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How Kent State Creates Leaders through Year-Round Competition

by: Terry Jacoby
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Kent State University Head Coach Doug Martin remembers trying to figure out what went wrong following a 1-10 season (including 0-8 in the Mid-American Conference). Picking up the pieces after the team had gone a respectable 5-6 the previous year wasn’t easy. But one piece that certainly needed to be addressed was team leadership.

“When coaches are losing, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is we don’t have any leadership,” Martin said. “Well, it’s our job as coaches to develop leadership and I was guilty (during that season) of not doing that. I was sitting around here saying we don’t have any leadership. But I was doing nothing to teach them how to be leaders.”

Sitting in the back of the press room inside Dix Stadium following a victory over Delaware State in September, Martin is relaxed. His 2007 Golden Flashes opened the season knocking off Iowa State and playing Kentucky tough before rolling over Delaware State.

His program had bounced back from the 1-10 season in 2005 with a 6-6 record last fall that included a 4-4 finish in the MAC. It was the fourth best turnaround among I-A schools. Now they were competing – and even beating – the big boys.

Martin doesn’t hesitate a second when revealing one of the main reasons his program went from one win to six in one season. And it all had to do with developing leadership on and off the field.

“When I heard about the Core Leadership Program I knew that it was exactly what we needed,” Martin said. “I thought, there is a great way to teach leadership.” Kent State’s team chaplain Jay Halley had heard about a similar program initiated at Southern Illinois. After hearing the details, Martin wanted it implemented right away.

“We borrowed it from Southern Illinois,” Martin said. “Jay introduced it to me and explained what it was about and how it worked. It just made perfect sense for where we were at that time.”

How the Program Works

“Coach Martin wanted to find a program that made the players not just accountable to the coaches, but accountable to one another,” said A.J. Pratt, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “This core program does that and also builds leadership from within.”

After the Christmas break, two captains are named for each of six teams that will be competing for the next seven months in a number of categories. Not only are the captains responsible for how each team does but they also pick their roster of approximately 14 or 15 players.

“Once the captains are established we have a draft and it’s just like the NFL draft,” said Toby Jacobi, the strength and conditioning coach. “We have the whole roster on the board and the captains start picking players.”

And while Mel Kiper isn’t around to provide analysis, there are still plenty of surprises throughout the draft.

“It’s interesting to see which kids are drafted first and which ones are drafted last,” Pratt said. “And some of the picks really surprise not only the coaches but the players as well. They get to see what their peers think of them.”

Martin agrees, adding, “there are some picks that really open some eyes. The captains are trying to pick players that will help them win, players they think highly of and can count on. Some players, and coaches, are a little surprised to see what the players think of one another.”

Captains are trying to select players that are hard workers, good in school and of high moral character. It’s not the fastest or strongest guys that come off the board first; it’s the guys players want with them in the trenches.

Once the six teams are picked, the weekly competition begins. Points are awarded and points are deducted in the various categories. “From that point on, they are held accountable for everything they do,” Martin says.

The scoring system includes off-the-field categories such as grades, study hall hours, community service and social conduct. Get in trouble with campus security or in your dorm, your team loses points. Get a D or an F and your team loses points. Blow off study hall or show up late for a team meeting, your team loses points.

Conversely, get an A in the classroom and your team is awarded points. Attend all your study halls and/or put in more study hours than are required and your team is awarded points. Players also can earn extra points doing community service, which is highly recommended by the team captains.

Points also are awarded and deducted based on what players do “on the field.”

“If you have a down day in the weight room we are going to call you out on it and it’s going to cost your team points,” Jacobi said. “So there are repercussions for everything they do. We grade every workout and give out an excellent effort, winning effort, average effort or losing effort. And if you get a losing effort, we’re deducting points and that player is hurting his team.” Pratt says a key to the on-the-field part of the program has do with effort.

“We sit down as a staff after practice and go around the table and grade each player’s effort,” said Pratt, who has been with Kent State for eight seasons. “Each coach that had a player at his station will weigh in on the grade. So the player isn’t just trying to please his position coach, he has to show maximum effort to all the coaches.” Martin breaks the program up into four quarters: first quarter is winter conditioning; second quarter is spring practice; third quarter is during summer workouts; and the fourth quarter is two-a-days.

Judgment Day

Jacobi’s office is right across from where the scores are posted each week.

“The schedule begins and ends on Thursday and the points are posted every Friday,” he said. “I sit back in my office and watch the graduate assistants post the results and see the players rush to the board to see how they did. It’s truly amazing to watch and see how important this is to them. They take a lot of pride in this and how they do. They want to be the best and there is plenty of shame when you’re the worst.”

