Building Blocksby: JohnAllen SnyderOffensive Coordinator, Phoenixville High School (PA)
© December 2014
Whether you’re starting a new program from scratch, taking over a losing program, or trying to develop your program into a consistent winner, these proven techniques from state champion coaches can be your blueprint for success.
When Dave Redding accepted the head coaching position at Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Massachusetts in 1988, he knew changes had to be made. “Mansfield had not won a league championship since 1976,” said Redding. “We focused on the off-season strength and conditioning program and building relationships with our youth groups. Our first year we struggled but won the league championship in our second season.”
In addition to Redding, AFM spoke to four additional state champions about what it takes to become a successful football program and then sustain it. The other head coaches included Greg McClendon of Midland Christian High School (TX), Burt Torrence, Northside High School (VA), Mike Palmieri, Mallard Creek High School (NC), and Gary Rankin, Alcoa High School (TN).
Some programs play for years without winning and it becomes a habit. Was that the case with your program and, if so, what steps did you take to develop a culture of winning?
Torrence - When I first got here, the program had seen some cyclical success dating back to the 70’s-80’s when they won a few championships. We decided that we were going to build a program and not concern ourselves with winning year-to-year. Accountability was preached to coaches and players and the community as a whole. I wanted to use football as a catalyst to turn young men into men. One specific thing that we did that I believe helped us was to do away with the JV program. We brought everybody together. In 2009, our seniors came up with a slogan that has stuck with us, “ONE TEAM, ONE GOAL, and ONE FAMILY”.
McClendon - The culture is maybe the most important part of building a consistent winner. Trust between players and coaches, coaches and coaches, and finally players and players are crucial. Respect for work ethic instead of athletic ability is crucial to get the most out of every player, and have the right culture to succeed. Character is at the top of the list. Teach kids to make good decisions based on training the heart, so they’ll make decisions based on character. They will do the right stuff when no one is watching if they are taught to. As a coach, you have to give kids something to buy into. They are sharp and know if you are competent at your job. The key is you have to do a good job, build relationships based on trust, consistency. If you build character, the wins will come.
Palmieri - Our situation was a bit different, in that we were a brand new school and the first coaching staff to be here. We had in some ways the benefit of not having to curtail bad habits or culture but build our own. That came with its own set of challenges. Our goal as a staff and program has and will always be to create the best program in the state on and off the field.
To develop a strong program over a period of years, is it necessary to install a specific offense and defense and stick with them or can you change from year to year depending on your personnel?
Rankin - This is something that is the basis of our philosophy. We feel that to be successful we have to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. Yes, we have tweaked our plays and packages around our current personnel but the idea has always been to create a sense of balance on both sides of the ball.
Torrence - Our philosophy has always been one of “DEFENSE 1st”. The best 11 players we have will play defense with two exceptions. Those are our QB, and TB. We want to identify them early so we can groom them for those two very specific offense positions. Obviously, when we can two platoon, we do. We always want to keep it simple for our kids, but be very detail oriented in the fundamentals. One thing we stress is that each young man is a piece of the puzzle. They have to fit into the framework of the puzzle that is our team and each piece has a very specific, focused goal.
Redding – Offensively, we want to be as flexible as possible based on our personnel. In 2013, we were very much a spread team because that was the strength of our team. In 2014 however, we were more of a pro style/wing-T type of team. Our thought process here is to “fit the system to the team”. Defensively we have the same mentality. Some years we are more four-man fronts, other years we employ mostly five-man fronts. This is our focus in the offseason, to identify what our strengths are going to be for the upcoming season.
McClendon - I believe my offensive and defensive system must be flexible enough to use the talents of my players. Our basic fundamentals are constant and never change. Winning offense starts with blocking, running, passing and catching. Defense begins with tackling, alignment, responsibility and reading your keys. If we can get these fundamentals down, we can be multiple in what we do, but the success will be the same.
A lack of an effective strength and conditioning program and/or a good facility can be a huge detriment to success. Did improving your S & C program or facility help you develop a winning program?
Rankin - We have tried to upgrade the facilities over the years. We now have synthetic turf as a playing surface, and have a field house now. When I first got here, the facilities were not great but adequate. I don’t like to use that as an excuse since you can lift anywhere, and you can run anywhere. This is a year-round part of our sport and we treat it with that much emphasis also. We study what other people are doing from the pros to other successful high schools and we try to incorporate what we think will best help prepare our kids for the playing field. Our goal here is to make an average player better, and a below average player into an average one.
Palmieri - It is, for us, a mandatory year-round venture. We had to get this started early. Our skill guys are all in track so they are always running. That helps immensely. We specialize our training to each position group, and in turn each is trained slightly differently. Our focus is solely on the explosive lifts.
McClendon - You can have a Taj Mahal weight room, but if it’s not used correctly it’s a waste of time and resources. You must be faithful to what you have, whether it’s grand or small, if you do, you will be blessed with much. Many coaches sit around and complain about what they don’t have. Champions take what they do have and do something great with it. No doubt a strength program is very important, but our program is built with an understanding that track and building speed is the most important thing. Getting kids to buy into lifting is not hard, but kids who have great speed and quickness are very important. We feel our success is very closely tied to our success in track and field. All of our sports must work together or we will all come up short.
Redding - This is a problem for some programs. We are no different. We have great equipment but our limiting factor is space. We have 130 kids in our program grades 9-12. Our Gridiron Club funds most of our equipment. We have made a significant shift from the bench and curl lifts to the power and explosive lifts of the clean and deadlift.
What are the most important characteristics of an effective coaching staff? How do you work with your assistants to ensure that your priorities for the team are being met?
