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Do BYU’s Coaches Really Suck?

17 October 2014 Jonny Harline
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall (BYU photo).

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall (BYU photo).

Been a rough couple of weeks for BYU football.

Until a couple of Fridays ago, we still had hopes of an undefeated, College Football Playoff crashing, Heisman contending season.

Now we’re sitting at 4-2, with a bleak outlook on football, life, love, the world in general. And before I get into some of my thoughts, I want to point out that (in case it wasn’t obvious) some key injuries have played a big part in this sudden and unfortunate derailment.

One of the most common themes I always hear when BYU loses is that the coaches suck (I was trying to think of a more professional sounding word, but that pretty much sums it up).

There are complaints about play calling, critical game management decisions, overall strategy, the readiness (or lack of readiness) of the team. This criticism is not limited to fans, the media also joins in. It’s pretty common that demands are made that a coach should even be fired. We’ve all heard it before, right?

This loss was no exception, and I even engaged in a friendly discussion online with a friend from my mission in New York City and some others about the effect some coaching decisions had on the game.

But it got me thinking. Why are we so determined to find fault with the coaching? Why can’t anything be the players’ fault?

If the players are performing poorly, it’s “why doesn’t the coach have these guys ready to play?” Or “why does the coach have this guy in the game?” The thought that this player might be the best available, the lesser of two evils, never is considered. The team fails to execute a play on a critical fourth down, “Why did they go for it?” Or the team punts on a critical fourth down, “Why didn’t they go for it?” The second guessing never ends.

Of course, sometimes these critiques might be right. It can be that a coach or coaching staff is not doing a good job. I don’t hold every coach I’ve ever had in super high regard. From junior high to the NFL, I’ve had some poor ones. And it can definitely have a negative impact on a team’s performance.

In BYU’s case though, I have a hard time buying that the blame for their troubles should usually fall on these coaches. I’ve played for, and with, a lot of them. They’re not perfect and there are always improvements and adjustments to be made, but they’re good–really good–coaches. I will now share some of my experiences with them and why I see things this way (what a splendid transition from my thesis to my supporting paragraphs, don’t you agree?).

Think about it.

Who do you think is more likely to not quite be holding up their end of the bargain? Coach Mendenhall? A professional, experienced coach, with a proven track record of success and knowledge of the game? A guy who arrives before anyone to work and leaves last? A guy whose peers invariably praise him as a knowledgeable and worthy coach, a master of defensive strategy, a guru, if you will? A guy who embodies BYU football and its mission? Is this the guy more likely to be coming up short?

Or would that be the 21 year old college kid? An amateur football player, who is still figuring out what it means and what it takes to be successful? Who probably doesn’t even have a good understanding of what has made him a good football player to this point? Who might be a little immature and groan inside at the thought of a little extra work, a little extra film time? Who might be prone to fall asleep in meetings? Who might, on account of his athletic prowess and success to this point, just feel a little bit entitled to success without really earning it at the college level?

Kind of seems silly that we assume that the professional grownup is always the one messing things up doesn’t it?

Of course, it is the professional grownup’s job to get the amateur kid to perform well. And he can have a big impact, but there’s a limit to how much he can influence the players’ performance. There is a point where the coach has done his part, and there’s nothing more he can do, and it falls upon the player to execute what he’s been taught to do.

When I was playing, if I didn’t play well (which was never, but hypothetically speaking… kidding of course, once in a while I sucked) it never crossed my mind that it was because Coach Mendenhall or Coach Anae weren’t good coaches. I would feel guilty because I had let them and my teammates down. Because I knew that I had received all the tools and instruction I needed to get my job done.

We were given resources (more so now even than when I played, like access to professional sports psychology and meal planning resources) to help prepare ourselves mentally and physically to reach peak performance. We were taught exactly what plays are in the game plan and what our jobs in these plays would be. We were taught the fundamentals of executing these jobs. Then we were scrutinized in film sessions and given additional instruction on ways to improve, to tighten up, to master them. And there was plenty of motivation to get it right.

Not only were these details worked on daily, but Coach Mendenhall had explicitly established an enduring expectation for our level of effort and execution. In fact, he did this with barely a word, our first day of offseason training with him as our head coach in 2005:

We started with our warm up drills like normal, probably high knees. Before the first group finished, Coach sent us all back to beginning. We started again. He sent us back again. And again. And again. Slowly, we began to figure out that he was sending us back because players weren’t finishing the drill all the way. We learned that we better continue our high knees not only to the finish line, but well past it, at least a couple yards. If one single player failed to do so, the whole team started again. We probably started over as a team at least twenty times that day (what a sharp group we were!).

And that was just warm-ups! That’s like even a level below Allen Iverson’s “we’re talking about practice man!”

“Warm-ups???”

