After football season, we as coaches always hit the clinic circuit looking for the magic bullet that is going to take our team to the next level. Usually we are looking for a scheme, a play, a drill or a weight room routine that is the answer to a problem we have been having. This off-season was no different for myself and my staff. This past season I completed my fourth year as head football coach at Onalaska, and my eight year overall with the program. In the interest of full disclosure, we have been consistently mediocre on the field in my time here. We have gone through multiple scheme changes looking for the answer to why we haven’t been able to win more games. The punch in the gut moment came this year at the WFCA Clinic.
As I looked at the line-up to see what sessions I wanted to attend, I realized that none of the big name speakers were speaking on anything close to scheme. They all had one thing in common though: Culture. Chris Klieman of North Dakota State, P.J. Fleck of Western Michigan, Steve Jones of Kimberly; all talking about the culture of their programs. The result was I drew two plays the entire clinic and took twelve pages of notes about the importance and process of building a culture in our program.
Prior to this off-season, I knew culture was important, and we were trying to change the culture at our school, but we weren’t being intentional in how we went about changing it. We didn’t have a mission statement for all coaches to reflect back on when times were tough or we questioned how we would handle a situation. We didn’t have a team covenant that we expected our athletes to live by. We expected our players to be leaders but we never taught them how. This off-season we have committed ourselves to changing this aspect of our program.
Our first step as a staff was to identify the areas that we were falling short in creating the culture that we wanted. We started this shortly after another disappointing playoff blowout loss. It wasn’t fun, and as a staff we were brutally honest with each other on where we were falling short. From there we looked at the areas we were falling short and prioritized which ones were the most important and which ones were smaller issues. I believe that if you think you can change a culture all at once or overnight you will fail miserably and be incredibly disappointed. We picked the four to five things that were steadfast standards that we as coaches could hold all of ourselves to, along with our athletes. We emphasized that every coach needed to hold each player to the standards we decided on. If one coach lets it slide, it starts a snowball effect in the wrong direction.
Culture can’t be built alone. It takes the buy-in of administration to truly change a culture. We took a huge step in the right direction this school year as my principal agreed to allow me to have the entire freshmen football team assigned to me for resource (a 40-minute class period at the end of the day every Wednesday and Thursday) to teach them accountability and leadership. We have put a curriculum together that will teach our freshmen how to lead as they go through high school. We are also teaching them how to serve others and be quality young men, as oftentimes our freshmen have maturity issues and can cause a lot of disruption in the classroom.
We started a ten week leadership class that we do Wednesday mornings with our older players. If we expect our players to be leaders and captains we have to teach them what that looks like. The first step of this process was us as coaches identifying why we coach. Once we did this, we could then ask our players to identify why they do the things they do. I believe that when you understand why you do what you do, you do it with more passion and enthusiasm.
As I listened to Coach Jones of Kimberly talk at the WFCA Clinic I kept thinking back to November during the state championship game when they trailed by 21 points in the third quarter. I used to think that teams that have extended runs of success like that simply have better talent and scheme than others. While they definitely have great players, a team doesn’t come back from 21 points down against a program like Arrowhead only because they have talented players. It takes a culture that has been intentionally coached to respond the way they did during adverse situations. Culture isn’t an accident, and that was affirmed over and over again at the spring clinic.
By no means am I an expert on culture. If I was, our record during my tenure would be much better than it has been. What I do know is where we have fallen short and where we need to improve. We have set out to change the culture of Onalaska football. It won’t be easy, it won’t happen overnight, but we have a plan and a direction and that is more than I could have told you last year at this time.
If you are a part of a program that has struggled to see the success you expect or think you are capable of, I encourage you to look at the culture of your program. Be honest in your evaluation. And next time you approach a successful coach to talk about their scheme ask yourself, “Is the scheme driving the success, or is the culture driving the success?”
Written by Onalaska football coach Tom Yashinsky, who just finished his 8th season as head football coach at Onalaska. Previously he was an assistant under Dieter Antoni for 4 years. He also coached at UWL under Larry Terry for one season as a student coach. His first coaching job was as an assistant coach at Ben Eielson High School, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.