Coach Fore shares what he found from 108 state championship teams in 42 states regarding what it takes to have a winning football program in this in-depth interview with Mike Kuchar.
By Mike Kuchar - @mikekkuchar
Senior Research Manager
Editor’s note: Veteran Athletic Director and former head high school coach Chris Fore, conducted a lenghty research study on what makes successful football programs. Fore reached out to 108 head coaches from 42 different states nationwide and published the contents of his study in a book entitled Building Championsship-Caliber Programs which can be found here: http://eightlaces.org. Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar interviewed Fore on some common denominators on successful progams.
MK: Briefly explain the premise of the book. What was the purpose of it?
CF: The premise of this book was to research the best practices of the 2011 State Champion Head Coaches. It started with an idea I had to simply become better myself as a coach. I reached out to ten state champions with three questions about their program. Never set out to write a book. But once their responses started coming in, and I started sharing their responses, and getting great feedback from coaches, I started reaching out to even more champions. The purpose started out for me to become a better coach during the offseason. It morphed in to helping coaches nationwide become better coaches by sharing with them what the best of the best were doing to build some of the best programs in the nation.
MK: What were 3-5 common threads you discovered when interviewing these championship programs? This can relate to on the field or off the field procedures.
CF: I heard back from 108 Head Coaches from forty two states nationwide!! I categorized all of their answers in to about thirty different categories, or what I call characteristics. What developed were ten very clear common characteristics of the state champion programs. The top ten characteristics serve as ten of the chapters for this book. These top ten characteristics represented about seventy percent of their answers. The top three common answers to my three questions were: 1. Off season program. 2. Team chemistry 3. Focus on the little things and fundamentals. These three were the top three answers to my questions about what Head Coaches said separated their state champion team from others they faced in their league, conference and state.
MK: Roughly, how many of the programs you spoke with had developed Mission Statements? What were the general ideas behind these mission statements?
CF: I didn’t ask directly if they had a mission statement, so this is a tough question to answer. Some coaches voluntarily gave me their mission/vision statement as a part of their answer. But as a whole, it was not a specific question, so I don’t know the answer to the question here. The general ideas behind the mission statements I did receive were about putting team first, and outworking everyone they played through a determined work ethic.
MK: What information did you find about the relationship between developing a system and adapting it to your personnel? Did the majority of coaches change their systems from year to year or did they just adapt it to fit their personnel?
CF: One of the top five answers from head coaches, meaning the top five characteristics of Championship programs, was to “Stay The Course.” By staying the course, coaches told me time and again that coaches who want to be successful need to find a system they believe in and stick with it. A majority of coaches told me that they did not change their systems from year to year, but stuck with one system, got the kids, coaches and community to believe in it and then had success with it.
The very first quote I thought of after reading this question was from Jeff Vanleur of Bridgewater/Emery/Ethan High School of South Dakota. He has won five State Championships. He said this about their offensive system: “Continuity is something we do different than the other programs we compete against. We run the same offense year after year and ALL through our 7th -12th grades. I believe by the time our players become varsity players they know our system well.”
Another quote I thought of was from Jeff Gourley, from Olathe South High School in Kansas. “I would assume every coach wants to win a state championship, but they also need to understand there isn’t a perfect system, a definite blueprint for a program to achieve success, or any other magic pill. Coaches should research all aspects of football, decide on their philosophical approach, and then implement a plan. Once the plan is deemed to be fundamentally solid, stick to it. Coaches that waffle will rarely achieve long term success. In short, do what you believe and believe what you do. It is fine to “tweak” systems to fit personnel but stay within the parameters of your basic philosophy.” I love what he says about “coaches that waffle will rarely achieve long term success.” This research project most definitely agrees with what Coach Gourley claims here.
A few more quotes in this area that speak to what you’ve asked:
“Stay the course. Believe in what you do and how you do it.”
– Hal Lamb, Calhoun High School (Georgia)
“Stay true to what you believe in. Don't think you need to run the schemes that other teams do because THEY have success with it. Work hard at what you do and be good at it.”
– Travis Cote, Bishop Guertin (New Hampshire)
MK: How are coaches maximizing their time on the practice field? How long do these coaches practice for now? As a former coach yourself, what was something interesting that you found coaches are doing now with their practice time?
CF: The most interesting piece I found about practice time comes from Troy Starr, Head Coach at Helix High School in San Diego. Coach Starr was the Director of Football Operations for Coach Urban Meyer at Florida when they won their National Championships. His office was right next door; they’ve been friends for a long time. When I asked him what the MOST important aspect of his Championship team was he said: We spent an incredible amount of time, whole practice sessions, scoring in the red zone, and goal line. We worked on red zone offense, and defense in the red zone. We probably spent more time than any team in the state in the red zone. Those huge games at the end of the year, the difference in the red zone is huge. We had a very complete plan for the red zone. We would practice with a star out with an injury. We practiced and prepared for any of those crazy, real life scenarios. 30 seconds, 1 time out, ball at the 9, all of those different scenarios.
