Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/
Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Mark Richt, head coach of football here at the University of Georgia. Earlier episodes of this podcast feature professionals from the arts talking about creative work and critical evaluation. During these conversations, the importance of instruction and mentoring comes up again and again, so it's time to speak to a specialist - a coach. Mark Richt's job performance is reported and analyzed by the national media on a daily basis, but this interview begins with a question about how he sees himself. Here's Coach Richt:
Coach Mark Richt: Really and truly, the core of who I am, is I'm a born-again believer in Jesus Christ, who happens to coach football. That's how I see myself. I think people get a little too wrapped up in what they do, and sometimes they become what they do. I think it's very dangerous to become what you do. I think you have to know who you are, as a person. And then, basically, our jobs, what we do, or even our loves - bottom line is, whatever we like to do, whatever we do for a living, I think we have to be careful not to become that. I don't see myself as a football coach, as far as the essence of who I am as a person. Because, if football goes in the tank, then where are you? You have nothing to hold on to. So my faith is in God - I'm a child of God who happens to coach football. That's kinda how I see myself.
MC: Well, when you're on the job, what is the role of a coach?
CMR: I think we are educators, we're teachers, we're role models, we're mentors. We do so many things. We're psychologists, psychiatrists, however you want to say it - we just get so involved in the lives of the young men we're in authority over. We're highly competitive, we want to win, we want to be able to teach the fundamentals of a game, and the strategies and tactics of a game that will help us win, help us have the victory, but it is really so much more than that.
MC: What are some ways that coaching happens, how is it really conducted?
CMR: Well, I think that first of all, you have to have a philosophy of how you're going to go about your business. You gotta decide what's going to be most important to you. Our mission statement as coaches is to, whatever job you have, whatever task we are assigned to, because every coach has different responsibilities - I'm the head football coach of course, and I'm overseeing the whole program, but you might have a tight ends coach, a wide receivers coach, or a special teams coach, or whatever it might be, strength and conditioning, there are just so many roles that our coaches have - so whatever your role is, know what it is and be able to do it with excellence. I mean, that's the goal - whatever job you are given, do it with excellence.
But then, part of the mission statement goes on to say, I and I don't have it in front of me, but basically that we are in charge of enriching the lives of our players - physically, mentally, and hopefully even spiritually as well. So, our goal is to help them achieve the goals that they have. And we want to be a good example of what we're trying to teach, and we just don't want to do anything that would hurt the program, so to speak. We want to behave in such a way that we're gonna have total respect for our university and our program, and we also want to be - the last thing that I have on my mission statement says, honor God with everything you do. Really, that's the only mission statement you need, if we're going to try and do things the right way.
MC: You mentioned that there are a lot of different coaches with different specialties - what's the dynamic there?
CMR: Well, of course football, there's an offensive team, there's a defensive team, and then we have what we call special teams. On offense, we break down our coaching staff to a quarterbacks coach - the quarterback is the leader of the team, offensively especially, usually one of the overall leaders of the team - then you have an offensive lineman group, you have tight ends, you have wide receivers, and you have running backs. So there are five specialties there, there are five different coaches to handle each one of those segments.
If we're going to put in a play, a running play, all those lineman have to know their blocking assignments according to whatever defense they might see. Whatever alignment that the defensive team puts in front of them, they have to understand who's gonna block who. Then you gotta know how to block these guys, so your tight end is going to have a blocking role, your wide receivers will be blocking, you might have a lead back - you might have two backs in the back field and your full back, your lead back, has a blocking responsibility and then the back who's carrying the ball has got to know what track he's supposed to take, and where this hole may be created if we block well on offense.
