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May 3, 2011

Changing the culture can be key to success

Ryan Nassib was one of Syracuse's MVPs before he ever started a game at quarterback.

When coach Doug Marrone arrived in 2009, he changed the dress code for road trips -- business suits now were required. Nassib had little trouble adjusting because he had graduated a year earlier from a private Catholic school that had a dress code.

Most of his teammates weren't quite as experienced with Windsor knots, so Nassib became one of a handful of official team tie-tiers. "You tied it one time and the kid never untied it," he says.

When Marrone took over at his struggling alma mater, he realized turning around the program would take more than improved recruiting and better Xs and Os. His buzz phrase was "change the culture."

That's hardly original, but every new coach has a different approach and different strategies on how to change the attitudes on a losing team.

Marrone wanted to instill a sense of professionalism and installed a handful of things he termed "life skills," which included dinner-etiquette classes and attendance at a play. That might sound corny, but Syracuse players say Marrone's decisions contributed to the Orange reaching a bowl last season for the first time since 2004.

"It keeps the situation professional," Nassib says. "It shows you that we're on a business trip and we're not there to relax. We're here to get a job done. When we travel, we eat at really nice restaurants. You're in Division I college football and you're held to a different standard. You can't be a slob."

As for keeping the situation professional? The last spring practices nationwide wrapped up over the weekend, and the culture of every program will be put to the test this summer.

When spring practice ends, no team practices as a group until early August, and under NCAA rules, coaches have limited opportunities to interact with their teams. For the next four months, staying on the straight and narrow is up to the players themselves and the strength coaches, who are allowed time with the players during the offseason. These three months can be especially critical and unnerving for first-year coaches looking to put their stamp on a program, particularly if the last coach was fired or forced out.

"The players run the summer," says Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who replaced Bill Lynch in January after the Hoosiers won a combined three Big Ten games in the past three seasons. "We'll see if our players are ready to get over the hump and have a great summer.

"Great teams have great summers. We'll see if our team wants to do it."

Around this time of year, every coach spouts the same cliches. Spring practices always are "high energy" or "up-tempo," and we're led to believe that every new coach is holding players more accountable than his predecessor. While "coach-speak" can be difficult to escape, changing the culture around a program is tougher than it looks.

The key, it seems, is knowing which buttons to push and when.

"When I walked in, I thought the players would have an immediate connection and trust," Marrone says. "I've learned that takes time."

At Louisville, Charlie Strong immediately showed his team he'd have a different demeanor than laid-back predecessor Steve Kragthorpe. Former offensive tackle Byron Stingily, who was drafted in the sixth round by Tennessee on Saturday, remembers Strong's first meeting with the team being a fiery monologue.

"He came in and said, 'You guys aren't [expletive],' " Stingily says. "That's the first thing Coach Strong did."

Strong wasn't incorrect. Louisville had gone 4-8 in Kragthorpe's final season in 2009 and hadn't finished with a winning record in three seasons. While one of Marrone's pet projects was developing etiquette and professionalism, Strong needed to reinforce that going to class was part of being a student-athlete.

"At first, it was grades," Stingily says. "If you can't get your grades right, you can't play. He said that was the most important thing."

Periodic classroom checks worked. Louisville finished 7-6 last season, including a victory over Southern Miss in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, and was competitive in all but one of its losses.

Coaches tend to receive the bulk of the credit if a team undergoes a turnaround -- and also the bulk of the blame if it never does -- but winning hearts and minds is a group effort.

Vanderbilt is just two years removed from its only bowl appearance in the past 29 seasons. But the Commodores have gone 2-10 in each of the past two seasons, one under Bobby Johnson and another under interim coach Robbie Caldwell in 2010.

New coach James Franklin, in his first head-coaching job after serving as offensive coordinator at Maryland for the past three seasons, has spent his first four months on the job bombarding everyone at Vandy with his vision for the program. Franklin has spoken to anyone who will listen -- not only assistants and trainers, but also the personnel at the front desk and in the marketing department. The title of Vandy's spring prospectus was "Changing the Culture."