There also are consequences when you’re the worst. Penalties for the losing team include having to come in at 5:30 in the morning to clean the weight room, having to attend extra study hours, extra running and conditioning. Each week there is a losing team and a winning team.

“Our team had to clean the weight room the first two weeks and that wasn’t a whole lot of fun,” said Colin Ferrell, a senior starting nose tackle who was one of the team captains. “It was our job as captains to get on the guys who were causing us to come in last and get them to start doing the right things.

“As captains we have to make sure our guys are at practice on time and working hard and doing the right things off the field as well. And if someone isn’t, then it’s our job to get on them. If a guy messes up then he is messing up his whole team and no one wants to be the guy that hurts the team.”

Junior running back Eugene Jarvis, another captain, said, “It seemed to be the little things like effort in the weight room that were bringing us down, so we knew where to look to improve our scores.”

While the winning team might get a t-shirt or a nice dinner, the big reward is the pride that goes with being No. 1.

“Oh yeah, they talk trash and brag and talk it up,” Martin said. “That’s another great thing about this program. There is a big competitive component to it.”

Pratt said he enjoys seeing the competition that the program brings out in the players. “It’s competition in the off-season where they usually don’t have it,” he said. “The loser faces consequences at the end of the week. Most of the time there was a different winner each week and I think that shows how competitive it was. Teams really compete because they don’t want to lose each week.”

Peer Pressure and Accountability

“The peer pressure built into this program is really what makes it work,” Pratt said. “It’s different to please a coach than it is to please another player. And when you have kids counting on each other, it gives them a different perspective and understanding.”

Martin said one thing that attracted him right away to this program was how it develops internal peer pressure. “The way the teams are formed really exposes a lot of things,” he said. “If you’re the one guy on your team who is continually screwing things up the captains can eliminate him from the team. It costs them points, but if the captains feel they can’t lead this one guy, they can get rid of him. And that kid will be off by himself and that’s a lonely place to be. We’ve only had that happen once and that kid ended up transferring.”

Martin said head coaches are overrated when it comes to dealing with the players.

“The assistant coaches spend a majority of their time with the players, especially the strength coach,” said Martin, who spent four years on the sidelines at East Tennessee State and 11 years at East Carolina. “I want the players to understand that the assistant coaches are held just as accountable as the players. So when things aren’t going well, that coach needs to be held accountable. And when things are going well, that coach needs to know it’s because he’s doing a good job.”

Junior quarterback Julian Edelman says the program puts a different kind of pressure on a player. “Everyone on the team is depending on one another and no one wants to be the guy that causes their team to lose,” he said. “As captains we have to get the point across that if you mess up, you’re messing the team up.”

Martin wants to develop coaches and players that don’t want people doing things for them, but take charge and meet their own responsibility. That’s how you define a leader at Kent State.

“There is a reason I hired these guys as assistant coaches,” Martin says. “You have to be able to trust them and feel confident in their abilities to turn certain things over to them. You also need to be able to turn things over to your players and hold them accountable. And that’s what this program has helped me do.

“It’s helped take the discipline aspects and the pressure away from me with regards to them doing the right things and being proper citizens and it’s put it on their shoulders.” Said Pratt: “It’s been an amazing thing watching players face the responsibility of trying to please their peers. There is no doubt that this program had a big part in our turnaround.”

A Winning Combination

Of course the real winners of this program are all the players and the team as a whole. And that winning showed up in other places than in the record book.

“We’ve had great success with this program off the field,” Martin said. “We’ve had very few problems. Since we started this program our grade-point average has dramatically risen and our graduation rate was at the top of the MAC last year. So all of this has been a real positive for us.”

The players had no problem buying into this program, especially after finishing 1-10. “The kids bought into this the first year because they didn’t have a choice,” Pratt said. “The second year they bought into it because they saw the results on and off the field.”

Ferrell is a fifth-year senior who has ridden the Kent State roller coaster since he was a freshman. He didn’t care much for the low part of the ride. “The guys really get after this and really enjoy the competition of it because not only don’t they want to finish last, but they want to win,” Ferrell said. “It also brings the team closer together. When I was a freshman I would only see a few of the players during practices. It’s not like that at all anymore. You know everyone a lot better, whether they are freshmen or seniors.”

Martin says the program also helps teach players that everyone is in this together, whether you’re 1-10 or 5-6.

“In team sports, especially football, the players sometimes look at it as if they are over here and the coaches are over there,” he says. “What the players need to understand and I tell them this all the time is that we are in this together. If you don’t go out and succeed I am going to get fired. That’s the reality of it. If the defensive backs don’t play well, I am going to fire the defensive backs coach.

