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By Dan Ellis, Head Coach, Great Valley High School (PA)

Program development is on the minds of every coach this time of year. Take a look at how this successful HS coach puts together his program.

By Dan Ellis
Head Coach
Great Valley High School (PA)
Twitter: @CoachDanEllis


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greatvalleyI have had the great fortune to be the head football coach at three separate high schools – Springfield (Delco), W.C. East, and Great Valley. In the first two cases, I took over a football program that had been down for an extended period of time. At Springfield, I took over in 2008. That program had not had a winning season since 1994. In three seasons, we changed a culture by taking the 2010 team to its first playoff run since 1994. I left to take the W.C. East job after that season, but the new head coach, Tom Kline and Chris Britton, were members of our staff and continued a run in the playoffs from 2011-2014. At W.C. East, in the four years previous to my arrival in 2011, W.C. East went 5-38. In 2013, we finished 6-5, the first winning season since 2006. At Great Valley, I was fortunate to take over a program with a history of more success and in our first season, we went 12-2 and won the District I Championship. Here is the blueprint that we implemented at three different schools that has worked successfully at each.

Step 1: Develop a Philosophy and Mission Statement

The number one thing that is needed in turning around a program is a clear, well thought out coaching philosophy or mission statement. Having a philosophy will establish the guidelines for your program. All things in the program should evolve from this one idea and should be constantly reinforced throughout the season and off-season. Our mission statement here at Great Valley is…

“To build young men of empathy, integrity, and moral courage who make the world around them a better place.”

All aspects of our program evolve from this idea. At any one point, whether it is in the weight room during the winter or a camp practice, we engage our players and talk with them about these ideas and the overall philosophy. It is not always done with the entire philosophy in mind, but different aspects of it are constantly talked about.

In order to achieve the overall vision of our team, we stress two key characteristics that will ensure that we achieve the overall goal. For our players, the two characteristics that we require of our players are Attitude and Effort. When we discuss these topics with our players, our emphasis is to discuss the importance of attacking anything with the best attitude you can and with your maximum effort. Both of these characteristics are things that any player at any age, from all talent levels is able to give. I was fortunate to play for George Welsh and Gary Tranquil (Offensive Coordinator) at the University of Virginia, and both would always say, “It takes 0% skill to give 100% effort.” There may not be a more appropriate statement when building a football team. These are non-negotiable and will not be ‘coached’. They are a requirement. Most importantly, we always bring attitude and effort back to our overall philosophy – in order to be successful with our mission statement, players must give attitude and effort, and it is not just in football, but also universally. To be a great student or a great musician or a great ________________, the prerequisite for success is having a great attitude and giving maximum effort at all times. Pick the person who is successful in any field – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Nick Saban, George Welsh, a players’ parents, etc. – they attacked their jobs relentlessly and with great effort. That is how Apple became Apple and Microsoft became Microsoft.

Having a great mission statement is not the only key aspect to being successful. That in fact is probably the easiest part. The hardest part, over time, is being uncompromising. X’s and O’s clearly play a crucial part, but keeping that vision untarnished and uncompromised is critically important. The discipline required to commit to our mission statement is not easy. Bringing the best attitude and effort every day is hard. It is my job as the head coach and my assistants’ job with their respective players to make sure that they are getting that attitude and effort each and every day. When players are not, we push them to be better. Clearly, every day is not always a good day and discuss that with the team. If it is a bad day, you must work to make it better the next day. However, there are situations where some players cannot make the trip.

From the first team meeting with the players and parents, we establish the vision for our program and discuss these non-negotiable ideals – Attitude and Effort. I am always brutally honest with the parents after discussing our mission statement. It is a hard ideal to live up to and I will work ceaselessly to help the players achieve their individual goals as well as our team goals. But, I demand attitude and effort and when it is not being consistently given at any point during the year, I will choose the success of the team over the individual. Unfortunately, from the moment I took each of my head coaching positions, I told the team and parents that the train had left the station… and unfortunately, not everyone can make the trip. Sometimes, some players are just unable to commit. It is crucial that when you are faced with the critical situation, when a player with immense talent reaches that point, the team must come first. It is not good enough to stand firm with underclassmen that is at best a role player. The test of real leadership comes when you are faced with the challenge of a great player who does not follow. Unfortunately, I have had to lose several players. My first year at W.C. East, two returning starters did not complete camp. My second year, our returning starter at tailback was lost. However, by being consistent through our first two years, we did not have any issues our third year.

