you must push your star players harder than the rest of the team. You cannot concede your principles because you know these players are the ones who will help you win games. Become more demanding of them, not less. The lesser players will respond to this in a positive way because you do not play favorites. The star players will also benefit from this because they will not be thinking they are something they are not. (See Tom Brady - perfect example.)
V. Be Respectful and Positive Toward the Lesser Talented Kids in Your Program
It’s not necessarily their fault they can’t play as well as you would like. As long as they are part of the program, as long as they are working hard, they deserve your respect as well as respect from your entire staff. Empower them whenever you can. If they earn it, say things like "great job by our scout team today -best in the country." Compliment them on their little accomplishments. They won’t forget you for that. They are the ones in ten years that will come back to visit their Coach.
I promise you, they may not all play in the game on Friday or Saturday, but they share a locker room with every member of the team all year long. If you empower them, you will have a tighter, stronger team. You will have a better locker room, and ultimately, if you don’t have a good locker room, you can’t win.
VI. Have Components of Championship Play
Have specific components for Championship play for offense / defense / special teams. These are your components that you believe are most valuable in your quest to win a Championship. You must reference them three times a week. Do not stray from them. Be committed to them. Constantly reinforce these components.. It’s what you believe and it’s what the staff and players must believe. (See the end of this letter for my components.)
VII. Delegate to Your Assistant Coaches
I believe I tried to do too much at times. Step back so you can be more objective about problems that arise. You can fix them better from this perspective as a Head Football Coach.
This is difficult for me since I love to coach every play. I tried to fix every problem and player. I think I would have been more helpful in other phases if I wasn’t so consumed. I tried on occasion to step away, but certain issues arose that brought me back to it.
VIII. Break Down Barriers
When I got to campus at Texas A&M, I felt there were barriers between our student body and our athletes. I felt our players had an overly high opinion of themselves but the students had a low opinion of our athletes. I have adamantly explained to our kids that they are "special" on Saturday when we play the game as well as when they practice and prepare to play. But during the week, walking across campus, they are students just like everyone else and should act and engage themselves that way. We were able to include the student body and faculty in a lot of football functions. This helped us eliminate the barriers.
I wanted our faculty and student body to embrace our players and wanted our players to embrace them as well. I believe we accomplished this. I believe when players play for something bigger then themselves, they player better.
IX. Never Throw a Player Under the Bus
I see this all too often at the college level. The Head Football Coach has to assume all responsibility publicly for the player’s performance. Privately it is different. Hold them accountable one on one and in team meetings in front of their peers.
X. Players Have to Play for You
The only way this happens is if they ultimately believe in you and trust in you. Other than pure talent, there is no greater component towards winning than this. Schemes, practice plans, game plans, off season, concepts, philosophy and ideas mean nothing if you can’t get the players to play for you. This is key. Relationships with players have to be at the forefront of who you are as a coach.
XI. Peer Pressure is a Valuable Tool
Although I will not throw a player under the bus publicly, I will call him out in a team meeting when he displays behavior contrary to what we want to accomplish as a team, whether it be on or off the field. As long as you are consistent with this to all players, it will be very effective.
One of the best things I did was break our locker room down into 6 battalions. The seniors drafted players to their battalions (locker room section). Battalions are about accountability. As a player, you are accountable to yourself, but you are also accountable to your battalion. When a player steps out of line, the player is punished, usually a difficult conditioning run, but if it happens a second time, the entire battalion runs. Stepping out of line usually revolved about class and study hall attendance, but it wasn’t limited to that. The seniors who understood the purpose of battalions drafted not based upon talent, but based upon accountability. One of our very best players talent wise was the last player drafted this past year. He had no idea his teammates viewed him this way. He was embarrassed and disappointed that he was viewed this way. It changed him instantly and dramatically. He didn’t want to be that guy.
The lesson I learned about battalions is that players will sometimes let themselves down, but very few are willing to let their team mates down.
XIII. Fundamentals, Fundamentals, Fundamentals.
There were times this past season I felt our fundamentals were not at the level I wanted them. I talked about this weekly to coaches but I felt it was an area we could and should have been better at. Sometimes players forget what got them to be the players they are.
Sometimes coaches get too tied up in the scheme and they sacrifice fundamentals in the process. There has to be a consistent commitment to this from beginning to end of season. It’s still a game of blocking and tackling, throwing and catching. That will never change. If you do those things well, you will win regardless of what scheme you run.
