Coaching the Players on the Team

In Leadership by Brock Bourgase

ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries have been very intriguing. Some of have covered famous events, others have brought intriguing issues to light. Directed by Billy Corben, The U covers the rise and fall of the Miami Hurricanes football program in the 1980s.

To me, the Miami Hurricanes program is interesting because of how a small academic school in Coral Gables won four national titles during a span of twelve years. The University of Miami had flirted with the idea of becoming “The Harvard of the South” but decided to place greater emphasis on football as the 1970s came to a close. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the program is how three different coaches brought different groups of players together and won championships.

Howard Schnellenberger was named coach in 1979 and decided that the school would focus recruiting upon “The State of Miami” and attempt to sign as many prospects from the South Florida area surrounding the city. For many of these student-athletes, football was perceived as the only way out of their destitute lives. A pipe-smoking assistant to Don Shula, Schnellenberger broke through racial lines and recruited many great players to the school. After he left after the national championship 1983, Jimmy Johnson took over and continued the success. Finally, Dennis Erickson followed and won a pair of national titles in 1989 and 1991.

One cannot discuss the Miami Hurricanes without mentioning how they changed the culture of college football. Corben delves into the team’s badboy image, the pro-style offences and defences employed, and the team culture fuelled by alumni who return to mentor current players. Any coach would want to form a community around the team that they coach and pro-style systems have become a prevalent trend in collegiate football but would a coach want a team with a bad boy image?

Some may criticize the endzone celebrations and trash-talking as unsporting although the actions were not illegal by rule until the mid 1980s. Many Miami players hailed from rough backgrounds and had the toughness to match. Johnson defined their behaviour at the time as “what he wanted them to do and what he allowed them to do.” Had Johnson or any of the other coaches clamped down on the team, they would have lost some of the aggressiveness that made them such an intimidating force. In order to let the physical talents of the team loose on the field, Miami had to unleash the entire package, including the mental aspects.

If players have a certain set of characteristics, coaches cannot change them. Coaches can provide guidance (the film also speaks of the unique methods that the team chaplain Father Leo used to reach Hurricane players) but they cannot fundamentally alter players. The astute coach should perceive which way the current is blowing and steer the ship accordingly. A coach should never impose their personality on a team; players and coaches should compromise and find areas of common ground that maximize team and individual success.

It could easily be argued that Miami talked themselves out of their National Championship game with Penn State in 1986 when they wore fatigues throughout the week. They lost sight of the main objective and became overly consumed with their image. This is when a coach should intervene (even some of the Hurricane players interviewed on the film admitted that “maybe [they] wouldn’t wear the fatigues if they could do it again”) and set team standards.

At other times, the team’s spirit should be set free; in a follow-up commentary, Lou Holtz said that he never witnessed any poor behaviour during Miami-Notre Dame games and remembers only the extreme competitiveness of the games. The Hurricanes were capable of such high levels of performance because of they players who comprised the team.

For coaches, the documentary is also valuable because it discusses how three coaches – with entirely different styles – sustained Miami’s success. Each made small changes to suit their style but kept the big things, like the team’s community and aggressive attitude, intact. Initially, players were reluctant to trust the new coach but Johnson and Erickson built personal connections with all team members before building the team. These three coaches could have failed miserably had they stuck to their guns. But Schnellenberger, Johnson, and Erickson realized who they were coaching and adjusted their philosophy to suit the specific situation. **½