We all seem to have preconceived notions about people, places and things based on the information we have been exposed to or often based on the point of view of those in our immediate environment. In youth football, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the play and actions of teams and coaches. Quite often the reputation of these Pee Wee teams and coaches was a product of others, just the aggregated frustration and covetousness of other youth coaches, nothing more than just sour grapes. Unfortunately in the world of youth football coaching, these impressions and attitudes are pervasive, widespread and often WRONG.
Be Open Minded
When coaching Pee Wee football, I try to go into these situations with an open mind and a soft heart and let the other team and coaches prove me wrong. One of the most disliked and misunderstood coaches in two different leagues my teams have competed in has actually become a trusted friend and confidant. His organization has gone out of its way to treat us well and in turn we have gone out of our way to do the same for them. Now our organizations enjoy a strong but respectful rivalry and we look forward to playing each other every year for the right reasons. Would we have felt the same way if we listened to others and came into the game with one toe in the water? Probably not.
Unfortunately I too succumb to making judgments about people I know little about and in many cases these judgments are 100% wrong. I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with Rick Neuheisel from UCLA last weekend at the Clinic of Champions in
Reno, Nevada. Coach Neuheisel gave a very sharp presentation on his version of the 2 minute offense and how UCLA will be drilling it this fall. I knew of Coach from his days at Colorado, his Buffalos were always a big game when my beloved Cornhuskers were on their schedule. Of course Coach Neuheisels unorthodox West Coast “outward bound” attitude was diametrically opposed to the Nebraska no-nonsense, blue collar, physical ground attack attitude. Coach was not a very well liked man in these parts, the West Coast persona, passing attack, surfer dude persona etc. Then there was the controversy at Washington University with a NCAA Tourney Hoops, pool, more bad publicity. For some reason, while no one around here knew the guy, he was known as “Skippy” and the usually polite Nebraska fans seemed to like to ridicule this man in the papers, on talk radio and in everyday fan conversation.
While one can’t take too much away from spending a couple of hours with someone, you can get somewhat of a feel for that person in my opinion. Coach Neuheisel opened his presentation with some background, he didn’t talk about his 66-30 collegiate head coaching record or his championships, he talked about some humbling moments he had as a player and how we could relate that to our teams and kids. I didn’t know that Coach walked on at UCLA as a very undersized quarterback who was given number 24X as a freshman. X meant you were a duplicate number and probably would never suit up or get into a game. Number 24 by the way that year was Freeman McNeil, so obviously they didn’t think Coach N was going to get on the field. In those days they didn’t redshirt freshmen at UCLA. Fortunately for coach, one of the other freshmen got homesick and quit so Coach got this players number, #20. Coach N was never in the game program that year, in fact the other kid quit so late that Coach N was known by the original #20’s name, not his own, as the game programs had already been printed.
UCLA and Coach Neueheisel
As the season progressed, UCLA was having a very poor season and the coaches were trying to get a spark on special teams. The coaches offered a chance to anyone that would volunteer to play special teams. Coach N volunteered to play and to his surprise the UCLA coaches assigned him to the kick return team, where his job was to block L4 on a trap type block. At just over 195 lbs Coach had to block other teams linebackers that weighed 230-250 running at full speed with malice in their hearts on their kick coverage teams. Coach had a number of very self depreciating stories to tell including one where he was knocked unconscious and his face mask was broken during one of these returns. He didn’t tell it in a manner to brag, but to instruct and to make a bit of fun of himself. A quarterback playing special teams as a designated blocker, that impressed me. He never mentioned his Rose Bowl win at UCLA or his Rose Bowl MVP award, nothing like that.
In the after-session mixer in the Speakers Suite Coach Neuheisel couldn’t have been different than what I imagined. He was shy, cordial, not outgoing at all, friendly, humble and very willing to offer help and guidance to any that asked, even to a lowly Pee Wee football coach like me. He went out of his way to offer support and appreciation for what youth coaches do for the game of football. He looked you in the eye, gave you a firm handshake and listened intently to what you were saying, asking great questions and asking for clarifications along the way. I came away from that experience with a much different opinion of Coach Neuheisel. He had absolutely nothing to gain by spending time with a youth coach from Nebraska, none of my kids are being recruited by UCLA and I’m certainly not a donor prospect for UCLA.
On my way back to my room I felt a bit ashamed at judging someone so wrongly without the benefit of more information or personal experience. I sure hope I’ve learned my lesson, because my prejudging has so often been so wrong and it’s incongruent with how I want my own kids or players to act. I had the very same experience with High School Coach Steve Calande from Pennsylvania, I was 200% wrong about him as well and now we are fast friends. My opinion changed after finally meeting him at a coaches Clinic in Pennsylvannia in 2002. The moral of the story is make your own decisions about people, including players, youth football coaches and parents. Keep an open mind and they may surprise you.
I’ve been on the other end of those situations myself. I can’t count the number of times guys have come to me after a clinic and told me while they were looking forward to hearing me speak, I was much different (in a postitive way) than they had expected. I’m not a win at all costs Pee Wee football coach in any way shape or form. Our premise is: you can win, have fun, play kids, be great sports and teach great fundamentals too, they aren’t mutually exclusive goals.