XIV. Never Pass Up an Opportunity to Practice Tackling
Whether in pads or in shorts, your team can always practice the techniques of proper form tackling. Breaking down, coming to balance, bending knees and keeping eyes with a form fit can be practiced every day and in every drill. With pads or without - always coach the proper angle and fit on a tackle.
XV. Hiring Staff
When hiring a staff, always take your time and get the right fit and what you want. Not everyone should be the same personality or talent. You need different personalities, different strengths, but all on the same page from what you as Head Football Coach want to accomplish. You are only as good as those around you. Take your time here. Very critical to get the right fit, staff talent and chemistry is key. It carries over to the players.
XVI. Dismissing a Staff Member
If someone is not doing their job the way you want it done, it is imperative you tell them immediately. I think it is unfair to fire someone without letting them know they are not meeting your expectations first. I believe you give a staff member three opportunities to fix what needs to be fixed. You hired him, you fix him. You owe him that . If you can’t, you owe it to the rest of the staff and team to make a change.
I tell the staff every pre-season what my expectations are. I tell them I will be up front and honest with them about their performance. I tell them if during the season I don’t like something, you’d better fix it.
It’s important to separate the professional criticism from the personal. You may like the person but you may not like how he is doing his job. When relieving someone of their duties, never let it get personal. This was always the toughest part of being a head coach. Your obligation is to the overall team and you cannot allow poor performance keep you from getting there. If you have been up front and honest with the coach, he can have no qualms about the direction you eventually decide to go.
XVII. Take Care of the Person and the Football Player Will Come Out
I tell our coaches this all the time. The players have to know you care before they will care about what you want them to do. Be involved in their lives. Ask questions about their families and girlfriends. Know their likes and dislikes. They have to know your care and are concerned about them as men first, players second. They have to know you care about their lives outside of and after football.
XVIII. Never Let the Negative Criticism Get to You
As Head Football Coach, you must assume total responsibility for your players and coaches performance. In order to handle this responsibility you must keep your head above the fray. Do not let things on the outside influence you. Be the leader you were hired to be.
Never let other people define you. You and you alone define the coach and the man that you are. No matter what happens, they can’t take that away from you. Hold true to your principles regardless of the circumstances or consequences.. Your players are watching how you react to these situations. In times of adversity are you who you say you are? Anybody can make it work when you are winning and everyone is happy. More importantly , your own family watches you and will learn a lot about their husband and dad in these adverse situations..
XIX. The Burst
You have to coach "the burst." This is the fine line between making a tackle and not making a tackle, scoring a T.D. or not. Wins and losses are dictated and determined by a player’s ability and desire to show a burst. In season and out of season, you must coach this. They have to know the difference between running to the ball and bursting to the ball- running toward the end zone or "bursting" toward the end zone. We always reward/acknowledge "the Burst of the Week" whether it be in season or out of season.
XX. More Games Are Lost Than Won
At times this past season, I thought we might be trying to do too much. You win games when players are comfortable and know what to do. Thinking too much can cause hesitancy. You want them to be aggressive, play with good fundamentals, do not make the game too hard for them. From watching tapes of different teams and even my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best coaches are the one who don’t feel they have to out smart the opponent, but would rather out coach and out play them. You do this with fundamentals.
If players on defense know what to do and recognizes offensive schemes faster, they will make plays and create turnovers.
If players on offense know what to do and recognize defensive schemes, they will make plays and not turn the ball over. Ultimately in football, the team that makes plays and creates turnovers and doesn’t give the ball away, wins games.
XXI. Common Language
I believe it is imperative to have certain principles of the game of football defined the exact same way by all staff members. Effective communication is the key to success. Players cannot hear the same concept defined multiple ways. Definitions must be consistent.
A. Physical Play - finish each play in a dominant position
B. Mental Toughness - complete the task at hand regardless of the circumstances
C. Fanatical Effort - the maximum level of strain or speed toward the successful completion of the play
These are just a couple of examples but a common vocabulary on certain fundamentals is critical for the ultimate success of teaching and evaluating those fundamentals. You ask ten coaches to define "physical play" you will have ten different interpretations. As the Head Football coach, you determine how you want it defined and demand everyone use that definition.
Different situations call for different styles of leadership. Players and coaches must know that if things do not go right in preparation and practice, the Head Football Coach may snap or vent or lose it to those not working toward the desired goal that week.
Preparation time requires a different form of leadership than game time.
On game day, however, the Head Football Coach - in my opinion - must keep his composure and not show panic but rather calmness and direction in adverse situations. Losing it in this situation does not necessarily create the desired result conducive to winning.
