Building Your Football Program

By Rob Orr – Head Coach at Stirling University

Six seasons ago, I was asked to take over as Head Coach at the smallest university playing collegiate American Football in the UK. Stirling University was one of the founding members of the college game back in 1984 but had experienced a chequered history, enjoying just one all too brief period of success in the early noughties that had culminated in a national championship, before again slipping back into anonymity as one of the leagues middle-of-the-pack teams.

That first year, I inherited a somewhat dysfunctional squad of just 22 players, many of whom were undoubtedly talented individuals but who for the most part didn’t really know what it took to be a part of a team. Luckily though the chemistry between us all was amazing and everyone quickly bought into the ‘team-first’ ethos, which enabled us to win our division undefeated before falling at the first hurdle in the play-offs. After that, I was as they say, hooked.

The following season, with just 7 of that original squad returning, we still managed to secure a play-off spot but were eventually defeated in the final of the challenge cup. By the start of the 2009/10 season however and even though none of those original players were returning and we quite literally had to start again from scratch, I knew we had all the essential pieces in place to rebuild the programme from the ground up again. That experience and how we went about it is what I have been asked to write about today.

Job number one – what is your goal?

It staggers me how many people cannot answer this one simple but nevertheless critical question, even about their own personal lives. Little wonder then that the overwhelming majority of programmes have never even considered what it is they are trying to achieve, let alone clearly defined it with a detailed mission statement. If you don’t know where you are going then I guarantee you will never know how to get there, so whether your mission is to win a national championship, or something a little less ambitious, take the time necessary to clearly formulate what it is you wish to achieve and then add the plan around it to enable you to get there. And once you have your plan clarified, openly share it with everyone in your organisation and be prepared to allow them to hold you accountable for attaining the goals you have laid out in it too.

Ensure that your AU or local council (dependant on which league you play in) has a copy of your mission statement and that they receive regular updates on your progress toward attaining your stated goals and also ensure that your goals include support for their local priorities, rather than only highlighting what you need them to do for you. This is a slow burn when it comes to eliciting support but last season, after years of regular updates and meetings, our AU finally increased our financial support, allowed us to move onto a newly refurbished all weather field, which they permanently marked for American Football, bought us new mobile goal posts, provided the team with a dedicated strength & conditioning coach, added a paid physio to our staff and even hosted our alumni’s 10th anniversary weekend at their expense. This season they have funded a new full sized electronic scoreboard for us and they have also allowed us to begin a funded outreach 7-on-7 passing league into our areas local high schools, so local connections are definitely relationships you should look to develop as soon as you are able to do so.

Commitment is more important than experience

Everything and I do mean everything, begins with this ethos. At first it may seem counter intuitive, especially if you are relatively young and inexperienced yourself but I promise you will achieve nothing like the level of success you desire unless everyone involved, no matter how inexperienced they may be, is 100% committed to what it is you are trying to achieve. Now don’t get me wrong, if you can find people with commitment who are also experienced, then that certainly makes your job a whole lot easier but throughout both my business and coaching career, if the choice is one or the other, commitment comes up trumps every single time. Next to honesty and integrity, it is the single most important character trait a person can possess and the great thing is, anyone with commitment will eventually gain the necessary level of experience needed to make them better at whatever it is they were committed to doing in the first place!

When I mentioned above that at the start of the 09/10 season I knew I had all the pieces in place to rebuild the programme, I was primarily referring to the coaching staff I had managed to put in place, which overwhelmingly was made up of graduated players who wanted to move into coaching. Although I knew that experience wise, our team that year would be overwhelmingly made up of rookies and sophomores and that it would be a very tough slog for all of us, I also knew that they would be coached by an incredibly ‘committed’ (see what I did there) group of young men who wanted to get better, not only for themselves but also to help the players they were coaching do so as well. All of them therefore ‘committed’ (and again) to many additional hours of coaching study each week, which I know I wouldn’t have gotten from someone who already believed they were experienced and therefore didn’t need to continue their personal coaching development.

For committee members and/or team managers too, you need to make sure that they are picked for the right reasons and truly want to do the job, not because it will look good on their résumé but because they have the ‘commitment’ (the last time, I promise) to drive forward your collective vision for the programme. Remember too that many people standing for these roles may have no formal training in management, so make sure their remit is clearly defined and agreed in writing, to help ensure that everyone involved is held accountable to each other and ultimately to the entire programme too.


Leadership is example

Each year, we ask our players to vote for one player from each positional group to represent them on our leadership counsel. In the past our leadership counsel was made up of seniors only but we found over the years that each group usually has that one guy that everyone else looks up too and he is the person we want representing the team, no matter what year he is in. Being ‘their’ guy though doesn’t necessarily mean that he is ‘our’ guy, so a great deal of time is invested in ensuring they understand where we are coming from, what our collective expectations for them are and just as importantly, they are also able to express to us what they would like to see implemented on behalf of the players.

An example of this was their request that the players be allowed to remove their helmets when not involved in a drill. As an old school football guy, who was taught that you keep your helmet on at all times during practice and games, I didn’t like that idea one bit but once they had explained their reasoning for wanting this change and I saw how important it was to them, I agreed to implement it.

Let me be clear though, our football programme is a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy but we have found that peer pressure is the most important tool we can utilise in communicating the expectations of our programme to our players and we are a much better team because of it.