Leadership in Athletics: Coach Transitions

The 2018 college football season is coming to an end, and the end of one season immediately welcomes in the start of the next. This is also the time of the year that some call the “coaching carousel,” when wholesale coaching changes happen. According to FootballScoop.com, there have already been 21 head coach transitions or planned transitions for the 2019 season in the Football Bowl Series (FBS), and there is a good chance that more will come open over the next two months. There are another 21 head coaches transitioning in the Football Championship Series (FCS).

There are many reasons for coaching changes and  incoming coaches will find their programs in varying states. The author Michael Watkins can help an incoming coach better understand their new program through a framework for transitions presented in his book The First 90 Days.

In his book, he provides the concept that organizations are in one of five stages: Start-up, Turnaround, Accelerated Growth, Realignment or Sustaining Success. In college football, an incoming coach will likely assume control of an organization that is in a state of Turnaround, Realignment or Sustaining Success.

So how should a coach handle each type of situation?

Turnaround – It is likely that everyone knows change is necessary, so the coach will want to prioritize bringing the entire program into alignment. Most importantly, coaches need to establish a standard of excellence. Coaches each have their own way of doing that, and it’s important that new coaches tackle this time as their authentic selves – most 18 to 22-year-olds will see right through B.S. Mastering this approach is the most critical thing a new coach can do. It is more important than scheme; training philosophy; sets, reps or PR’s; the aesthetics of the facility; or the brand of your weight racks, equipment, and uniforms. The reason the coach was given the job is because the program knows they will bring in the right culture and scheme, maximize the athletes both on and off the field, recruit new players and develop their staff. Additionally, coaches need to ask themselves – is it more important that my athletes can bench or squat a little more or that they do the fundamentals right and are great teammates? A Turnaround is a great time to get after the fundamentals of the sport and life, which are so much more important than numbers.

Realignment – Programs in a realignment have seen success but are looking for change. The success of the program may be in the past, inconsistent or just not up to program expectations.  The coach will have to assess the staff and make the changes necessary to create energy and refocus the program. The coach will also have to assess the culture of the team and make sure the strengths are reinforced and the weaknesses are addressed. The coach is looking to get the right people on board who can energize the organization and create alignment toward common goals.

When Coach Meyer took over The Ohio State Football Program it was an established and successful program that had faltered with a 6-7 interim season in 2011; realignment was necessary. A new standard was clearly established during the first team meeting and team work out: There would be one way and one message, and if you were not on board, you could leave. That philosophy held true for coaches, support staff and athletes. Through one standard, one language, tough training and, most importantly, player buy-in, the Buckeyes went 12-0.

Sustaining Success – This may be the most difficult situation for an incoming coach. They are likely falling into a program with high expectations, and the incoming coach may be following a successful coach who is a legend to the program’s fan base. These coaches are going to want to build on the culture of the program to help them continue success. The coach will want to know what is working and why it is working before they start making changes. The coach will have to be careful if they plan on implementing new strategies and may want to gradually introduce change over time. The coach will also want to take advantage of small wins to show that the program is still successful.

In 2017, Coach Bob Stoops handed the University of Oklahoma Sooners over to his offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The Sooners were perennial National Championship contenders, and Coach Stoops had won a National Championship while accumulating a tremendous record of 190 wins and 48 losses as the Sooners’ head coach. Coach Riley was now challenged with sustaining the success of the Sooners’ football program. He made minimal changes his first year while continuing the culture of excellence. He achieved success in his first year making it to the FBS playoffs. His success gave him the credibility to make changes and adjustments in his second year, helping the program achieve another trip to the playoffs. Coach Riley has shown that making subtle changes allows a coach to sustain success during a coaching transition.

Taking over a team, whether it be on the field or in the office, as a leader at any level is difficult. Coaches should analyze their situation and apply these points to help them navigate through the transition. Each transition is different and coaches will need to align the right strategy with the right situation in order to achieve success.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.