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Jeff Tomlin, Head Football Coach, Grand Island High School (NE)

More and more, coaches are realizing that having a character development component present within their football program is important to developing players both on and off the field. See what Coach Tomlin has done to build his Character Development Program. Read the report...


Jeff Tomlin
Head Football Coach
Grand Island High School (NE)



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More and more, coaches are realizing that having a character development component present within their football program is important to developing players both on and off the field. The game of football is a tremendous platform for teaching the “game of life.” In my 30 years of coaching, I have always understood the importance for developing character, but I wasn’t always the best at implementation. The challenge was always when I would be able to squeeze in character development around the other demands of preparing a team and running a program. For that reason, character development for us was a “grab bag” approach with a quote here and a story there. 

Although I worked hard to teach the core values of honor, courage, commitment and loyalty, I wasn’t as impactful as I could have been because I lacked a systematic approach to making character development an established part of our program. As Coach Urban Meyer is quoted as saying, “average leaders have a quote, good leaders have a plan and great leaders have a system.” I wholeheartedly agree.  

The goal of this article is to outline the process we use in establishing and implementing our character development system and share with you how this has impacted our program. I am sure many of you have similar and perhaps superior systems in place, but it is my hope that I can share at least one idea with you worth including in your program. 

Element 1:  Establish Your Culture

The first step toward implementing character development into your program begins with establishing the culture of your program. Culture is nothing more than a program’s core beliefs, values, traditions, identity and ways of behaving. I am not here to tell anyone what type of culture to establish but instead to encourage coaches to figure out the “purpose” of your program and what you believe in. In short, your culture is “who you are” and “what you do”.  Without an established culture, it will be difficult to communicate and teach character. In many ways, culture and character are one and the same. 

We base our culture on a Code of Excellence. We believe in the relentless pursuit of excellence in the areas of attitude, effort, discipline, fundamentals and team unity. We believe that we have complete control over these five pillars and feel like, if we are excellent in these five areas, winning will take care of itself. We have also built our program upon the four core values of honor, courage, commitment and loyalty. We pride ourselves on being “blue collar” and in being a close-knit brotherhood. 

Element 2: Establish Clear Expectations

It is hard to have an effective character development program if you don’t clearly communicate policies and expectations. This is an obvious point, but an important one nonetheless. Everyone, including players, parents, football staff, boosters, administrators and support staff must have a clear idea of the vision, mission, policies and expectations of the program. 

To make sure our policies and expectations are clear, we have put together a handbook for players and parents. We also have a player/parent meeting in March for all returners and potential Freshman players and their parents. At this meeting, I cover our handbook and everything else pertaining to our program including but not limited to: player safety, camps, strength and conditioning, diet and nutrition, equipment, lettering criteria, touchdown club and fundraising. Getting parents on board is essential and most parents want to know that your program is about more than just wins and losses. Our handbook and parent’s meeting has been a key to sharing our mission and promoting our culture.

Element 3: Develop a Common Language

One of the best things we have done is establish a common language. This idea was the brainchild of our strength and conditioning coach John Swanson over a dozen years ago. We require our athletes (not just our football players) to learn all of our core values including: honor, courage, commitment, loyalty, integrity, honesty, accountability, responsibility, compassion and excellence. Our players must check out with our strength coach every day after completing their workout and our strength coach requires each player to recite the definition of a core value each day in order to check out. The players select a different core value each day.

We will also periodically quiz all of our athletes over our core values (the definitions). At that time, we will have them write about things such as what commitment looks like on a team or how one can demonstrate qualities such as courage or integrity. We believe that in order to reach kids and establish a strong culture, we have to speak the same language. How can we expect a player to be a man of honor if he doesn’t understand what honor is? Developing a common language has been a huge key to our character development efforts. 

In addition to memorizing the definitions of our core values, our football players must also have a clear understanding about our “code of excellence” and other terms and phrases that we commonly use in our program. We have compiled these into a list that we give each player and post in our locker room and meeting room. 

Continue to the full-length version of this report…

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  • What Coach Tomlin and his staff does to continually reinforce the culture and core values of the program.
  • The framework of a character education model that Coach Tomlin uses to work with his players.
  • How he is able to develop young leaders with his leadership training model.
  • The community service element of his leadership training and how it’s implemented in the program.

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As football coaches, we have a tremendous opportunity to make our schools, communities and our nation better by helping to develop young men of character and future leaders. Organizing a character development system to use in your program can help you to maximize your positive impact and help your players become “champions for life”.

Meet Coach Tomlin: Jeff Tomlin just completed his 30th year of coaching high school football and 32nd year overall. Jeff served as an undergrad assistant at Chadron State College before coaching stops at O'Neill (NE) High School, Alliance (NE) High School and Grand Island (NE) Senior High. Jeff has been a head coach for 25 years, leading his teams at Alliance HS and Grand Island Sr. High to 19 overall playoff appearances including 7 quarter final appearances and 2 final four appearances. Overall, Coach Tomlin's teams have won 9 conference championships and 6 district championships. Coach Tomlin served as the head coach in the 2008 Nebraska Shrine Bowl and received the Semper Fi Coach Award from the U.S. Marines in 2016.  



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