Copyright 2015 by John T. Reed

The 1/8/15 Wall Street Journal, America’s best coaching periodical, has an article about how the Oregon coaches do not yell at their players. The implication is that this is the correct approach and why they are in the national championship game on 1/12/15.


We had this same childish debate during my first two years as a West Point cadet. At that time, freshmen and sophomores at West Point were always cadet privates, not in charge of anybody. We argued among ourselves which was better: hard ass or nice guy. I said nice guy.

But during our final two years at West Point, there were no such debates. During those years, we were cadet corporals, sergeants, and officers—in charge of other cadets. The debates ended because we got to try our favorite approach and find out if it worked or not.

The correct answer? You need both in your repertoire. Why? Because some subordinates respond to hard ass and some respond to nice guy.

The Journal article did not say hard ass. They referred to “yelling.”

Generally, the upperclassmen at West Point did not yell in anger. But that is not to say they did not speak in anger. Indeed, one of the most chilling things some did was to get about one inch from your ear and chew you out in an extremely menacing way all at a whisper—often while another cadet was chewing you out in a loud voice nose to nose and a third was chewing you out harshly in a normal voice one inch from your other ear.

No yelling in the bunch. One was even a “plebe whisperer” but you would never mistake that for the “horse whisperer.”

By the way, my middle son was rather heavily into horses in his youth. After I saw the horse whisperer movie, I asked him about it. He is a nice guy, but he exploded about that guy saying it was total bull. Horses are big animals, they have personalities. You have to be tougher on some than others.

The correct way to lead is the way that gets the job done. And in the real world, having a never get angry or never yell policy simply does not get the job done. Some kids or soldiers do not respect nice guys. They see it as weakness and take advantage of it.

I put a lengthier discussion of this in my book How to Manage Residential Property for Maximum Cash Flow and Resale Value 6th edition on pages 182 and 183 where I used the X and Y theories of leadership nomenclature to explain it.

I was an assistant coach under a very successful high school coach who was into the nice-guy only approach. What did it get him? About one player a year who would abuse him and draw many unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and personal foul penalties to the great embarrassment of the head coach. He would try his nice-guy routine and it would only encourage the kid.

I told him he had a hole in his game leadership-wise and that if he could not bring himself to be sufficiently harsh to straighten out the hard-core bad guys he ought to put me or another assistant coach who had been a college lineman in change of them. As in, “Richard, if you don’t start behaving, I am going to assign Coach Reed to be your personal coach and give him full authority over you including whether you remain on the team. If you behave like you have been, he’ll make you regret it within the first 24 hours. So what’s it gonna be? Are you going to do what I told you or do you want to play for coach Reed instead of me?” He rejected that suggestion and continued to do it his way with the same inarugably bad results.

My oldest son Dan and I evolved into a sort of good-cop-bad-cop routine. Actually, we each had both in our repertoire. But my approach—without my thinking consciously about it—was it was easy to get criticism from me but hard to get a compliment. Like I said, that was not a conscious mind game. I criticized doing things wrong and complimented doing them right. Football is complex and rookies often do things wrong.

My son, on the other hand, gave out lots of praise and rarely criticized.

Dan said to me once, “You know you give the kids a compliment so rarely than when you do they run around telling the other players about it.” I laughed. “Shane Smith did that when I called him Shane. He was telling me and everyone else it was the first time I ever called him by his first name.” “Considering you are one of three Shane’s on the team, did it ever occur to you that it was also the first time you were the only Shane within earshot?”

I ran into that Shane years later in my health club. He was still laughing about one phrase I used to use when chewing him out. “Shane, I’m getting very tired of telling you the right way to do this over and over and looking into your eyes and seeing your screen saver.”

One of our other coaches used to observe a player screwing up something we taught him how to do correctly 50 times and ask rhetorically, “Did you eat a lot of paint chips when you were a kid?”

The other side of the Dan-Jack combination was that Dan would rarely lose his temper, so when he did, it was an event, like my compliments. He said my ass chewing had less and less effect over time but that his ass chewings really had an effect. “Yep, I said, and ditto for my compliments.”

The other side of it is that coaches also have personalities. You must be yourself. So the correct formula is to be yourself, treat each player the way he needs to be treated to get him to do his job at 100% effort until the whistle, and to have multiple personalities on your staff so you have the full repertoire of leadership approaches—although it’s nice to have all the approaches in one leader, it probably does not often happen.

If you hard-ass a nice guy like me, it will piss me off and I will respond grudgingly. And if you nice-guy a person who only responds to hard ass, he will ignore you. Oregon head coach Mark Hilfrich may be going to the national championship game, and the Journal reporter Jonathan Clegg has done some research, but they are both full of shit on why OR is going to that game. It ain’t lack of “yelling” on the practice field.

Having Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who won it with a record 95.16% of the ballots, on the team is one reason why they are in that game. And they are not the only team in the game. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer will be there, too. I am not aware that he is a football whisperer.

