From Worst to First (Part II)
My first day on the job was March 7, 2016. The Rams had missed a lot of the recruiting season, but the incoming class wasn’t nearly as important as the culture of the team they were coming to. The team needed a sense of confidence. It needed a sense of unity and camaraderie. I have had, and always will have an open door policy in my office. Players will come by to talk about literally anything. I take every opportunity I can get to know each player on a personal level. I met with every player for about 30 minutes just to chat and get acquainted.
The team’s new expectations weren’t being met by everyone. Two players were released very early. One was released because he fell behind significantly in his mandatory study hall hours, and another because he was missing workouts. I expressed to the team that I don’t believe in part time heroes – If a player is a slough-off in the class room, he’ll be a slough-off on the field. I told them that A students tend to keep getting A’s, and F students tend to keep getting F’s. I’d rather pull weeds in the offseason when it doesn’t cost us a game. Another player was cut for discipline reasons.
Football players are ambassadors for the team – no matter where then go or what they do – they are still a Ram. You may not know a single person in the room, but count on it – many will know you! The last player I released was simply due to not fitting in. Sometimes, as a coach, you try to do everything you can to help a kid out. I’ve always kept in mind that each kid has been dealt a different hand in life – so you have to deal with each situation accordingly.
This player had a rough background, but he was very likeable and he was an extraordinary talent. After many attempts at remediating his behavior – which included falling asleep during film sessions, out of dress code on a flight, and being argumentative with coaches, I let him go. I’ve always believed in addition by subtraction. When a gardener pulls his weeds, then his good plants get an opportunity to flourish. And that is
what happened with us; we pulled some weeds, and the rest of the team flourished! I wanted to get rid of malcontents and negativity, and the easiest way to do it is identify it and eliminate it. And we were left with a locker room full of players who would run through a brick wall for each other. We have no slackers and no part time heroes!
Our coaching staff was completely in sync. Half of our coaches are alumni, so we were very motivated to return the team to a sufficient level of prominence that would make us proud to be a part of. My first feedback that the changes we had implemented were making a difference was during an exhibition game. We lost our exhibition game to the University of Calgary, and I talked to the players after the game. I let them know that after losing to a perennial powerhouse in a close game that I believed in them! I told them we have what it takes to win every game this year – and if we pull together tight enough we could go all the way and win a National Championship! While walking back to the locker room I overheard one of the players talking to a group of teammates. “Did you hear that? The Coach believes in us,” he said. I was shocked that this was unusual for them, but I kept that too myself – I don’t want any doubt creeping in with the players.
We went on to a 6-2 record and first place in the Canada West Conference. We had our best finish in 20 years. We hosted a playoff game in which we lost a close contest to the defending national champions, 40-34. The most important part of our team’s turnaround is that the players now believe that no matter who they are facing on the field, it is the strength of unity that makes them formidable. At the end of the year I told them how proud I was of them. How inspired I was by their hard work and willingness to give of themselves completely to the team. We left this season with a sense of unfinished business! We now look at each other as a source of strength. Lastly, I told them that I look around the room and I see 80 or so people that I want holding on to the other end of my rope. I’m certain that I’m being pulled up!