Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
Worst-to-First: The Details Matter - Secrets of a Turnaround Artist
When a sports fan’s favorite collegiate or professional team is losing, the head coach is fired, with management promising to bring in a new coach who will “rebuild” the program. Soon, the news media is flooded with stories about potential candidates, speculating which one is a “winner” or a “proven turnaround artist.”
Fans dare to dream of their team repeating the success story of Gonzaga basketball, where Mark Few has converted a mid-major level program to a Final Four contender, or the New England Patriots, who (believe it or not) were not Super Bowl Champions before Bill Belichick. However, most new coaches who walk into rebuilding situations fail. Is there a way to prioritize the characteristics of those who succeed?
For insight, I met with Dave Cecchini, the newly-appointed head football coach at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. Coach Cecchini was chosen by the Bison (who completed a 1-10 campaign in 2018) because they believe he can turn their program around. After all, he revitalized the fortunes of the Valparaiso University Crusaders, who had been in a worse slump (winning only three games in four years prior to his arrival in 2014). Under Cecchini, the Crusaders began a steady improvement, which paid off most notably in a 6-5 season (5-3 in the Pioneer Football Conference, good for third place) in 2017, when he was honored by his peers as the AFCA Division I FCS Region 4 Coach of the Year. Spoiler Alert: Our discussion did not uncover any single, magic strategy for rebuilding a program. As Cecchini explains it, the recipe for success involves believing in oneself and one’s system, an appreciation of the unique strengths and challenges of the school, and a fanatical attention to details.
Among the key principles he shared in our meeting:
Evaluate the situation you are walking into: Coach Cecchini said, “We do a lot of research before applying, and before accepting a new job. What structural weaknesses can you see, to account for the program’s lack of success? What is missing? For example, at Valpo the facilities were lacking, compared to the rest of the conference, putting us at a disadvantage. The next question is why that weakness exists, and whether the institution will allow you to change it.”
Further research after taking the job: After accepting the job, one of the great opportunities to prioritize a rebuilding plan comes from interview the players (every one of them). Some of the important questions include: What is your recruiting story? Tell me why you came to Bucknell. The answers to this question provide information about each young man and what makes him tick. Also, the accumulation of those answers provide data about the perception of the program; which recruiting battles are being won and lost, and why, for example.What do you think are weaknesses in the program? There are usually a wide diversity in these answers, demanding that the coaches understand where those answers are coming from, because it is imperative that they respond to commonly-perceived weaknesses. Some commonly-held perceptions are true, and offer the coaching staff opportunities to make inroads; others are true, but not as much of a detriment to winning as common wisdom says they are. Others are mostly false, or perhaps they are simply urban legends.
Player response: “We never were allowed to have fun at practice, or in meetings.” An easy one to respond to – Cecchini and his staff consciously set a tone in which players can enjoy the game, as long as they also love the game and work hard.
Player response: “The old coaching staff had too many rules.” This sort of perception gave the new staff a chance to differentiate themselves by stressing attitude, and principles (a sort-of golden-rule approach to discipline.).
Player response: “The dining hall here stinks.” Upon researching this belief, the coaches found it to be a campus legend, when the reality concerning the nutrition, selection, and availability of food from their dining service places it among the best in American colleges. In this case, the coaches have been selling their players on how to take advantage of what they’ve got.
Player response: “The academics here are too hard.” This may be true for some players, so the coaches are wise to acknowledge it, while reminding the players that school is demanding at all their Patriot League competitors. They also promote use of the university’s tutoring services, and will acknowledge their players’ academic successes as they move forward.
One pre-requisite for raising the performance standard of a team is to get them to understand how a champion does things. Cecchini, who is not normally prone to bragging, says, “This is the one time I share with them how many championships my teams have won. I know, and our assistant coaches know, what it takes to be great, and we need the players to trust us.” Players have had other coaches in the past who probably did not earn their trust, so it’s good that they see this current coaching staff as different, as having their best interests in mind.
In terms of defining championship performance, Cecchini says, “We set expectations for what they do on the field and off the field” (including how they interact on social media). The position coaches keep track of their players’ GPAs, weight room performance, and social media activity, as well as any reports from the Deans’ Office or Public Safety.
Getting player buy-in is an important goal, and every interaction between coaches and players can contribute to success in this area. One particular way the Bucknell staff works to develop buy-in is through their leadership council. Two players are elected from each class and meet regularly with the head coach. The council will have an impact in setting team rules, which is helpful in having players feel ownership of the team
Use the honeymoon: the first couple seasons with a previously losing program can benefit from that newness. The coaches and players are doing different things, and any improvement on the scoreboard can be attributed to those changes from the old order, increasing the players’ trust in the staff. After a couple years, however, no players on the team remember the old staff and the old ways, and a mediocre W-L record will not be perceived as “improvement” – it will just feel “mediocre.” At that point, a good coaching staff will establish new goals, based on the realities the program is facing at that time.
Intrinsic desire to change: One critical development in a rebuild occurs when the players recognize the areas they need to improve. To be effective as a motivator for change, this sort of maturity has to come from within; human beings do not respond well to having their boss or coach enumerate their faults. This part of the art to coaching (like so many others) was well-summarized by UCLA’s master coach John Wooden when he said: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
NOTE: Mr. Miran’s son, Jason, has served as an assistant coach with Cecchini at Lehigh, Valparaiso and Bucknell since 2010.
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