The NFL coach with the highest winning percentage in history is Vince Lombardi. One of his players said, “He treated us all the same, like dogs.” The NFL coach with the second best winning percentage in history is John Madden. “Boom!”

The Journal article says players today don’t respond to “yelling.” I’ve been hearing that “Today is different” BS my whole life.

41-year-old Helfrich and Clegg think they have it all figured out. Just like we did at West Point when we were freshmen and sophomores.

Finally, there is an ulterior motive here and in coaching all over America. Helfrich and Clegg are both telling readers what wonderful human beings they are. The coaches who use this approach or claim to tend to talk about it a lot. I always thought they were trying to get the parents of the players to say, “Oh, he’s so good with children.” Helfrich may be doing this interview to help his future recruiting.

Parents used to complain about me being too intense, too harsh. But within the team, when I first became a coordinator, the other coordinator complained that all the players wanted to be on defense, my department. We had by far the most success on the field was one reason. Another was that hate is not the opposite of love, indifference is. No one ever accused me of being indifferent to the players. Kids like adults being intensely interested in what they do even when the manifestation of that intense interest is criticism.

I once coached my Granada high school freshman team to a big victory over another high school, California High, where the players were mainly guys who had been on my most successful youth team. That was Thursday night at Granada. The next night I went to the varsity game at Cal Hi between the same two schools because I had also coached players then on the Cal Hi varsity. I was off duty. But both the Cal Hi freshmen and a whole lot of my Granada players were at the game as spectators. At one point, I went to the snack bar and I felt like the Pied Piper because this platoon of several dozen players from both teams was following me around—that would be the same me who got criticized for being too harsh with the players.

One final story—I have others. One coach was trying to get me fired one year because of a deal where he thought if I got fired that would cause the coach of a higher level team to take my position the following year, thereby opening up that position for him when his son arrived at that level. Youth sports politics.

But his campaign to get me fired included his telling one father of an 8-year-old on my team that I spoke too harshly to his son. I was talking to a team board member—my boss—once at a game and the father came up and told me in an angry voice to not ever speak to his son the way I had again. I said, “I do not recall speaking to your son in any improper way ever so I would not be changing how I spoke to him.” He then repeated more menacingly that I was not to ever speak to his son that way again, still not telling us what I supposedly said. “Or else what?” I asked. No answer, just another repeat of the threat.

At the end of the season, we had the usual awards banquet. It was in the California high school cafeteria which had a bunch of round, eight-person tables. That kid spent the whole night sitting at my table, not the one with his parents. The father came over at the end of the night and apologized.

I do not believe that OR or any other successful team can succeed with pure nice guy to every single player every single minute. And if OR wins, I will not believe it was because of any such approach unless by some happenstance every player on the team is one who responds to nice guy, in which case that would be the correct approach. The fact is coaches of all types of personalities and approaches have won championships. And few of them ever did it with either all nice-guy or all hard-ass. You have to have, and use, the full repertoire of leadership approaches in order to have the necessary effect on the full repertoire of players you have.

When my youngest son, Mike, read this, he said if you went all hard-ass or all nice-guy, hard ass was far more likely to work than all nice-guy with FBS college football players. Mike was one of my assistant coaches in 2004 at Monte Vista High School. He also was a football equipment manager at the University of Arizona from 2006 to 2010 where he watched Nick Foles, Rob Gronkowski, and others get coached by non-whisperer Mike Stoops. AZ was the only team that beat nice-guy Oregon during the 2014 season. They also beat the # 2 in the nation 2007 Ducks (Journal says then OR coach Chip Kelly was also Mr. Nice Guy) and the #5 in the nation 2013 Ducks. AZ Coach “RichRod” is also not a whisperer.

Note to reporter Clegg, “yelling” is not a personality defect. It is what every normal human being does when they have told a player 50, 100, 500 times to not let a receiver get behind him when he is in zone pass coverage, and he acts like he never heard of that advice and stares at the QB as yet another receiver gets behind him—to cite just one typical coaching problem.

One of Lou Holtz’s assistants was the position coach of a player who kept doing something wrong over and over. During a film session, the player did it wrong yet again. When Holtz demanded the assistant coach explain why he was still doing it wrong, he said, “Coach, I’ve told him 1,000 times to do it the right way.” Holtz responded, “Is there something special about the number 1,000?”

No, there’s not. But there would be something special about a coach who did not change his approach during those 1,000 times—like never raising his voice. Definition of insanity and all that. Any normal human being would raise his voice, lower his voice, use film, use a white board, use demonstration, use drills, use punishment, etc., etc. during those 1,000 incorrect reps to get that player to do the right thing.

I had a similar reaction in my review of the movie When the Game Stands Tall which seemed to imply that De La Salle High School had a 151-game win streak (I was on the side line when they got their 150th victory over Monte Vista.) because they focus on character rather than football. More bullshit!

John T. Reed