From the Top Down: Building and Maintaining a Coaching Staff
by Gary Criswell, VirginiaPreps.com
TSL Extra, Issue #1

Before I sat down to prepare this article, I took the time to watch the season premiere of The West Wing on NBC. The episode depicted how the showís fictional cast originally found their jobs in the White House. I was struck by how closely that episode mirrored the process of putting a college football staff together.

Both of these processes link professionals together that have an acute love for their craft and they know that they will practice that craft under intense scrutiny. The blending of personality, experience, loyalty, and knowledge is essential for any staff to go about achieving their primary goal: building a winning football program.

The typical College Football staff by nature is in a constant state of change. It is how well the Head Coach manages these changes (or delays them when the staff is really in synch) that will sustain his programís success. Let there be no mistake; there are very few jobs that are less stable than being a college coach.

College coaches exist in a world where change is looked at not only as good, but also mandatory. Rosters completely turn over every five years, support staffs turn over constantly and facilities are constantly being scrutinized in an effort "to keep up." In the current state of parity in college football, todayís conference whipping boy often becomes tomorrowís newest member of the APís top 20, just because they changed coaching staffs.

There are no manuals that I know of that teach how to build a successful Division I coaching staff. That formula is as unique as each individual Head Coach. While the fruits of a great staff are obvious, the path to get there is solely determined by the Head Coach, who is ultimately held accountable.

The nature of the business demands that the Head Coach brings in "his" people. He has to. More than any undertaking that I have ever been associated with, the job security of a college staff rests on all of the staff and how well (and closely) they can work together. The staff must reflect the personality of their boss.


The Resumes

It is ironic that I would even refer to resumes because they are not used as much as they are in the business world. Obviously experience is still the key to an assistantís qualifications for the job, but there are intangibles that could make an applicant "the right fit." That is a statement that cannot be overused when referring to the delicate balance of skills and temperament that is needed within a coaching staff.

It is the assistants that "fit" that can take the heat, circle the wagons when things get tough, and work as a unit in a world full of huge egos. Itís the interview and the X & Oís session on the grease board that gets a candidate a new job. At two of my interviews, we used the back of my resume to draw plays on.

As I mentioned previously, there are no magic formulas for staff building. While observing coaching staffs and seeing what makes them tick, I have established a hierarchy of coaching skills. I submit that every productive coaching staff as a whole has a great compliment of each of these skills, with each assistant contributing more in some areas, while being compensated for in other areas by his fellow assistants. The skills of the successful Head Coach play off of the skills of his assistants, and the successful Head Coaches are quick to recognize and compensate for their weaknesses.

Letís take a brief look at these coaching skills and how they relate to both the Head Coach and his assistants. They are listed in their order of importance for each job.

Hierarchy of Coaching Skills

 

Head Coach

Assistant Coaches

Most Important Skill

Gathering talent

Teaching

 

Organizational skills

Accountability for
his segment

Disciplining players

Evaluating personnel

Motivational Skills

Motivational Skills

Evaluating personnel

Disciplining players

Accountability for 
his program

Organizational skills

Least Important Skill

Teaching

Gathering talent

This scale goes a long way to explaining why some assistant coaches have a difficult time making the transition to Head Coach. It also meant to establish a basic truth; that while a good Head Coach is probably pretty good at all seven skills, his assistants donít necessarily have to be. For example, I have seen good staffs that have a few assistants that arenít good recruiters, but you can bet that the staff also includes a couple of assistants that are recruiting horses.

Letís take a few moments to look at the type of assistants that might be prowling your favorite campus.


The Apprentice

The single most important dynamic within a coaching staff is accountability. The best thing that an assistant can say about his boss is that "he lets his assistants coach." College football is way too complex for Head Coaches to micromanage. That independence supplies each assistant with his own little fiefdom where he can establish a bond with his players while building within the programís system.

It is the Head Coachís job to orchestrate his assistants so they feel that independence and apply their own initiatives while still being on the "same page." This is why I believe that great coaching staffs produce good Head Coaches, not just because of the success that they have been around, but because they have already made some of the big decisions that they will make in their future job.

The Head Coachís job really begins and ends where he holds his daily staff meetings. It is there where he will formulate the game plans and then critique them after each game. The greatest lesson that the apprentice Head Coach learns is how his boss handles his fellow professionals. Chances are he is already making big decisions during the game.