So all that stuff has to be tied together, and the quarterback also has the ability to see if the call we're about to make is going to end in disaster. Just because of the alignment of the defense, then he might have to change that play at the line of scrimmage and then everybody's gotta know what to do when the play gets changed. So within about a two or three second time interval, they've got to change all their assignments if the quarterback sees that we need to make a change. So, there's just a lot of strategy in football and the tactics - the strategy is how we're going to go about our business, or at least, what are we going to do, and then the tactics are the detail of how to do it technically. How to step properly, where to place your hands, where does your helmet need to be placed on this particular block for it to be successful - there are just so many details that need to be coached to make everything work, and if one guy blows his assignment, one guy makes a mistake, then you can count on that play being a negative play.
MC: How do you get a sense, day to day, of what an individual player is going through?
CMR: Well, I'm always very conscious of that. To play intercollegiate athletics, to play football in particular - it's a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of emotion. Just a full-time student at Georgia stays pretty busy. There is some free time, obviously, but to be a full-time student and then have, I'd say, approximately a 30-hour-a-week job - the rules state that we can have them for 20 hours a week, but that's "countable" time, that doesn't count the time you get on an airplane and you fly to wherever you're going and stay the whole weekend, and not get home until three in the morning. Like, the day of competition counts as three hours, that day. When it might be all day, and all night. So my guess is it's closer to 30 hours a week that these guys are responsible for their football.
And so you add that to your normal student - and I know that there are a lot of students working their way through college - and it's tough, but not only is there the time element, but it's a very physical game. There are a lot things that go on that can exhaust a person, just from the training, the strength and conditioning, the weight lifting, the running, the flexibility stuff we do. We do mixed martial arts stuff, we do things to get them in the best condition possible so when they play the game, they have the best chance of success. And then the practices themselves, are two-and-a-half hours of fairly grueling physical work during the heat of the day. There's a lot that is put on these guys, and not only do you have school, and the football part, but you might need some academic support, you might have a tutor in a class, you might have some study hall to make sure you are staying on top of your grades and you're doing what you need to do to keep up with class, where a normal student might just - they're in their dorm room, they're studying.
We've got to kinda help them budget their time, because when they go home, they want to pass out from exhaustion. So we have to get things in place to help them make sure they get the job done, especially early on. The older they get, the more mature they get, they can handle it on their own, but in the beginning we gotta help them, because it's - it's a lot. So, am I conscious of that, yes, do I wish there was more time in the day, yes, or maybe there was a way to reduce some of the time that they have. But to get the job done in the most competitive environment in the United States - the Southeastern Conference, football conference - there's a price that's gotta be paid.
MC: Can you talk about some of your first experiences being coached as an athlete?
CMR: Well, in the beginning, sports is strictly fun. You either like it or you don't. If you like it, God bless you, go do it. If you don't like it, then don't do it, go find something else that's interesting to you. But find something in life that you enjoy, that you can become productive with. For me, personally, I love sports, I enjoyed playing all the games, I enjoyed practice, quite frankly. And so, coaches were there to teach me to become better at what I wanted to do and they were there to guide me. I pretty much provided the motivation myself - there are some guys that need some motivation, that need help, and in coaching you have to to be able to motivate, especially certain sports. A football practice that's 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity and you're out there two-and-a-half hours with a bunch of - a helmet and shoulder pads and all that gear on them - and sometimes it's not very much fun, but you've got to get it done. So, coaches motivate, and all that. And I've had wonderful coaches over the years, who taught me the fundamentals of the game, and taught me the strategy of the game, and were competitive themselves and wanted to win, and so, that was right up my alley. I enjoyed that very much.
MC: Do you think there are specific moments when coaching is most beneficial?
CMR: Are we talking about a specific moment in a game, in a competition?
MC: Yes, or maybe talk about the difference between practice and games, and when you decide to step in.