By being firm early, setting the tone at the first team meeting of acceptable behaviors, the players will learn and conform to your standards… or leave the program. Either way, your team will benefit.

Step 2: Have a Plan

When starting a program, you must have a well thought out plan. Not just an idea of a plan or the general outline of a plan, but a plan for the short term and long term, for the football side and the weight room, and for character and academics.

Before the interview process, I came up with two key and critical things. First, a 30-60-90 day plan. In this plan, it started with having team meeting and interviewing staff members who agree and live the mission statement. The 60 and 90 day periods included completing the staff and beginning on field 7 vs. 7’s and planning for mini camps, camp, etc.

The second important task was to establish our long-term goals. Given where we were as a program, our goals have been modest by some peoples’ standards. However, these goals will not change much from year to year.

Here are our goals:

  1. Defeat Rustin (8x league champion)
  2. Win League
  3. District Championship

Over time, these may change some, but our players know that our first team goal is to defeat Rustin, and that will never change.

Having the overall plan and setting the goals before hand reinforces the importance of goal setting for our players. It also reinforces the characteristics of attitude and effort. It is a constant refrain from myself and other coaches – ‘Did we do enough to win the League today?’ For our players that will translate to their individual goals academically, athletically, and socially. Did they do enough today?

Being organized is also a key aspect of a program. There is not a successful football program, business, school, or organization that is successful by being disorganized. In each situation that I took over, adding additional organization greatly helped the coaches and the players. This goes into all aspects of the program from practice plans to the weight room. Coaches understood what was expected of them and how they could go about achieving their goals. Players quickly understood the dynamic and demands that would be needed. Most importantly for the players – young adults NEED organization and people to show them how to be organized. If we are organized as coaches, we set a great example for our players that can carry over in their academic success and personal success. If you are unorganized, it is easy to lose your team and yes, your players know if you are organized and flying by the seat of your pants.

Step 3: Character Development

I firmly believe that athletics, and football in particular, reveals character. To me, football does NOT teach character. Coaches do. Just because my players play the game that does not mean that they are learning character. It is not osmosis. When our players are pushed and their backs are to the wall, we all see what type of character kids we have. With that in mind, we have taken to the idea of taking the time to TEACH character.

Over many years as a head coach, I have paid lip service to teaching character through the game, including practices and weight room sessions, etc. But what I have learned and observed about myself was that in the heat of the battle, the X’s and O’s on the practice field or the reps in the weight room took precedence over the character. I would try to play catch up after the fact. Now, we have decided to take time out of our day and reoriented our practice plans and schedules to incorporate the teaching of character throughout the game week/camp.

During summer camp, we will take time to teach our core three principles – empathy, integrity, and moral courage. During the season, we will adjust the topics of the week to fit best our situations. Over the course of years and through some research we have compiled a long list of topics. A great source has been Coaching to Change Lives by Dennis Parker and D.W. Rutledge. The process we have used has changed over the years. In the past, we have specified 10-15 minutes each day of the practice week, Tuesday through Thursday, at the beginning of practice for a Character period. Players have met with their coaches and each day has done a little. Day 1 they read the short story. Day 2 they answer questions related to it. Day 3 players meet and discuss the topic with their position coach. An alternative process that we used this past season was to assign the reading and questions for homework and we readjusted our entire practice plan on Thursdays to begin with a team meeting after school to discuss the week’s topic as well as watching film one last time before we go out onto the practice field.