I learned a LOT from this personally as a coach. I’ve always practiced red zone scenarios, like all coached do. But to read from a State Champion Head Coach, and one who has been connected with Urban Meyer, who adopted his whole philosophy from Urban, to hear him say how much time they spent in the red zone was very intriguing to me. Sure enough, this season, I saw THREE game lost with the offense holding the ball down inside the ten yard line!! One of those was a playoff game. The team had FOUR opportunities to punch it in from the nine yard line. They couldn’t do it. Fell short on the two, in a quarterfinal football game where they would have knocked off the number one ranked team, in a huge upset. A few days later, thinking of what Coach Starr had told me, I asked an assistant coach at that school how much time they spent in the red zone during practice. His response: none. “We just run offense from like the 40 or 50 or whatever, for 30-45 minutes.” I shared with him Coach Starr’s advice. He said “yeah, would have definitely helped.
As for length of time on the field, this wasn’t a specific question that I asked. I heard from coaches all over the nation with all kinds of philosophies. Some INCREASE practice length when they get to the playoffs, and some DECREASE it. Again, I think it all comes down to what will work best for YOUR program, and YOUR philosophy. There really wasn’t an overwhelming response one way or the other here regarding the length of practice. There was overwhelming support that practice makes perfect, and not just practice, but PERFECT practice. I got a real sense from this project that the most successful programs are the ones who have a real plan and purpose for every single minute of practice. They aren’t just going through a routine.
MK: What are some coaches doing now in their off-season program development that is unique relating to IN THE WEIGHTROOM?
CF: Without a doubt, the number one answer from State Championship Head Football Coaches when asked what they did differently than the other schools in their league, section and state was their work ethic and specifically their offseason program. These coaches were convinced that nobody worked harder than their program did. Championship programs develop their football players on a year round basis. Those who fail to do so will fall behind the teams who are preparing themselves twelve months a year. Again, I didn’t specifically ask about unique weightroom program developments. Didn’t come across anything “unique” in this area at all, in the 108 responses nationwide to be very honest, just that everyone is in the weight room.
A few quotes about offseason program:
“I think our off-season program really got us over the top mentally and physically. Mentally, I think our kids believed they could beat anybody because of the work they put in during the offseason.” Hal Lamb, Calhoun High School (Georgia)
“I am not sure exactly what we do different than other teams in our state, but I do know that we have a 12 month calendar that use to insure we are doing something every day as coaches and players to improve. We break those 12 months up into 1. Preseason 2. Season 3. Post-Season, and have specific goals that we want to accomplish during each of those periods. We use the old philosophy regarding “plan your work, then work your plan”, and everybody in our program has bought into this approach.”
- Kevin Wright, Carmel High School (Indiana)
MK: What are some coaching doing now in their off-season program development that is unique relating to OFF THE WEIGHTROOM?
CF: I heard from a lot of coaches who are really trying to teach their kids to COMPETE outside of the weight room. I think Pete Carroll’s philosophy of “always compete” has become a major point of emphasis for coaches nationwide. Coaches aren’t just getting their kids bigger, stronger and faster, but they are incorporating competition in to their offseason strength and conditioning program.
It was good to hear from coaches that WANT their kids playing multiple sports because it teaches them how to compete. Many coaches nationwide (I don’t have a percentage) encouraged their kids to play multiple sports. I thought this was interesting because the myth out there is that you can’t win championships unless your kids are with your program year round.
Simply not the case. Look at this quote about one coaches most valuable players:
“Strength: weight training for physical strength is a must, but so is competing … for overall strength. Our most valuable players were ALL multiple sport athletes. The one or two kids that did not really start for other teams (in all cases, they were kids that had injuries and were thus not able to play a winter or spring sport last year) were valuable cogs in the wheel, but the true strength (spiritual, physical, mental) came from the kids that had competed in varsity sports for 3 (or four!) years in more than one sport. As I mentioned earlier, patience was the key for us.” - Ed Homer, Christchurch High School (Virginia)
MK: How many of these coaches are developing a leadership council among their players? What are some of the common activities these coaches are doing to teach leadership?
CF: I don’t have a percentage number here, but I would estimate that about 75-80% of the 108 State Champion Head Coaches I interviewed for this project have some sort of leadership council/player committee, etc. “Leadership” is one of the chapters in this book, because it was one of the top ten most important characteristics of the State Champion teams. Coaches nationwide are incorporating some type of leadership development in their programs. The most common activity coaches are doing is simply meeting with a leadership council of some type, and spending time with them to develop them as leaders. Some are using curriculum of some type, some are using bits and pieces from several different resources, and some are just making up their own curriculum to develop leadership.
