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The secret to a college football coach’s success

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer pumps his fist after besting Alabama in the Sugar Bowl this past January. USA Today Sports/Reuters

The secret to a college football coach’s success

With the new college football season upon us, fans across the country are hoping their team could be the one crowned national champion on January 11 2016 in Glendale, Arizona’s University of Phoenix Stadium. Of course, who is ultimately successful will depend a lot on the talents of their players – and a healthy dose of luck.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the coach.

There are just a handful of coaches who have excelled at creating successful, sustainable programs over the course of many years. Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson come to mind.

How do they do it?

While all have their specific plans, I believe the most successful coaches emphasize success beyond the playing field. That may sound like a cliché, but it has to be more than just a platitude. There has to be a system.

After all, the stakes are too high for colleges and universities to employ coaches that are not dialed into their players’ developmental needs. We need only recall the recent scandal involving former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired after administrators discovered a pattern of abusive behaviors displayed toward his student athletes.

Ultimately, it’s coaches who are closely attuned to their players’ social and emotional development that seem to have higher degrees of sustainable, on-field success.

Rites of passage: turning boys into men

In an article for the International Sport Coaching Journal, I present a case study with Urban Meyer, coach of The Ohio State University Buckeyes. The hope is to show how his particular system bears striking resemblance to a modern-day rite of passage.

The literature on rites of passage (also known as rituals of initiation) identifies three main phases through which children become adults:

  • it begins with a separation phase, one that marks the beginning movement out of the individual’s childhood status

  • next, the transformation phase involves a “betwixt and between” period of uncertainty, characterized by wavering back and forth from less mature to more mature behaviors

  • finally, the reincorporation phase represents the individual’s integration of the attitudes, values and behaviors required of prosocial adults.

There is overwhelming acceptance of the historical importance of rites of passage, especially in terms of their use to foster cohesiveness within social groups.

Additionally, the absence of separation, transformation and reincorporation experiences in contemporary society is thought to be significantly related to youth violence, drug and alcohol use, gang involvement, bullying and delinquency.

These dysfunctional behaviors are believed to be the misguided attempts of young people to create rites of passage for themselves, in the absence of mentors or positive influences.

Urban Meyer: the quintessential coach

Why choose Urban Meyer as a case study?

Well, I have to admit that ease of access plays a part for me, since we both work at the same university. But Meyer is a worthy subject. After fielding two national football championship teams at the University of Florida during the 2006 and 2008 seasons, he led the 2014 Ohio State University Buckeyes to the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship.

Throughout his 13-year career as a head coach, his teams have won five conference championships and twice (2004 at Utah and 2012 at Ohio State) have registered undefeated seasons. It’s hard to argue with those kinds of triumphs on the field.

But I believe his efforts to create off-the-field success for his players are closely tied to his teams’ on-the-field accomplishments.

Underlying these efforts is what Urban Meyer has dubbed his “Plan to Win,” a competitiveness doctrine based on a set of core values for players that includes behavioral commandments (honesty, respect for women, no drugs, no stealing and no weapons) and a strong emphasis on classroom success.

Color-coordinating a ‘Plan to Win’

The key component of the Plan to Win is what he has named his Blue-Red-Gold (BRG) incentive system. Three color-coded stages – Blue, Red, and Gold – represent a ladder of privileges climbed by players as they display mature behavior both on the field and off.

As Meyer explained in a 2012 Columbus Dispatch article:

Blue stands for child, which means ill-equipped, defiant, disinterested. So if you’re in blue, we don’t think very highly of you, and we make that very clear. And every freshman who comes into the program is blue, for example… Guys who are red get nicer gear. If they want to change numbers, if they want to get a visor, if they want to move off campus, the answer for them then is maybe. You get up to gold, you do what you’ve got to do because gold means you’re a grown man. We don’t tell you when to study, things like that. Gold means you deserve to be treated like a man.

The BRG system is a comprehensive player motivation method that contains a variety of inputs and outcomes. Meyer and his coaches closely monitor player adherence to academic demands and behavioral expectations across all status levels, with meaningful rewards bestowed for appropriate behavior – alongside swift consequences for infractions.

Transitions in status (up or down) are handled by the entire coaching staff, who meet as a group every week to discuss player progress and deliberate possible transitions. When the coaches decide to promote a player, an announcement is made to the entire team in the form of a “graduation ceremony” that recognizes the player’s newfound “status.”

Transforming performance on – and off – the field

The BRG incentive-based system mirrors the rites of passage conceptual framework discussed earlier.

Blue can be equated with the status of a young child and, as such, beginning movement out of this status parallels the “separation” component of the rite of passage.

In turn, red is equated with a middle stage, similar to the “betwixt and between” state of adolescence that is marked by a “transformative” stage of development.

Finally, gold status represents the adult stage of development and all of the privileges and responsibilities associated with this marker of full maturity.

Meyer’s BRG system is so successful because the expectations are clear about what it means to grow up in the eyes of the coaching staff, and the behaviors that players must enact in order to achieve that status are well-defined.

When everyone’s on the same page off the field, it makes it easier to work as a cohesive unit – and win – on the field.

A recipe for success in sports – and all walks of life

Simultaneously, there is an explicit recognition that coaches serve as powerful male role models for their players.

For example, Meyer regularly hosts Family Night dinners so that players are exposed to the coaches and how they act around their loved ones.

There is a more spiritual component to this work as well, with various community engagement activities centered on “setting the table” for players to understand the importance of living a life in service to things greater than themselves.

Coaches who use ceremonies to mark player transitions mine a tradition that honors and recognizes accomplishment. For generations, various forms of promotions and recognition have been used to inspire athletes, soldiers and students alike.

Simply put, it’s a formula that works, and these rituals and rewards carry great psychological meaning for individuals.

While the details of Meyer’s Plan to Win may be unique, I believe the overall aims and basic structure are shared by many of the most successful coaches.

Case studies of other highly successful men’s coaches bears this out. For example, Pete Carroll’s success at both the college and professional football levels has been discussed as being based on factors related to self-knowledge, self-confidence and optimism.

The same can be said of coaches in high-performance women’s sports. Take, for example, legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, whose coaching style was reported to have involved high degrees of instructional behavior and praise offered to her players within a high-intensity environment.

In a 2008 book, Meyer stated his desire to remain in contact with his players long after graduation, noting that if they “become the best husbands and fathers they can be, then we have won at the game of life.”

By tapping into the deep historical traditions of “rites of passage,” coaches can help get the most out of their players, both on and off the field. And along the way, a lot of boys can be turned into fine, upstanding men.

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