This concept of leadership was re-enforced on my trip to Iraq two years ago in visiting with General Odierno and others in position of leadership. Cool heads must prevail when adversity strikes. Players (soldiers) do not and will not follow panic driven reactionary leaders, but rather those with confidence, composure, and direction of purpose.
Leadership does require that you be yourself and not try to be someone you are not, but it requires the best version of yourself.
XXIII. Maintaining Balance
Keep everything in perspective is keeping everything in "balance". There have been times in my career I have lost this balance. As a football coach, it is so easy to become consumed by it all. We are evaluated publicly every Friday night or Saturday afternoon. The pressures we impose on ourselves to be the best and to win are vastly greater than those pressures we face on the outside. Our competitiveness is a great thing- although if not kept in check- can be our downfall as well. You have to have balance in your life to make it all work effectively. Make sure you keep vision on your principles. Faith and family cannot take a back seat to football and winning.
I have made this mistake in my career at times.
Trust me when I say this, and I say it from my own experience, the more balanced you are, the better coach you will be. Do not neglect the essential elements of your life. If you win a state championship but miss seeing your son dress up as Brett Favre at Halloween or see your daughter play her viola in a Christmas recital ¨C what have you gained in the long term compared to what have you lost? I do believe you can have both but it takes a conscious effort and discipline to maintain balance in your life and make it work. You will be a better coach, husband, father and man if you do this.
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me to say the least. I’m disappointed I won’t have the opportunity to finish what we started at Texas A&M. We have come a long way in my four years here. I believe in the foundation we have laid both on and off the field. Talent levels and expectations have increased dramatically.
We had record crowds at Kyle Field this year. Graduation rates and GPAs are higher than they’ve ever been. We have great kids in the program that know how to work. They understand the principles of the university. We have kids who have core values which will not only help them be better football players but men, husbands, and fathers as well. I feel good about that.
Last season we exceeded expectations with a young football team. This past season we had opportunities to do some great things , but they literally slipped through our fingers. Our season basically came down to 5 or 6 plays. If we made those plays, we could have ended up with a 10 or 11 win season. Winning and losing is a fine line- we ended up on the wrong side one too many times. As the Head Coach, I am ultimately responsible for that- me and me alone.
This season has been difficult because we have not been able to meet the expectations we ourselves have created with what we accomplished in the previous season. Our season this year was a lot like the Houston Texans last year. I do believe this, however, if you stay true to your principles, and given the opportunity, you eventually will win out in the long run. My Dad always told me many years ago, 'the cream always rises to the top'--and I still believe that.
I do feel the future is bright for Texas A&M Football, however. Kevin Sumlin will do a great job as the new Head Football Coach at A&M. He is a good coach and a good man.
In closing I want you to know that if there is ever anything I can do for any of you, do not hesitate to contact me. You’ve always been very gracious towards my staff and me and I thank you for that. It’s meant world to me.
Again, I appreciate the opportunity to have met and talked with many of you. Of those I haven’t met, I want you to know I respect the work you all do with your high schools, teams and players. I believe high school football coaches are the most influential leaders of their high schools and communities. Their impact on not just the football players but students and administration, as well as the cities and towns they live is huge.
Coaching high school football is not an easy job. If you all got paid by the hour, you’d be very wealthy men. With that said, coaching is an extremely rewarding and honorable profession. The game of football is so special on so many fronts. Winning is the ultimate goal and there are few things more fun than being in that locker room after a hard fought victory. I never remember scores of games, but I do remember locker rooms after we won- faces of players and coaches all huddled together yelling, screaming, smiling and laughing, ¬acting totally emotional and truthful- devoid of any apprehensiveness or inhibitions, ¬just enjoying the moment. There is no doubt that it’s the competition week in and week out that keeps us going- wanting to relive that experience again.
We must never lose sight, however, that with the opportunity to coach these young men and experience victory together, there also comes the huge responsibility to make a difference in their lives. We must never lose sight of the fact- "once their coach always their coach." Where others may have failed them , we as coaches cannot. Where others have created mistrust, we must bring trust . Where others have created disrespect, we must bring respect. Where others have let them down, we must support them. We owe that to them regardless of their talent or ability. We owe that to them regardless of wins and losses.
We owe that to this great game of football which constantly challenges us- week in and week out. What job could anyone of us have that does that? This game we coach not only challenges us to keep our egos in check when we win, but forces us to face our fears when we lose. This "game" also has the ability to bring out the very best in us at times as well the very worst in us at times. Here is hoping that it brings out the very best in each and every one of us all the time.
Best wishes for great success both on and off the field.
God bless , Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.