Here are some quotes on leadership:
“We hold a leadership camp in the mountains with our seniors prior to the start of the season. At this camp we set goals, discuss issues like drugs and alcohol, do problem solving activities, and help our seniors understand the type of leadership we need to be champions. We feel like it is a great component of our success, and we don’t even have a football in camp.”
- Don Julian, Sheridan High School (Wyoming)
“One thing we did differently this year from other teams in our league and state was our leadership Council & Character Development program.”
Joe Kinnan, Manatee High School (Florida)
MK: Mental toughness and mental preparation seem to be constant topics of conversation among coaches now. What are the majority of coaches doing now to train mental toughness?
CF: Without a doubt, the coach who seems to be doing the most in this area is Hal Wasson from Southlake Carroll High School in Texas.
“We spent a great deal of time on the mindset each week. Mental toughness....it's not the what, but the how. Mental toughness is being able to go from play to play/ stay in the moment and being able to focus. Being excellent is the ability to do common things with uncommon discipline and enthusiasm. Don't get caught up in distractions that have nothing to do with the moment/ play/ game...etc. This takes mental toughness; which is a learned behavior. This takes tremendous mental and physical condition. Therefore, these are things we cancontrol and don't focus on the things you have no control over. Being mentality tough requires the ability to overcome adversity. You will not get there without conquering the adversity...and that's the toughest part. And this TEAM chose to do just that. Always put the emphasis on the TEAM!!!”
Hal Wasson, Southlake Carroll (Texas)
To be very honest, I don’t think that most coaches are doing anything unique or special to train mental toughness. I think it is one of the most overlooked aspects of building a Championship-caliber football program. “Mental Toughness” was one of the top ten characteristics in this study. However, when I pushed and pursued this further, to really understand WHAT coaches are doing to train mental toughness and HOW they are doing it, the longest response I was able to get from anyone is above, from Coach Wasson. He told me that it is one of his major focuses as the head football coach each week. For the most part, coaches are developing Mental Toughness on the practice field by putting their players in positions where they must achieve with their toughness, fortitude, desire, etc.
You’ll notice from some of the quotes below that Texas seems to really focus on Mental Toughness. I heard from twelve programs in Texas, and most of them said something about Mental Toughness being one of their keys.
“I think our kids are very poised and show a lot of mental toughness. We focus on that in everything we do throughout the year.” - Hank Carter, Lake Travis (Texas)
“We were always able to respond to adversity, no matter what happened our kids responded like champions. I believe that our coaching staff taught our players how to respond to pressure and how to respond to those situations. We always talk about handling what we can control and doing that in a positive manner.” - Seth Stinton, Melissa High School (Texas)
MK: What are 1-3 things you learned from writing this book that can help coaches?
I think that the most important thing I learned myself from interviewing all of these coaches was that a successful program is not based on schemes and X's and O's. In all reality, think about how much time, energy and effort coaches will put in to clinics this offseason. And it’s all VERY GOOD stuff. However, when 108 State Champion Head Coaches answered my questions about their team’s success, the on the field X's and O's was NOT a top ten answer! Isn’t that something? Not ONE coach said that what separated them from the other teams in their league, conference, state was the spread offense. Not one coach said that their special teams or 3-3-5 defense was the most important aspect of their State Championship. I find this very interesting. Of course, coaches alluded to schemes or their on the field execution, but many other things came first: leadership, team chemistry, work ethic, the little things, mental toughness, etc. This was the most important thing I learned as a head coach: you’ve got to focus on the whole of the student-athlete to get the most out of them, not just the X’s and the O’s.
Secondly, I learned that the little things are very, very important to the overall success of a program. I’ve always been a very detailed oriented person, and a coach who pays attention to the little things. At times during my career, I’ve wondered how much the little things do matter. I’ve had coaches who have disagreed with how I do something here and there, things that they see as “insignificant” but I see as something important. It was good to read from these very successful coaches that the sum of many little things is the championship program. One coach told a story about how they practiced quarterbacks sliding in bounds at the end of the game to save time. Sure enough, in the state championship game, it literally came down to a second string QB remembering to stay in bounds to run out the clock at the end of the game, and he did it!! That was probably my favorite story of this entire process.
The third thing that I learned was to develop YOUR philosophy and stick with it. I’ve only been a head coach for eight years now. And I’ve developed my core philosophy. In fact, when my mentor told me he was leaving, and that he was going to recommend to the Athletic Director that I take things over, we were at a clinic. I went back to my hotel room that night, and scribbled out on a bedside hotel note pad what the four pieces to my philosophy are. I’ve questioned that philosophy at times. I’ve questioned my philosophy of offense and defense and the kicking game during certain years. I’ve wanted to move from my wing t offense to the spread at times. But what these coaches have convinced me of, what I’ve learned from their success is to stay true to my philosophy, stick with it!
MK: Thanks for your time, Coach. Best of luck with the book, it’s an excellent read.
CF: Appreciate it, Mike.