CMR: Well, what happens is - again, I'll get back to strategy and tactics. You have a certain plan that you're gonna - you're gonna run an offensive play. And it may be, strategically, a great play. But if you can't execute it well, if your tactics aren't very good, if your technique is poor - you may know who to block, or you might have the best play called against the defense that you're about to see, but if the guys don't block, it's no good. If the quarterback can't hit his target, it's no good. If the guy drops the ball, it's no good. So everybody has to know what to do, and they gotta know how to do it well. So, that's what practice is all about, and if you can - football is a game of repetition, as well. The more you "rep" a certain play, the better you tend to get at it. So if you work over and over and over and over - it's just like studying for a math test. If you are truly prepared by practicing whatever the theories are, whatever it might be, and you studied it hard enough and you have enough preparation, when you walk into that test you have confidence that you know the material, and you're going to have success.
Well, the same thing is true in football. If you are about to play a game, and you're gonna run these plays - if you're running plays against some "looks" that you didn't see, or if you ran a play one time, and then never repped it again, and you didn't engrain that in the players, then when the pressure of the game comes and things start moving really fast, you're probably not going to have much success. So, coaching is crucial in practice because you are developing habits that are going to take over when you're nervous, they're gonna take over when you're fatigued, they're gonna take over when you're behind by 21 points. What you have here, you have the habits of your practices.
And so, coaching is crucial during practice, but then there are game-time decisions that have to be made, really, within seconds of each other. Because you run one play, and then you gotta run another, then another, then another - what's the down and distance, what's the situation, what's the field position, what's the best play for this look if the defense is doing some things that we didn't prepare for, what do we have within our system, that our guys understand, that we could go to? Personnel - this kid's fatigued, get him out of the game, get this other guy in the game. So many things that you have to do - or, this kid is tremendous at catching the ball out of the backfield, but if you call a play where he's gotta block a linebacker, on a passing play where a linebacker may blitz, he has no chance of getting that done. So, you just gotta know all those things and you're constantly making decisions on what's the very best thing to do. Is it more important in practice or the games, I really couldn't say - I think you better be there all along the way or you're going to be in trouble.
MC: Are there discussions going on in college football about ways to change or improve the profession of coaching?
CMR: Oh yes, that's happening all the time. We have our national coaches convention every year, the American Football Coaches Association is really big on that type of stuff, professional development. We have, basically, webinars, I guess you would call them, on any kind of strategy, or tactic, or coaching philosophy. You could get that kind of thing just by the touch of a button on the website. Coaches are constantly visiting other coaches. We'll visit pro coaches sometimes, or we'll hire a guy to come in and spend time with us and talk about the cutting edge of what's happening in the NFL [National Football League]. Or strength and conditioning coaches, they have conferences as well - they tend to visit other places just to see what other people are doing, to find a better way.
And then, I'll be honest with you, when you watch the film - if I watch the film of an NFL game, or I watch the film of an opponent and I see them do something that is innovative, and I feel like we can implement that within our system, we'll do that too. When people copy you, that's one of the greatest flatteries that there are. They're like, "Hey, he's doing it this certain way, and we need to do it that way too, to have success." So, we're constantly exchanging ideas and also just watching and observing the trends of what's going on and try not to get behind the times.
MC: What are some of the trends that you have on your mind?
CMR: I think, offensively, a lot of people are moving to more of an uptempo offense, meaning that - it used to be, you'd get in the huddle, you'd tell everybody the play, you'd break out of the huddle, you'd go to the line of scrimmage, and then you'd call the play, and when the play was over you'd get back in the huddle, because you've got about 40 seconds in between plays. But nowadays a lot of people are - when I say "uptempo" - instead of huddling, they get right back on the line of scrimmage and call a play without being in the huddle, using hand signals, code names, whatever, and try to go as fast as you can so the defense, as they're trying to get set up, they get a little discombobulated - they get to where they can't function as well because they don't have as much time, and that defensive coordinator, who's calling the defensive plays, it gets him out of his comfort zone too, if you're going fast and having success doing it.
MC: How have coaching methods incorporated new technology?
