The Importance of Good Coaching in Football
Coaches are the key to youth football, and the future of football itself. Geoffrey Dyson speaking to the 19th session of the International Olympic Academy, Greece 1979, widened the horizon when he said that, “The wise coach develops not only the fullest physical potential in his charges, but also those capacities and habits of mind and body which will enrich and ennoble their later years.” The role of a coach can be overwhelming since the above implies what could be construed as quite an awesome responsibility, especially for the part-time non-professional.
I have been very fortunate to have played or coached under some of the finest coaches of modern-day football. Each one of these outstanding coaches left a permanent mark, which has enabled me to achieve feats to a degree that may not have been possible if left to my own endeavors.
I started my football career at the age of thirteen in the little western Pennsylvania town of Coraopolis. My high school coach was a man named Serafino “Foge” Fazio. Coach Fazio had it all when it came to being a great coach. He was a motivator and outstanding communicator, and was extremely organized. Everyone loved him. Parents wanted their sons to play for him; even parents from other communities.
Foge always had a smile on his face even when things were going wrong. He always used the “Tough Love” theory. He would yell at us during practice and hug our necks in the locker room after practice. Extremely organized, I could remember him always knowing what to expect from our opponents before a game and, sure enough, when we played them they would do exactly what Foge said they would do.
It never surprised me when Foge left high school ball for the college ranks. He was an assistant at a few colleges and later became the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Soon after that he moved into the pro ranks, coordinating defenses for the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns from whom he recently retired. His approach to coaching never changed, but the many lives that he touched certainly did.
I was awarded a football scholarship to play at Kansas State University under Vince Gibson, the complete opposite of Foge Fazio. Vince was from Birmingham, Alabama and had a deep southern accent; one that would sound partly illiterate and extremely intimidating, especially to 18-19 year old blacks guys from up north. But he had that fatherly approach and you knew he wanted the best for you in everything from academics to athletics and he wasn’t going to let anything happen to his boys. Vince must have graduated with a degree in MOTIVATION because he could sell eyeglasses to a blind person, then try to convince that person that he/she wasn’t blind.
The assistant coach who recruited me was Dick Steinberg, a short-statured but highly intellectual person, originally from New York. He actually reminded me of Foge Fazio, except that he didn’t smile as much. I thought that if Dick was going to be my position coach then Kansas State was where I wanted to be.
Well, Dick wasn’t my position coach. Jesse Branch was, and Jesse was from Arkansas with a smoother southern drawl than Vince yet was still intimidating to a lot of us. Jesse was an outstanding defensive back coach. He worked us extremely hard and always made us do things over and over until he felt comfortable that we knew what we were doing. We would meet with him morning, noon, and night. Sometimes he would take us over to his house and feed us, then he would meet with us. That was fantastic to all of us DB’s because we would get a home-cooked meal. Jesse later became a head coach at Southwest Missouri State (where, ironically, my son, Ron Jr. is coaching today) and he is presently Head Football Coach at Henderson College in Arkansas. Dick Steinberg later became the General Manager for the New York Jets, passing away in 1995 of cancer.
I played in three College All-Star Games right after college. The first was the East-West Shrine Game, held at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California which will celebrate its 79th year this coming January. The second game was the College All-Star Game played at Soldier Field in Chicago. This game pitted the College All-Stars against the NFL Super Bowl Champs, and that year it was the Baltimore Colts (not the Ravens). The final All-Star game that I participated in was the All-American Game held in Tampa, Florida. This game, like the College All-Star Game folded a few years after I played in it. The coaches for these games were the most successful coaches of the time but, because of our short stint with them, it would be hard to evaluate what made them so successful.
I was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and, upon completion of these All-Star Games, I reported to camp. Don Shula was the head coach and was a hands-on guy. He made it his business to get to know every player on the team, and he made sure that the veterans accepted the rookies. Coach Shula was building a winning program through a relaxed approach. He suggested that we call him Don, not Coach Shula. Everyone had a tranquil demeanor and an air of confidence and it all stemmed from Coach Shula himself.
Most professional athletes are highly motivated; therefore it was Coach Shula’s job to keep us there, which he did. He had everything that the experts say embodies a great coach. He had great organization skills, was an outstanding motivator, and he hired a tremendous staff who communicated his philosophy to us. We believed in them and won games. Record numbers of games! The 1972 Dolphins were – and still remain – the only NFL team to enjoy an undefeated season.
A broken leg ended my NFL career midway through the Dolphins’ undefeated season. I went back to my hometown of Coraopolis, Pa., taught high school, and got my first coaching job — coaching women’s basketball. I realized early on that you can’t prepare women like you can for a male sport because you never knew who would be practicing and who wouldn’t. You can’t raise your voice because you would have tears flowing on the court and you definitely couldn’t compliment one without complimenting them all. I tried to put all my years of observing some of the best male coaches together in order to coach a women’s basketball team and nothing seemed to work. This was frustrating and I wasn’t going to let it beat me. I eventually decided to coach the sport and forget the motivation, organization, and communication. It didn’t work, either. We won only two games and it was time for me to move on.
I left high school and went back to my alma mater, Kansas State University, as a graduate assistant and was given the title of Head Freshman Coach. Now I could finally put all of these coaches whose philosophies I admired together and use them on our freshmen. We went undefeated, winning all four of our games, and my confidence was riding high. I just knew I was going to be the next Vince Lombardi.
