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AFM Magazine

Coach to Coach

by: Bryon Hamilton
Head Coach, Foothill High School, Palo Cedro (CA)
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When I was an offensive coordinator at the junior/community college level for six seasons, my football life consisted of recruiting, installing our schemes, game planning and calling the game on Saturdays. A full plate for sure, but it was 100% football. I definitely had ideas of what I would do if and when I became a head coach, but all of the peripheral things associated with running the entire program were in the hands of the head coach and the athletic director. In those days I thought that I had an idea of what it took to run and build a successful program, but the reality was that I had no real idea. At the time of writing this article I am 4 games into my 8th season as the head coach at Foothill High School in Palo Cedro, California. Looking back at the last eight years, I can honestly say that there is a lot to building a successful football program. More than I ever could have imagined when I was an assistant coach. Whether you are a future head coach, a new head coach or a seasoned coach who, like me, enjoys learning about how other successful coaches have done things, I want to share with you some of the lessons that I have learned when it comes to building a successful football program.

I have always said that there is a difference between having a good team and having a great program. In short, a good team wins on the field; there are many teams that accomplish this. However, a good program not only consistently wins; it is successful in other areas as well. If you think about the teams that you coach against you can probably identify teams that win their share of games, but maybe you wouldn’t consider them a great program. What is the difference? In my opinion, a successful program is consistently successful in many areas. Although there exists no specific list of required areas to be a successful program, I will expand on a few that I have made a point of emphasizing in building our football program at Foothill.

4 key ingredients in building a great football program:

1. Surround yourself and your program with a committed and loyal staff.

Surrounding yourself with people who are committed to seeing that your vision is being implemented in every area is vitally important. Obviously, to accomplish this you must have a vision that you are able to articulate. What are your priorities? Besides winning (everyone wants to win) what will separate your program from others? Do you have this written out? Can it be conveyed in the interview process as you hire assistant coaches? When I was hired eight seasons ago, I only had a vague plan for success. I had never been a high school varsity head coach before and I thought success would be primarily earned on the field. I failed to realize that our success or lack of it would be a byproduct of what happened in all phases of our football program. I often made the mistake of putting the cart before the horse. In an effort to win quickly, I paid too much attention to “the paint” and ignored the foundation. After a dismal first season, one thing was definitely clear. I had done a poor job defining what I wanted and expected from everyone involved with our program. After that inaugural season, I committed myself to foundation-building. One of the first things I did was to draft a mission statement that clearly defined what I desired our program to be. With that as my compass, I conducted an interview process not only for coaches but for players as well to ensure that everyone involved with our program was committed to the same vision and dedicated to the work required to accomplish it. It took a couple of years, but eventually I was able to surround myself with coaches, players and administrators who believed in what I had defined with our mission statement. This has played a huge part in our success. I firmly believe that a loyal, committed staff is the cornerstone toward building a successful program.

2. Sell your vision and endear your program to the community.

Most football communities are the same; they want to win games and have their team be in the championship hunt every season. However, I believe that a football program that demonstrates to their community that they can do more than just win games will be supported and cherished through the great seasons and the not so great seasons as well. When I took over at Foothill, I had many ideas on how I would get the community involved with the program. I will share one of my craziest. During my first year I decided that I would auction off a chance for a fan to actually design one play that we would run in the following game. We promoted the idea in the game programs and I would choose a play from the submissions and install it in the game plan. Crazy, insane, brave – whatever you want to call it, it definitely was a hit with the fans (the promotion only lasted one season because the fans plays were working better than mine!). Since those early years, we have found better ways to get our community involved. We developed and ran a successful youth football camp, we are involved with community events (this year’s included an Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking engagement), our boosters run a community dinner and auction, and we help host a BBQ and poker tournament. These are all great ways to get the community involved with our team. Today we have a great fan base that includes parents, students, alumni and community members who fill our stadium for each home game. Our home games are events that are looked forward to by the entire community. Recently a coach from a large school in central California brought his team to Palo Cedro to play us. After the game he stated in the local paper that he, being only in his second year as the school’s coach, wanted to build what we had; a great stadium, great fan support and a great team. The reality is that we do have those things today, but it took time, an ambitious vision and many committed people throughout our community to make it happen.

3. Demand and help facilitate academic excellence.

I firmly believe that academic excellence is a key to having a great program. At Foothill, I have a no D policy. That does not mean that players with D’s can’t play, it means that players with D’s spend their lunch hour with me in study hall getting the academic help they need. I tell our players that the fastest way to become a better player is to become a smarter player. I stress that everyone in our program needs to have a champion’s attitude and display championship effort in everything we do, especially with our academics. We still have players who struggle, but our players know that they are expected to give the same effort in the classroom as they do on the field. Over the past eight seasons, we have not had one player miss a season due to academic ineligibility. The lowest team grade point average over the last four seasons has been 3.15. This season our starting 5 linebackers’ grade point average is a collective 3.5 and our weak side linebacker is ranked first in his class. Academics are vitally important and if your football program takes the position that players need to excel as opposed to just getting by in the classroom, your football program will be better for it.

4. Promote your players and program whenever and wherever you can.

Foothill High School is a medium sized school (1,500 students) by California standards. We are located in the very northern part of the state outside of a town of approximately 90,000. Due to our location, our players and program are not as likely to get the attention of college recruiters as compared to those athletes in larger city high schools. In order to combat this, our football program has implemented a plan that we call “expanding the brand”. In my original mission statement I wrote that I wanted our program to play very good teams outside of our section and state for the purpose of gaining exposure for our team and players. In the last few seasons we have scheduled top-ranked teams from the state of Washington, Oregon and other parts of California. Since 2008, we have a 6-1 record in these games. This strategy and success has allowed our team from “little” Palo Cedro to be featured in articles by Rivals, American Football Monthly and other major football media outlets. Our players and program are receiving attention from coaches around the country at all levels of college football. This has been very rewarding for our entire program. During those building years, the thought of our program being held in such high esteem was almost laughable. I encourage you to think big and don’t be afraid to push yourself and your program past what would be your normal comfort zone. Don’t allow the naysayers and negative voices to be the boundary setters for you and your program. Think big, work hard and surround yourself with people who believe in your vision and you will be the benefactor of building a great football program.


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