CMR: Well, I don't know if coaching methods have necessarily changed the new technology, but I think the athletes themselves - they are faster, they are stronger. Obviously, the faster human beings are, if there's going to be a collision because one guy's got the ball and the other guy's in charge of getting him on the ground, to tackle him, then they're going to run into each other at a higher rate of speed and with more force because of their strength. And so, the equipment itself needs to be better - the shoulder pads, the helmets, even the mouthpieces, everything that has to do with protecting the players as much as possible. Two things protect the players: one is the equipment that they wear, and the other is the technique that they use when they go about their business. If they have poor technique, they can put themselves in a vulnerable position, and if their equipment is faulty, then they're also vulnerable. And if everything is perfect, it's still a very physical game, there are still going to be collisions and injuries because of it. So, the goal is to be able to help these guys be as safe as possible.
And some of the other things that are technological, I guess, would be some of the physicals, the things that we put them through - we check their hearts, we check their balance, we check their cognitive abilities. If a guy ends up with a concussion, we want to know what the baseline is for his balance, we want to know what the baseline is for his cognitive abilities, we want to know when he's back to normal before we put him back in the game. Or, let's say there's a joint - you can look at a knee, and if you test the strength of the knee, and then you have an injury, and now, once you're injured, you're not going to be at full speed, obviously, but as you rehab that knee, if you can test them and see, "Hey, he's at full strength. He's safe to go back." There are a lot of advancements in that regard, maybe more than anything in football right now.
We're always going to be trying to find a better way schematically, and all that kind of thing, but I don't know if there's much technology to it, other than - I will say this, when we view film, we will have graduate assistant coaches take a game of an opponent and break it down into down, distance, field position, what is the defensive alignment, what's the front - meaning the down alignment - what's the coverage - meaning the defensive backs - is there a blitz. All these things, there will be a spreadsheet - we'll write it all down. But then, because we have it computerized now, and our video's computerized, if I say I want to look at every single first and ten in this game that they just played, I click that column and bang, every single first and ten is right there. I can study it that way. Or if I want to study every time - if I want to see every "red zone" play in succession, I can see it without viewing the entire film. So I can be very specific in the study of a certain situation, so I can then decide what the strategy is going to be in a game for when I get in the red zone. I'm going to know what I want to do because I've studied all the film, and I was able to push just one button and then everything's there right in line.
You can also sit there and get a tendency, you might say, how many times do they play Cover 3. Well, you can just sort it out by that and it'll say, 37 percent of the time they're gonna play Cover 3. 24 percent of the time they're gonna play Cover 1, or whatever it might be. So, by using those tendencies you have a better idea of how to attack a defensive system. And that works the same way with defensive coaches studying offense, it's the same type of thing. So, there's a lot of technology in how we study each other and figure out a better way to attack.
MC: You mentioned martial arts training and I was wondering, are there other professions that you look at to borrow ideas from, to bring in to football?
CMR: I think when it comes to training, and I'm talking about off-season training, trying to get the body in the best possible condition to compete at the highest level, there are a lot of different ways to train. I think the more you do, as far as variety, I think it helps, first of all, the monotony of it, but also there are different ways to try to simulate what's going to happen in the game. You can't just play - you can't put full pads on and practice every single day, all year long, there would be nothing left of you. But you've got to get your body prepared for the season, be prepared to play in these games. So, I think there are just a lot of different ways to train and the more - are we using ideas of other sports? Absolutely.
MC: What advice would you give to someone who is about to be coached?
CMR: I guess that first of all, I would say, "I hope you have a passion for what you're going to be coached in." If you love music and you want to be coached in music, if you love football and you want to be coached in football, if you love numbers and you want to be coached when it comes to mathematics, or whatever, I think you need to find your passion, because if you have a passion for it, you're going to be motivated. If you're motivated, then whoever is teaching you or coaching you can guide you, instead of wasting a lot of time trying to motivate you. So the first thing I would say is find your passion, and then find someone who is really good at it who can help teach you how to become better at it.
Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Hanna Lisa Stefansson and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on March 8, 2013.
Transcription by Mark Callahan