I was later promoted from a graduate assistant to a full-time coach, coaching the defensive backs and replacing Jesse Branch the coach I admired and played under. I was married and lived in a small apartment, so the meals that Jesse gave his players had to stop because my wife and I and our infant son didn’t have the room. Jesse was the defensive coordinator before he left, and a new one was coming on board – namely me – with a new defense and terminology. I felt like I was starting out as a freshman all over again, except that now I was the coach and I had to teach this new defense to my players. I called Jesse and we talked and he gave me some advice that I will never forget. He said be an expert on the field and your actions will bolster the confidence and respect of your players. To be a great defensive back coach, don’t coach caution; coach to win. I learned that defense and went to as many coaching clinics as I could, learning everything new as it related to defensive schemes. My defensive backs were playing very well and I was getting the recognition.
Jackie Sherrill, was the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh and was strictly a players’ coach. The players loved Jackie, and they played hard for him. He was involved in all aspects of the game but he specialized in coaching the kicking game. Foge Fazio was his defensive coordinator and they wanted me to coach the Pitt secondary. I jumped on the opportunity for obvious reasons. It enabled me to come back home and I would get to work for the guy who first turned on my coaching light — Foge Fazio. We had a very good defense and I had the opportunity to put four players in the NFL. These players came back to thank me and to say, “Coach what you taught us carried over into the pros and that is why we made our specific club.” I attributed all of this to making sure I was an expert in my field.
After I left Pitt, I spent a year at the University of South Carolina as Assistant Athletic Director. Then I joined the University of Colorado staff as Assistant Head Coach and I coached the defensive backs. Bill McCartney was the Head Coach and we had to rebuild a fallen program, basically from scratch because nearly fifty players left the team when we arrived, for various reasons. But the majority of them would have been asked to leave anyhow. Bill wanted people around him who believed in his philosophy. It was like he was on a mission to (1) make a difference in the lives of the young people he coached and (2) establish credibility as a leader for everyone around him to follow. He took inspiration for his program from a Biblical verse which read, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of POWER, and of LOVE, and a SOUND MIND” (2 Timothy 1:7). He motivated all of us to believe that the big powerhouses, Nebraska and Oklahoma, were beatable and we must not fear them ever again. Once we beat Nebraska in 1985 everyone began to believe.
I left Colorado for Penn State University and Head Coach Joe Paterno. Joe is completely different from all of the coaches I’ve ever played for or coached under. He knew everything and he wanted to know everything — from players’ daily grades to what defensive stunt we were going to use in practice. He is the only coach who truly let his coaches coach and he very rarely got involved in his assistants’ work. If one of my players made a mistake he would know it and point it out to me after practice. Joe had a legitimate concern for all of his players, and their futures, even the ones who graduated. His motivation was himself. He loved the game and it always showed. He was always consistent on the field, he never seemed to be tired, and he always emphasized the little things. The little things mount up and will eventually lose games if not corrected, he would say. He changed the old saying, “Practice make perfect” to “Perfect practices makes perfect.”
I left Penn State to become the Defensive Coordinator at Clemson University under Coach Kenny Hatfield in 1991. We had an outstanding defense, ranking first in total defense in the NCAA that year and fifth the following year. We had some outstanding athletes that were extremely coachable, such as Chester McGloughlin, DT, 1st round choice of the Oakland Raiders; Lavaughn Kirkland, LB, now with the Philadelphia Eagles; Ed McDaniels, LB, Minnesota Vikings; Brinson Buckner, DT, Denver Broncos; James Trapp, DB, Baltimore Ravens; and Ashley Sheppard, DE, retired from the Green Bay Packers.
I finally became a head coach at Temple University in December 1992, after being interviewed at seven different universities over a three-year period. Now, the big question was — who was I going to try and be like since I had worked with so many outstanding head coaches?
The answer was, Ron Dickerson Sr. I couldn’t be someone that I wasn’t; I had to be myself. Sure, I took a little from Joe, and a little from Jackie, and a little from Bill, etc., but I had to be me. And there was more to it than I realized. What these coaches failed to tell me was the amount of time I would spend away from football, or the amount of time that I would use putting out fires and dealing with problems with our athletes. Not to mention the mail and phone calls; some good some bad. There was never enough time in the day, even though I would get into the office at 5:30 a.m. and leave after 10:00 p.m.
After three years, I finally realized that marketing the team wasn’t my job. The building of the weight room wasn’t my job, and the academic counseling wasn’t my job. I was there to coach football and to build a winning program, but now my time was running out and we weren’t winning. It didn’t look like I was going to get an extension on my contract and I needed more time. The discouraging part was that the thing I did so well – coaching – wasn’t all that was needed to get the job done. The true test of leadership was the adaptability and flexibility I had to have, and the challenge was leaving my comfort zone – an area in which I had been operating effectively for years.
We knew we were doing things right because we had more players playing in the NFL than under any other former Temple head coach. We had such players as Stacy Mack, Houston Texans; Alshermond Singleton, Dallas Cowboys; Larry Chester, Miami Dolphins; Tre’ Johnson, Cleveland Browns; Lance Johnstone, Minnesota Vikings; Henry Burris, Chicago Bears; and Mathias Nkwenti, Pittsburgh Steelers.
But, if there’s one thing I have learned in more than 30 years of involvement in football and sports coaching it’s this: True success is based on more than wins. As I consider my definition of success, I remember that ultimately my success, and the success of the coaches with whom I worked was not solely judged on the number of wins we had, but on the quality of relationships we developed over the years with our athletes. I believe we never compromised our commitment to excellence. At all times, our focus was on doing things properly. Every play. Every practice. Every meeting. Every situation. Every TIME.