“So there is no motivation here for a coach not to play the best player, so I don’t want to hear from a player that a coach is screwing them. He wants the best players on the field or else he’s going to lose his job.”

So far this core development program has helped Kent State maintain jobs and succeed on and off the field. “The coach started this program because he wanted to build leadership and wanted success to come from within and it’s been good for us,” Ferrell said. “It forces guys to be accountable to one another. It helped get us through some tough times and hopefully it will get us through some successful times.”


Strength and Conditioning Coach Toby Jacobi was the last piece of the puzzle on Kent State Coach Doug Martin’s staff, joining the Golden Flashes in July 2006 after four years in the same position at Western Carolina. The decision to move north was made easy after seeing the passion that Martin has and the way he runs his program.

“I like the discipline and the accountability he expects,” said Jacobi, who is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a certified strength and conditioning specialist and by the United States Weight Lifting Association as a sports performance coach. “The buck stops with him on everything. He is not going to accept half efforts. He’s an all-out guy who expects the same amount of effort from his players.

“All of the coaches know the expectations and everyone is on the same page from the players to the coaches to myself,” he said. “We all know what is expected and how we are supposed to do it. The amount of accountability is amazing. Coaches hold players accountable. Players hold players accountable. And even players hold coaches accountable.”

It didn’t take long for Jacobi to see what Kent State football is all about. After just his first week in his new position, Coach Martin pulled Jacobi aside. “He asked me what I thought so far,” Jacobi said. “I told him, we have a long way to go as far as strength, a long way to go as far as power. We have some guys that can run, but we can certainly get faster. And we can improve our technique. But the one thing I’ve already seen that we have going for us was our guys would run through a brick wall if we tell them to. And when you have this kind of commitment you can overcome a lot.”

Inside the weight room, Jacobi has his own style. He makes everything football specific as much as possible. Not position specific, but football specific with a generalized type program. One thing Jacobi does is separate the players based on a number of factors, including lifting levels and training experience. They also are big on injury prevention and try to address individual needs of each player.

“What really makes our program go is that we absolutely cut it loose in here,” Jacobi said. “We throw weight on the bar and get after it.” And that approach scores impressive results.

“Our average squat went up 80 pounds,” he said. “Our average clean went up 25, 26 pounds. Our average bench went up 20 plus pounds. I have been really excited about the effort.

“I am not a one rep max guy. I do some power lifting, but I’ve trained for that and after experiencing it I’ve learned that’s not what football players need. When we test we do a three to six rep max. And the reason we do that is instead of wasting time preparing for one rep maxes, we just train. The training is the most important part. It’s getting in here and working your tail off and getting better. It’s moving more weight.”

Jacobi does machines and Olympic lifts, traditional power lifts, bench and squats. But at the same time he incorporates a lot of different training aspects as part of his overall program. “If you walk into the weight room and you can do five reps at 225 and by the end of our training cycle you can do five reps at 250 then you’ve gotten stronger,” he said. “I don’t need to test you with a one rep max to figure that out. And when in football are you going to do something just once. It’s a repetitive sport. You are also repeating actions. It’s an anaerobic sport, but at the same time you are going to have some part of aerobic fitness and conditioning in there as well.”

Injury prevention is a big part of the plan. “Chris Doyle at Iowa was big into injury prevention and I learned quite a bit from him,” he said. “What I do with my guys is called a movement screen. We have five basic tests that I run with each one of our players. What we do is look at areas that are often injured playing football. We are looking at shoulders, hip/knee flexibility, hip/knee stability, muscular endurance in the core, ankle flexibility and strength.

“If you have a weak upper back, typically you have shoulder problems. Our upper back test is three simple pull-ups. If you can’t do three pull-ups you are going to be more likely to hurt your shoulders. I have got a 300-pound offensive lineman that has never had a shoulder injury and can do three pull-ups. Now he can bench 500 plus and can do 41 reps at 225 which would have beaten any offensive lineman at the combine last year. He doesn’t have shoulder problems. But I have other big guys who have shoulder problems who can’t do three pull-ups. I have smaller guys who have shoulder problems and can’t do it.”

When Jacobi and his staff look at knee and ankle stability and hamstring strength they do single-leg squats where the player balances on one leg. “The whole idea is to drop all the way down to where you’re resting your glutes on the back of your leg and then standing up,” he said. “If you can do two reps on each leg then you’re good. I have bigger guys who struggle with this and smaller guys who struggle with this. Those guys will be more likely to have a knee or ankle injury.”


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