The process and structure of time used is not as important as the lesson itself and most importantly, the sharing by the players. It is an open and frank discussion where players and coaches share personal information and experiences. It has worked tremendously for us and often shocks us as coaches with some of the things players openly share. We have the players write their responses as well for those who do not feel comfortable with speaking in front of their peers.

This is a 30-45-minute/week investment in our young men. It starts in our meetings and goes onto the field and the classroom. Each week I email our teaching staff the topic as well so they are aware of what we are discussing with the players. I encourage to either have them let me know if there are any issues with a player or to discuss it with them in their classroom settings. I am not naïve to think that we reach every athlete with our character development, but that does not mean that the investment is not worth it.

This investment in our players is returned by their transformation on the field, in the classroom and in our school community. Our character development has helped to transform our team and make it less self-centered. Our character development at W.C. East from year one to year three was staggering. A few examples are our grades, our body language, our empathy for the whole student body, our support of other athletic programs and the arts, and our ability to be mentally tough have all improved. Improving in those areas and plenty more have resulted in us being a more disciplined and better football team as well as making our school community a better place.

Step 4: Leadership Development

How have you selected your captains? How much thought have you put into the process you use to select captains? I never thought too much about it until my 2nd season at Springfield doing exit interviews with my seniors. I asked our graduating QB if there was anything I could do better as a coach. His response shocked me. He told me that I named him a captain at the end of fall camp and, “I had no clue what you wanted me to do. I didn’t know what being a captain meant.” I had not prepared him for the rigors of being a captain and defined for him his role. I had just named him a captain. I did it for the right reasons – he modeled everything we wanted in our players. He was a great student, a young man of empathy and integrity, and he was, of course, a good football player. My problem was that I never discussed with him the WHY or the HOW of leadership. So I was determined to never make the same mistake again.

In our leadership development program, we ask our players to write a letter of interest in being a captain (our leadership committee is all our applicants). They describe why they want to be a leader and what their qualifications is to become a captain. Most importantly, we open it up to any player in grades 10-12. I have found that leadership is not just from our seniors, it can be found in anyone and when we identify it, we do our best to help it and foster it. Over the years we have had sophomores, juniors, and seniors who were captains. The best part of our process beginning with the letter of interest is you will learn right away who really wants to lead your football team. They will separate themselves from those who just want the label.

Our process for our leadership committee begins in January. We us the resources of our school and use a class webpage through Moodle (but can be any school based webpage). We discuss all types of topics including what leadership is, different styles, methods, etc. We also will use on field applications through simulations that teach effective leadership skills like communication and listening skills. All of this material is online for our players to use and have as a resource throughout the year.

In order to test their leadership abilities, we have our leadership committee select teams for our Iron Patriot Competition, which is a yearlong competition that includes weight room, community service, academics, etc. We hold a draft for the Iron Patriot teams, with each member of the leadership committee being a captain of their team. Their responsibility is to first select a team that they feel will win and then to have that team perform throughout the year. It acts as a great measure of the players’ leadership abilities and naturally, we watch every aspect of the process and evaluate them constantly. This allows us to have evaluation of their leadership skills that are being taught to them throughout the year.

We as a staff select the captains during the fall camp from the leadership committee. Our entire team is obviously aware of who the leadership applicants are so it is not a surprise when the captains are selected. Through this entire process (January through August), our best leaders clearly emerge. The side benefit though is that the younger players who are going through the process may not be ready to be a captain of our team, but they are learning none the less what it means to be a leader. That will help us throughout the year and also throughout their careers in high school. They may apply each year and not make it until their senior year, or they may not be selected captain at all, but going through the process not only helps to build their leadership skills, it helps create a strong team!

Editor’s Note: To read the complete list of Coach Ellis’ 6 Non-Negotiables in Building a Program, please login to the Insiders: go here.

