NCAA Player Development Study

Nov 10, 2018 | Program Development

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar


“Coaching is about getting the most out of your players.” It is an axiom that I first heard uttered by Russ Grimm, the offensive line coach for the Tennessee Titans and original “hog” himself with the Washington Redskins. While it’s hard to argue the validity of that phrase, the difficulty in that task lies in what coaches call the “strain,” or the process in developing your players. There is a fine line that distinguishes mediocre and success in coaching and while much of it can be attributed to pure talent, how coaches extract that talent can often be a thing of beauty. It is that process of strain, that became the focal point of this study.

So, when we started research for this project, we reached out to many of the coaches in our network with one request: “Select one head football coach that gets the most from his players year in and year out.” While an abundance of names came pouring in, we went after those that kept reoccurring and while we didn’t get in touch with all of them, we were able to with 12 head football coaches, with all levels of collegiate ball represented, to ask them how they develop their players. Our research was segmented into four cases:

  • Off-season mental development
  • Off-season physical development
  • In-season mental development
  • In-season physical development

Most of our contributors have been head football coaches for over a decade. Our twelve contributors have amassed some staggering numbers collectively as head coaches, which include:

  • 734 wins
  • 711 win percentage throughout their tenure as a head coach
  • 47 division championships
  • 3 national championships (all within the last three seasons)

The list of contributors to this study is below:

Contributors (in Alphabetical Order)

Chris Ash, Head Football Coach, Rutgers University

Glenn Caruso, Head Football Coach, University of St. Thomas (MN)

Mark Farley, Head Football Coach, University of Northern Iowa

PJ Fleck, Head Football Coach, Western Michigan University

Peter Fredenburg, Head Football Coach, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (TX)

Vince Kehres, Head Football Coach, Mount Union University (OH)

Chris Klieman, Head Football Coach, North Dakota State University

Ron Korfmacher, Head Football Coach, Taylor University (IN)

Matt Mitchell, Head Football Coach, Grand Valley State University (MI)

Tim Murphy, Head Football Coach, Harvard University

Bob Stitt, Head Football Coach, University of Montana

John Steigelmeier, Head Football Coach, South Dakota State University

Case 1: Developing the Off-Season Mentality

In this case, we studied what these coaches were doing in the off-season to develop the mental capacity of their players. We all know that it’s the cohesiveness and resilience of a football program that is developed from January to spring ball. We wanted to find out how head coaches were developing players in this area as it pertains to the following components:

  • A character development program
  • A leadership council among players
  • The infusion of a sports psychology program

While we found that the leadership council seemed to be the clear favorite of choice in developing players during the off-season, we found that coaches were using different criteria to select leaders and various activities that encourage these groups to promote the program.


Chris Ash, Rutgers University: “In the off-season, you want to accomplish some specific things. You want to get them bigger and stronger, you want to build their athletic ability, you want to build their toughness, you want to build leadership, you want to build their football skills and lastly you want to build their football IQ. You have to do that in 8 hours a week during the off-season. You can’t slack off on any of those things because rest equals rust. You can’t afford to let any of them be underdeveloped. WE built toughness at Ohio State through the artificial adversity we created in our off-season workout. You don’t rise to the level of the occasion; you rise to the level of our training. We use the phrase E+R = O which means events plus response equals outcome. We are an event-based program, we train our players to handle adversity. If you don’t train the players to deal with adversity, they will not be ready for it. We will create a special workout to push them to the limit mentally or physically or change a routine where we ask them to be here at 5 am to see how they respond. We are creating that for good events and bad events so they are ready to respond the right way. “


Glenn Caruso, University of St. Thomas (MN):“ We use a program where I will have players read several books during the course of the off-season, many of which do not have anything directly to do with football. I believe more in the psychological piece of it, using the off-season to teach not just how we feel but how we can best prepare ourselves to be at our best in stressful situations. It’s about learning who they are, how they relate to people and how people relate to them. It’s about learning ways to communicate and ways to mitigate anxiety and ways to teach their peer groups about the psychology of human nature. It’s a program that I made up. It’s a seven part mini-course that goes through the basic tenants of human psychology or human behavior.”