But of course it wasn’t just in warm ups that this level of execution was expected, it was everything. Many players complained about this silly insistence on doing things so perfectly for a while. I’m sure I did. Then it slowly just became part of how we did things. This established an underlying culture in the program that everything we did, we knew we better make every effort to do it exactly right.

Some of the attention to detail seemed silly at the time. But looking back, there’s no doubt it was a key part of taking us from a mediocre team struggling to reach .500 for several years to a high performing team (with an almost identical roster) with a top 15 finish.

If you think this kind of attention to detail is silly or unnecessary, I can tell you about how much time we spent learning how to huddle exactly right, yes, huddle, at the beginning of offseason workouts when I joined the recently crowned Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts. I mean, we didn’t spend a whole practice on it, but we spent more time than I would have thought. I mean, we’re professional football players, we should know how to huddle right. Right?

Every great organization demands this level of perfection. There’s no detail too small. And my experience with Coach Mendenhall taught me that he understands this, and embodies it. Although I’ve been out of the program for eight short years now, I have a hard time imagining that his implementation of this philosophy has changed much.

There comes a point where the players, the leaders on the team especially, have to take over responsibility for their part in the equation. They have to be determined to become masters of their position. They have to take ownership of the execution.

It’s not a coach’s job to win football games.

Wait, what?

It’s not. A coach can’t win a football game. He can’t execute anything. Now, of course, in most cases, when a coach is doing a great job, it will naturally translate into wins. But the win/loss is not always a perfect indicator.

A coach’s job is to put his players in the best position and give them the opportunity to win football games and to hold them to an extremely high standard and expectation that they will do so. But at a certain point, he has to let go and the players have to take responsibility for the instruction they’ve been given, for who they’ve become, and translate this into high performance and execution on the game field, against fierce competition in a chaotic environment.

By definition, a team requires multiple parts working together to achieve something. If a car’s tire is flat, you don’t replace the engine. You don’t even blame the engine. As good as the engine is though, you’re not going far on a flat tire.

When I think about BYU’s recent struggles, the issue I see is little details either being neglected or not being properly executed by the players. And like I said, I have to think that these details are being coached. Because I was coached to do them. By some of these same coaches.

Example. On almost every “go” or “fade” route I’ve seen this year, the receivers are running the route right down the sideline, barely staying in bounds. I only recall one of these passes ending in a completion, on the first drive of the Utah State game.

One main reason almost all of these attempts have been unsuccessful, despite being thrown to receivers who are at least 6-foot-4, is because the route is being run too close to the sideline. This allows very little room for error in the throw, it has to be perfect.

I was coached specifically to run this route four yards, no more no less, from the sideline. Then the quarterback has a little more room to drop the pass in to the outside, away from the defender, without you going out of bounds. And if a defender was playing bump and run coverage, and trying to crowd me out to the sideline, it was still expected, actually demanded, that I do it right. I had to be physical back to him, get his hands off me, and not get bumped out there, then catch the ball.

I mean, it’s football. “Getting pushed” is not an excuse, it’s the name of the game.

In another part of the field on this same play, an offensive lineman might block his man well enough for the quarterback not to get sacked, but if the quarterback has to avoid the pressure to make the throw, the chances go down of the play working well. For his part, the quarterback might be so adept at avoiding the pressure, making a quick read on the go and making an accurate pass that it negates an occasional poor block by his lineman. And poorly run route can sometimes be saved by an impeccable pass. But if all three of these components are being executed well, you can see how much higher chance the play has of success.

This is what I mean by being a master of your position. You do your job so well that it makes it easier for your teammate to do theirs. When this happens with everyone, a higher percentage of your plays as a team are successful. And a higher percentage of those successful plays turn into game-impacting major plays.

I don’t mean to sound negative towards the players at all. I like this team a lot, and I think they are very talented and can be exciting to watch. It’s just the reality of the game though. Tightening up these detailed elements of their execution is the key to becoming an elite team.

Success in football, like in any ultra-competitive field, hangs on the edge of a knife. The slightest tweak can cause things to go off the rails, like pretty much happened against Utah State. It was a case of a couple things barely going wrong, which had an enormous impact on the outcome of the game. A couple of little things will always go wrong. When you execute things so well that you have a larger margin for error, you can overcome things like tipped passes, bad calls, or tight coverage.

The greatest players and coaches in the world know this, and have ultimate respect for the fragility of their success, which is why they are always working to get better. They know that as soon as they get satisfied with themselves, the success they’ve built will quickly slide off to one side or another.

Coach Mendenhall has provided the vision, the plan, the motivation, and the resources. He turned the program around. I was a part of it. I saw and experienced how it happened. He is not the one hindering them from taking the next step, putting together an undefeated season and competing for the ultimate prize. It’s up to the players to take ownership of the execution of their team.

The coach can put them in the best position possible, but it’s the players, not coaches who produce the results.

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