Rankin - This starts with the head coach. You have to have no ego. There is no place for it. I put it to my position coaches that they are the “head coaches” of their positions. They embrace that knowing they have control but also understand that they have the responsibility that comes along with it. Good chemistry within a coaching staff is vital to success.
Palmieri - We have been lucky to have the same core of coaches. As a coach, you can’t have an agenda other than improving yourself for the betterment of the team. You can work on the Xs and Os of the game, and a coaching staff has to understand that it will and does take time to develop chemistry. There must be only one voice. We, as a staff, have to preach the same thing whether it was our idea or someone else’s. If not, it becomes a cancer that the kids will pick up on right away.
Redding - Most of our coaches are teachers, and we are fortunate in that because nowadays that doesn’t always happen. As a coach you must care about your players on and off the field. We put a big emphasis on developing the student-athlete. I think we do a good job of this and in developing the values we want our kids to be known for.
McClendon - It is important for my coaches to trust me; that I am going to do what is best for the team, be fair to them, that I am a man of my word and someone they want to go to battle with. I have to trust them to be men of character, to do their jobs at a high level, and to influence young people with character, faith, and their work ethic. My coaches and players have to know that I care about them more than football and what they can do for me. If I lead the right way, and demand the right things, what we are as a staff takes care of itself.
Successful programs don’t exist in a vacuum. How do you gain and maintain support from your administration, parents and the community?
Redding - Our Gridiron Club is phenomenal, they fundraise for us approximately $40-50,000 a year. Our local businesses can participate in giving out player-of-the-week certificates. We want the community as a whole to be involved. Our GC produces helmet plaques for businesses as a token of their support. Our youth program is critical to our success, and we want to showcase that at halftime of a game. Every year we do a youth camp for our youth coaches and we keep open lines of communication for all of them all the time.
Palmieri - Our community and administration are a bit different. They want to see the results off the playing field. They want to see us put 50 kids into college from our program. That is very tough to do without their continued support. Our administration is concerned with how we are developing the student part of the student athlete. We try and teach the kids the right decisions to make in the classroom and we have really put an emphasis on that.
Rankin - This gets tougher to navigate the more successful you are. Sometimes our fans and community members get spoiled by victory and when we beat a team by 1 point to win in overtime it’s seen as us playing a bad game because we didn’t beat them handily. Bottom line for us is a win is a win. We just ask that you support our kids. They are like any other kids they want to be supported, liked and encouraged.
Torrence - You have to be at a different level than your parents, and community members. I can’t be buddies with them, because if that happens then the expectation of their role in the program has changed. Their role is to support the program through the booster club, not vie for playing time for their kid.
We emphasize with the parents your kid will “earn” his place on the team. If they want to meet, Saturday through Wednesday is the appropriate time. Thursday and Friday are closed for meetings to discuss things. The administrative part of the program needs to be one of understanding and support. They need to support your vision of creating student athletes. We want to create a school culture that is conducive to teaching kids the right way to do things on and off the field.
Do you encourage the junior high coach and youth coaches to use the same systems you use at the high school level? If so, how important is that to development of your program?
Rankin - The goal of our younger teams is very simple. We want to have fundamentals stressed, a great work ethic instilled, and to have fun. That’s it. We don’t ask them to adapt to our specific Xs and Os schemes. If they want to they are more than welcome to. The biggest thing we want those kids coming up to understand and enjoy what it means to play at Alcoa. We have great pride the whole way through this community from the youth programs to the middle schools to the high schools.
Torrence - We have no role in our middle school, or youth programs other than support. We want them to preach and teach the fundamentals, having fun, and learning to play the game safely. Past that, we give them complete autonomy to do as they see fit. Our ninth graders are not a separate program from the varsity and we feel this creates for us consistency and continuity.
Redding - Our younger levels do not run our schemes. We don’t push that on them. What we do want to see emphasized is the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. Right now we have a number of former alumni coaching and creating a positive atmosphere for these young kids to come up through. The biggest goal we have it to make it fun for all of them.
McClendon - I encourage them to use safe practice and teaching of blocking and tackling. There are three basic run plays that I want them to know when they come into the seventh grade program: iso, trap, and toss. If they get those down, they have some flexibility to add other plays, but I want those down and executed. Defensively, the rules are set on what you can run, but the tackling, alignment, and keys are what we want taught right. When our kids get to seventh grade they are being taught by the same coaches that teach it to the varsity and JV players.
Developing strong character in your players can be a critical part of developing a successful program in the long term. What practices, rules and disciplinary tactics do you use to encourage strong character?
Torrence - Leadership is paramount to our success. Our first priority is to create effective student-athletes. We have mandatory study halls where kids can go and seek help. Our major emphasis is being committed to the athletes in the classroom.
Redding - Our program has three musts that everyone must adhere to in order to be a part of us. They are work hard in school, be a role model in the community, and play with sportsmanship. These are emphasized daily every opportunity we can. Our staff does a weekly leadership meeting where as coaches and players we tackle tough topics that we all have to deal with. Some topics recently are substance abuse, bullying and how to correctly handle those situations. We are sticklers for the rules, getting good grades, and doing things right.
Palmieri - For us, it all starts in the classroom. We want our kids sitting in the front in class, and being leaders in the classroom. Each day we emphasize smart decision making, respecting one another, holding yourself and your teammates to a higher standard off the field.
Rankin - This is a tough issue in today’s world with all the single parent homes, or tough situations our kids live in. We preach everyday not to embarrass your last name. Represent yourself well. We preach family, school, football program and your coaches as things you don’t want to stain with bad decisions. We talk a lot about passing the mirror test. You have to be happy with what you see in the mirror each day.