I have had the pleasure of being in the NFL as an assistant coach and as a coordinator. My background is that of a defensive coach working with both defensive backs, nickel backs, and linebackers.
The perspective of a defensive coordinator is far different from that of a position coach.
Being a coordinator on either side of the ball allows for an opportunity to be in a true leadership role with authority in the responsibility of both the defensive coaching staff and the collective unit of the defensive players.
Organization, time management, delegation of tasks, philosophy, game planning, opponents, staff and player relations, communication, play calling, and the responsibility of the unit’s performance and protection are all part of the defensive coordinator’s job description.
As I reflect on my years in the coordinator role two organizational lessons come to mind.
Although the coordinator shoulders enormous responsibility, the head coach is the ultimate decision maker in terms of philosophy. How much autonomy given to a coordinator depends on the head coach and his leadership style and background.
A head coach with a defensive background might have a hands-on approach where as an offensive-minded head coach might have little interaction or communication with the defense, but expect positive results.
As a first-time coordinator my first lesson of leadership was how important communication was to my role.
Not only communication with my staff and players but also with the head coach. As a coordinator, my first head coach was a hands-on personality. As the head coaching duties took their toll and his trust in my abilities grew, communication regarding both defensive direction and philosophy suffered.
The head coach no longer had the group of the defensive language and scheme. He always felt confident and comfortable talking to coaches and players. That comfort level was slowly deteriorating. Tensions grew until I learned it was not the head coach’s job to keep abreast of the defensive direction; it was my job as his coordinator to communicate and report to him. I opened the lines of communication and reported weekly tasks – there on all operated smoothly and his comfort level returned.
Another lesson that I learned quickly was that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything yourself. Embracing the opportunity to delegate to your staff had several benefits.
It allowed for more time for studying opponents and rehearsing your play calling craft which has a direct impact on the game’s outcome. With play calling having that bind of impact it is prudent to utilize as much time and energy as possible to prepare for that aspect of your responsibility.
Delegating not only gives you the time to spend on priority tasks it gives your staff a feeling of confidence knowing you have enough trust in their coaching ability to assign important projects. It also lets them know you respect their opinions.
As a position coach and as a coordinator I discovered position coaches can become extremely territorial. I’ve caught it myself often becoming angry or resentful of any comments regarding the players I was coaching. It is natural to take pride in your position and players, but it is important to be objective in evaluating performance and not become sensitive to superiors’ honest evaluations. Because of my own experiences as a position coach I would be sure to touch on that aspect of the position coach and coordinator relationship in my first defensive staff meeting.
I have been on defensive staffs where the staff would sit in the meetings far too long with little communication and instead watch endless amounts of video. Coordinators and position coaches need ample individual time for projects or task completion.
Unless urgent action is needed, thoughtful reflection and action in independent study can be far more beneficial than group discussion. Independent study followed by creative discussion seemed to provide the best results in attaining achievable ideas for useful application in the field of competition. I have also discovered that certain personalities find comfort in conversation and therefore talking is an indicator of progress.
Conversation directed at solutions is meaningful; as is staff members getting the opportunity to stand up for their creative ideas without the influence of other opinions.
All of us do much better when we work on projects that interest us. It was important for me as a coordinator to delegate and assign duties that interested my coaches as often as I could.
As one with authority, guard against the arrogance that you alone can come up with the best ideas. Organizational structure need not dictate operational practice.
Effective leadership will readily accept ideas especially great or creative ideas from any part of the organizational flow chart or outside of it.
The most joy in coaching, apart from the exhilaration of seeing team members succeed, was seeing the game from a global perspective as a defensive coordinator. Having the luxury of time to study opponents from a strategic and tactical angle allowed for much more growth in the ever-changing landscape of the game’s evolution.
Having the opportunity to call plays on game day and have a direct impact on the game is stimulating, fascinating, addictive, stressful and when successful — the most rewarding feeling a coordinator can have.