Adam Rittenberg, ESPN (http://espn.go.com/blog/bigten/post/_/id/119112/coaches-cautious-of-the-enemy-within)
The greatest obstacle college football coaches encounter isn’t always the talented opponent across the field, the engorged expectations of fans or the unyielding scrutiny from the media. It’s the enemy within.
Just ask Charlie Strong. Speaking in March at the start of his second spring practice as Texas’ coach, Strong began by spotlighting the team’s inability to stay united last season, which led to shaky results.
“Within a team there’s different cliques, and you’ve got this clique here and they’ve got a clique,” said Strong, who added that a player’s loyalty to his clique can hinder his individual development. “In order to come together as a team, trust has to be built and a team has to come together. That’s what we never did, and we still had these cliques we were dealing with.”
If crippling cliques aren’t identified and addressed before it’s too late, the team’s chemistry — and ultimately its performance — becomes compromised.
“We’ve had some teams through the years where you have these little groups of naysayers,” Saban told ESPN.com. “They always want to evaluate, and I call it judge, everything and try to make it an issue, whether it was how long you practice, why are we doing conditioning today, why do we have to do this or that. They’re not really fully committed, and it affects other people.
“When you have those circumstances, it’s really hard to have the kind of team chemistry you need to really get the best out of everybody.”
Most large organizations have disgruntled or distracted members, and college football teams are no exception. Whether the issue is playing time or personality clashes, some players grow unhappy or apathetic yet remain on the squad.
Coaches are always aware of these players but take different approaches to managing them. UCLA’s Jim Mora emphasizes character evaluation during recruiting, then education immediately after players arrive on campus.
“Are we creating the right personalities?” Mora said. “The best teams aren’t always the teams comprised of the best players. Remember when the [Washington] Redskins went out and signed all those big-money guys, the Deions? And they sucked. It starts with the culture you create. You bring the right guys in, and the guys that are there educate them on how it’s supposed to work, and then they just mesh together.
“You have to monitor everything, and you have to understand no matter how ideal you think it is, there’s going to be discontent at times. You just have to recognize it before it festers to a point where it becomes a real negative.”
Bielema identified a group of seniors “who felt they were bigger than the program,” showing up late to meetings and “setting bad examples” for younger teammates with their conduct. Weeks before the 2009 season, Bielema indefinitely suspended senior safeties Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter, who had 34 combined starts. They were soon kicked off the team.
Wisconsin went on to win 10 games that fall before claiming three consecutive Big Ten championships. Bielema calls the dismissals “one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made as a coach.”
LSU never goes longer than six weeks without an established unity council. Saban relies on Alabama’s peer intervention leadership group, which he meets with twice per month. Saban saw how Alabama’s leaders reacted to a series of off-field issues this spring, including the dismissal of defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor.
“They’re really pissed that some of the things have happened, so it creates a heightened awareness that people want to do things to affect it,” Saban said. “Where sometimes, when everything’s going good, everybody just assumes it’s going to stay that way.”
Chemistry on college teams changes each year because of roster turnover. As Saban notes, “Nothing ever stays in a straight line.” It makes the spring and summer critical for players to connect with one another — and with their coaches.
Three times during preseason camp, Bielema pairs up players and asks each to research his partner. They ask a series of questions — What’s the significance of your name? What’s the most important thing you ever bought with your own money? What was your most memorable high school date? — before presenting to the team. He’ll intentionally pair older players with younger players, players from different places and, at the end, players with similar backgrounds.
When Arkansas has bowling night during camp, four-man teams cannot include players from the same state or position group.
“I make guys from different walks of life, complete opposites, sit down and share,” Bielema said. “We always say, ‘Break bread with somebody new.'”
It’s a place Strong refuses to be in his second year at Texas.
“I think we have enough talent,” Strong told FoxSports.com this spring. “It’s all about when guys start believing and trusting one another. I’ve been on teams that were ungodly talented but we didn’t go win.
“It’s all about chemistry.”