The Lifer

Donít let me leave you with the impression that it is the secondary responsibility of a Head Coach to produce future competitors for his job. In fact "letting your assistants coach" also develops a second type of valued assistant; the "lifer." I cannot think of a successful coach in the country that doesnít have at least one assistant that has been with him (usually through several schools) for an extended amount of time. Look for the title; "Assistant Head Coach" as a hint who might be a "lifer" on your favorite staff.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, a Head Coach must have a least some of his "own people" to be successful. Coaching is a lot like any other enterprise; the longer that a staff stays together, the smoother the process of winning games becomes. Lifers are the glue that holds a staff together. They also allow their boss to coach past his retirement age.


The Bird Dog

Recruiting is everything. I cannot overstate this point. You must consistently recruit talented athletes with emotional and academic staying power to enroll at your school. There are assistants that get and keep their jobs because of their ability to lure 17-18 year olds onto college campuses.

Recruiting specialists are less prevalent than in the past because of NCAA staff restrictions, but they still exist. (Before there were restrictions on what a "part time" coach could be paid, football factories would pay a "part time" veteran coach high five figures to coach his position responsibilities and let the young "full time" assistant coach recruit at a lower salary). Recruiting is not necessarily a young manís game, but it is a relationship game, and Head Coaches must attend to those relationships with a crafty blend of recruiting talent.

This is a good time to mention that recruiting has done more than any affirmative action program could do for the placement of black assistant coaches. The need to recruit young black athletes has dictated that every college staff have at least a couple of black coaches. This is not to say that these assistants only recruit black athletes, but it is good to have black coaches on campus to provide a comfort zone and role models for minority recruits.

Before you raise your eyebrows to these statements, consider the fact that as a white coach at a historically black university, I used the lack of minority coaches as a weapon when I recruited against I-A programs. I have also had the opportunity to recommend several black assistants that I have coached with or against for positions at I-A programs. These recommendations were made at the request of schools looking only for black assistants.


The Mechanic

Technical things go wrong with any program. Sometimes the damage is so great that a new assistant is brought in for his particular expertise with a particular system or technique. The most common "mechanic" brought in is an offensive or defensive coordinator.

I am always leery of this change, because the coordinators inevitably want "their own people," and the staff gets disrupted further. Also I have noticed that "the mechanics" are often not good recruiters, even though I can think of no good reason why this is true.

So while his coaching segment might improve, the long-term impact may not be so positive. The "mechanics" that I would feel the most comfortable with as a fan or alumnus would be the guy that is brought in because of where he coached and what he learned from his former employer. Recruiting contacts that the "mechanic" has would also apply when using this hiring strategy.


The Homeboy

Many staffs include a guy with the most local knowledge; a coach that they inherit or bring in that has ties with the previous staff. These guys know where all the bones are buried and can really be a big help as the new staff gets to know the University bureaucracy. Never underestimate a coaching staffís relationship with the admissions, financial aid, housing and food services departments within each University. I also consider staff members that played under the Head Coach and came back to coach under him as homeboys. All homeboys are serious candidates to be lifers.

As a postscript I will admit that watching the Virginia Tech coaching staff develop and work through the years served as the inspiration for this article. I believe Techís success is due to the fact that their coaches do fit loosely into some of these coaching "typicals" and that helps bring stability to the staff because every assistant understands his role. I also contend that Techís coaches also challenge each other to step outside their stereotypes and to branch out professionally. I know that Hokie fans want me to label each assistant as to their "type", but Iím hoping that you did that while you were reading this article.

My years as a college football coach were the most rewarding professional experience of my life. That experience has shaped my new career in sales and on the radio on a daily basis. My hope is that when you watch your favorite team compete you will better understand how your coaching staff works. Probably just like your workplace, the proper blending of talents, experience, efforts and personalities makes for a successful enterprise.

Enjoy the game!

Gary Criswell has a varied and interesting career, including stints as a high school JV football coach and head wrestling coach at Henrico High School, a baseball umpire, and an assistant football coach at Virginia Union University. Gary now works as a Sales Manager for Network Business Furniture, serves as an analyst for WRNL's High School and College sports broadcasting, and continues to work as an advisor to college coaches on recruiting.

 

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