"What I'm concerned about are the perceptions and expectations inside the building," Franklin says. "To me, whether it's administrative assistants, coaches, trainers, managers, whoever it is that's going to come in contact with our players, we're bombarding them with the same consistent message so we have a collective mentality on what our goals are."

His chief lieutenant in this effort is strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt, who had been strength and conditioning coach at Maryland for the past 16 seasons. When Franklin was named coach-in-waiting with the Terrapins in February 2009, they began discussions in passing about how they would approach the program. But before Maryland parted ways with coach Ralph Friedgen in December, Franklin took the job at Vanderbilt and hired Galt.

"We've called it 'memory erasing,' " Galt says. "We've been trying to erase some memories for a while. We're trying to erase the same old Vanderbilt culture. We're trying to get away from the stigma. We've been really united in this approach to being positive."

Outsiders might overlook the value of a strength and conditioning coach. Yet Franklin calls Galt his "Yoda" and "Zen master," and it's more accurate to think of the strength coach as on par with an offensive or defensive coordinator. Strength coaches are not limited in the time they can spend with players during the offseason. The strength coach, not the head coach or assistants, spends the most time with players during the offseason.

"That guy is supposed to be the guy who echoes what the coach says the culture should be," says former Tennessee linebacker Nick Reveiz, who had three strength coaches and three head coaches in his five years with the Vols. "He's really the head coach for most of the year. He's training [players] during the year. He's with them the most. Strength coaches can really influence the environment the head coach wants."

More evidence to the point: Of the 21 new coaches this offseason, 16 hired new strength coaches. Some of the changes were because a coach took the strength coach with him to his new job.

New Michigan coach Brady Hoke brought Aaron Wellman with him from San Diego State. Wellman had been the director of strength and conditioning for Hoke at his previous stops at Ball State and SDSU.

"Every coach will tell you that that guy [the strength coach] is invaluable in the trust you have in what he does in developing your players and the trust you have in his communication and all those things," Hoke says. "[He] really becomes your right hand ... in the attitude of the team and work ethic and so on."

Hoke spent the spring stressing accountability and toughness. Now, in the offseason, Wellman will be the steward of Hoke's message. During so-called "voluntary" summer workouts, Wellman will know who is making progress on the accountability end.

Beyond the strength staff, players themselves can be messengers during the offseason. In his first months at Indiana, Wilson identified certain players to be the ones to relay his messages during the offseason. He says he coaches those players the hardest and holds them to a higher standard.

"They're the guys that run the team," says Wilson, pointing out that players spend more time with other players than they do with the coaches. "We've worked hard to direct our seniors and best players on the values, the way they practice and the way they prepare."

That can be a problem if the seniors have bad habits. At Syracuse, for instance, Nassib spent his freshman season following the lead of the seniors -- the ones who had gone 7-28 in the previous three seasons.

Nassib says the punishments for missing class -- such as cleaning the locker room and other grunt work -- weren't that severe. The seniors weren't deterred from missing class, so why would the freshmen be deterred? And that's how a losing culture perpetuates itself.

And not everyone at Syracuse welcomed the etiquette classes, the neckties, the 6 a.m. runs or the TV monitor that publicly shamed players who were late to team meetings. By the end of Marrone's first season, Syracuse was down to about 60 scholarship players because of defections.

Tailback Antwon Bailey says those who stayed grew closer through the shared experience -- and through the shared frustration.

"We realized it mattered," he says. "We were getting to know each other. We were going through these things together. We struggled together and we paid the price. That helps make a team stronger. That made us a better group."

For Marrone, Strong and others, a program's culture is built on routine, whether that means going to class or tying a tie.

"Winning is a habit," Marrone says. "And so is losing."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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