I’ve always been intrigued by the personalities in sports. Players and coaches thrown together from all kinds of different backgrounds and different cultures all trying to accomplish the same goal: win.
Pretty simple when you watch the games, see plays develop, hear the analysis of the how and why. But being around teams day after day, game after game gives you a glimpse into the dynamic that happens between players in the locker room or clubhouse, between players and coaches and even between the coaches themselves.
You’ve heard often about a coach “losing his team” when things are going poorly. That’s easy to spot. When the cameras are turned off and the writers walk away, a small aside from a player that could seem unrelated is the first indication that this thing is going south. Sometimes players will straight up tell you they’re playing just to finish the season and get something good on tape for the next year. Assistant coaches can be a good barometer for what’s going on around a team. Their body language, the occasional roll of the eyes or even a raised eyebrow in certain situations can let you know things aren’t good. Players and assistants know when the head coach is in trouble. And contrary to whatever public pronouncements they make, head coaches know it was well.
So how do they keep it all together, especially when it looks like it’s coming apart at the seams?
For most head coaches it’s through sheer force of personality. While the head coach is the face of the team to the public, the assistants are the ones with the constant, close contact to the players. So keeping the assistants “in the fold” is paramount to a coach’s and ultimately a team’s success.
I’ve seen it done a million different ways. Vince Dooley was highly respected and sometimes even feared by his coaches and players. But he was a master motivator, organized and had unquestioned football acumen. Bobby Bowden appeared to be liked by everybody, and he was. But there was an underlying tipping point his players and coaches knew you didn’t cross. Plus they knew he knew the game inside and out and would come up with something they hadn’t thought of.
Steve Spurrier was known as the “Evil Genius” even among those close to him. His innovation and unflinching desire to win attracted a certain type of player and coach to his side.
Tom Coughlin was unique and has had a change of style in his professional career. In Jacksonville he was the detached general, detail oriented, relentless in his preparation and feared by everybody. With the Giants, Coughlin’s coaching ability hasn’t wavered, but his ability to get his message through to the players, and his willingness to adapt to the changing football culture has won him two Super Bowl’s. Coughlin once said that a team had to have “an intense affection for one another” in order to be a winner. His now put himself in that group.
Jack Del Rio is every player’s friend, which plays well initially but wears thin quickly. It’s no coincidence that he had more assistants come and go than any other head coach in the league during his tenure in Jacksonville. When things are going well, that “player’s coach” approach works but when they’re not, it’s hard to get the best out of everybody.
Mark Richt has a low-key personality that matches his coaching style that drives some fans crazy. But he’s prepared and the players believe in him so they’ll play hard when it matters.
Urban Meyer was coolly detached from everybody but his star players and he leaned on those few to not only get the job done but also get his message across.
Few coaches have outwardly displayed their intensity like Will Muschamp. But rather than fear him, his players believe in him, like him, know he’ll be prepared and match his confidence both on an off the field.
Mike Mularkey’s goal is to put players in positions to succeed. He’s the ideal professional coach for a team that believes in him and his staff. He’s always prepared and level-headed and won’t ever “lose” his team but needs players who can see success in front of them without fear of failure.
It’s a funny profession that attracts all types.