Step 5: Coaching Fundamentals

Through my career as a head coach, I have found that the most important aspect of my program is not the X’s and O’s, which clearly are critical, but the teaching and coaching of the fundamentals. And by fundamentals, obviously I am discussing blocking, tackling, catching, running, etc. But even more importantly, teaching and coaching the fundamentals of your program from the bottom up. I have found that by defining the fundamentals, our players have been able to adjust quickly to our style of football and to our program in general.

Defining basic concepts in our program are critical, and often, over looked. How many times do you get on a player for not finishing a drill? In a program used to losing, finishing was a huge problem. The first thing I told players in the weight room or doing a cone drill was that we would finish every drill. I then explained to the players that ‘finishing’ a drill means to sprint five yards beyond the cone. That is a concrete example of what finishes means, which makes it easier to measure. It is no longer subjective but very much objective. Our players know what is expected and then they will work to that. We take the time to define all types of topics including active listening, hustling, ‘getting in the screen’, etc. If it is subjective, then define it.

In terms of X’s and O’s, clearly we have found what we believe is a good system that works for our players and us. We have had tremendous success on the offensive side of the ball especially. However, I believe the key to a successful team is not what type of scheme you run – spread, option, Wing-T, etc. – but the focus on the individual players and not the scheme itself. I often tell our coaches to make sure they are not thinking about specific plays in a game, but specific players. Who can make this play for us? Then pick a play to fit that player in that situation.

Too often, coaches will often outsmart themselves and I have been guilty of that myself. Running to many plays or too many coverage/blitz schemes at the expense of the basic fundamentals of the game – blocking and tackling. In the end, the game is not about me as the coach, but the players on the field. No parents care how great I can draw up X’s and O’s on a whiteboard. They care about their child having fun and being successful. I need to focus my time and my coaches’ time on that basic tenant.

Step 6: Player Evaluations

While we try to hold our players accountable, we like to give them concrete feedback on an evaluation at least twice a year. Much of what we have done with our system is based off of what Al Golden did with his team at Temple University (I assume he has continued the process at the University of Miami). The key for our players is not the ‘grade’ we give them, but whether they continue to improve from evaluation to another. If a player is a 2, then our goal is to move up to a 3 the next evaluation period.

What You’re Missing…

Join X&O Labs Insiders, an exclusive membership website, and get the full-length version of this report (and all reports). Plus, if you join today you will receive up to 4 FREE books. Here’s a quick look at what you’ll see in the full-length verison…

  • A detailed look at Coach Ellis’s leadership development program including the thorough criteria he uses for selecting captains and the criteria he uses to select his leadership council.
  • The 30-60-90 day plan Coach Ellis uses each time he accepts a new head coaching position, which translates short terms daily goals into long-term success.
  • His system of player development including the template he uses to assess his players for both on the field and off the field actions and how he uses this information in the off-season.

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Editor’s Note: Coach Ellis was a contributor to XandOLabs.com special report on Program Development in which championship level coaches were surveyed from 37 states on their philosophy on off-season development, strength and conditioning and motivation. The entire study can be found here.



Building a program is not an easy task and it takes time, patience, dedication, and an unwavering commitment to your mission statement and philosophy from coaches and administration. Not every player will buy into the program, and at some point, tough choices need to be made for the betterment of the overall program. The good of the whole is more important than one individual and a supportive administration is crucial at those times.

Having now worked with great coaches and administrations at Great Valley, Springfield and W.C. East, I know that the people you hire to follow the plan are just as important as the program itself. Building a program from the bottom up is unbelievably stressful and time consuming, but as you hit the milestones along the way, it is also unbelievably rewarding too.

Ask Coach Dan Ellis:
Please post your questions or comments below and Coach Ellis will answer.


Meet Coach Ellis: This past fall, Coach Ellis began his first year as the Head Football Coach/QB/OC at Great Valley (PA). Prior to this position led teams at W.C. East High School (2011-2013) and Springfield High School (2008-2010). He also has additional years of experience as quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at Rustin High School (2007) and Downingtown East High School (2003-2006). Dan has also been a faithful contributor to X&O Labs over the years and is a valued resource for us on the offensive side of the ball.



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