Big 12 Football Coaching Newcomers Reveal Job One
ARLINGTON, Texas — The four new coaches in the Big 12 football conference for the 2019 season have some things in common, but there’s one who is a bit of an outlier in several respects Each member of the quartet built very successful programs in their previous coaching stops, although one – Kansas Les Miles – did so at Power 5 schools, while the other three were at institutions a step down from the top tier of collegiate football. Each also has a clear plan of how he will revive the football fortunes at their new schools, with some – again, we’re looking at you Miles – having a much deeper hole to climb out of.
Then there’s the approach to building, or rebuilding, their respective programs. While the three coaches in their first jobs at Power 5 schools all had very similar answers in terms of their first task on the job, the veteran, Miles, had something of a different response. Is that due to his veteran status? He’s 65, as opposed to Texas Tech’s Matt Wells (45), Kansas State’s Chris Klieman (51) and West Virginia’s Neal Brown (39). Is it due to the fact that he’s been through multiple Power 5 jobs at Oklahoma State and LSU? Or is it just his decidedly different approach and outlook on coaching, not to mention life?
There’s no right or wrong, of course – but it is interesting to chart the differences. For each coach, what was the first thing he wanted to do or accomplish when he landed at his new location? The answers of the three Power 5 first-timers overlapped somewhat, revealing, if not an exact blueprint, at least a commonality of thinking in how to approach a new job and how to begin the process of installing a new program.
Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells led off the trio of younger coaches with an answer concerning job one that was delivered with a good bit of passion.
“Building relationships with the players. When I took the job at Tech, I chose Tech because of those guys. Not one of them chose Texas Tech because of me or our staff,” said Wells. “So I think right out of the gate you have to build trust and you have to build relationships, and that’s a two-way street – coach to player and player to coach.
“In my opinion, trust takes time and it takes your heart,” said Wells, who was 44-34 in six seasons at Utah State, including a pair of 10-win campaigns. “You have to open up and be a little bit vulnerable, and let the wall down. That takes time. It will always be about the players at Tech. The players will always be 1-A.”
Kansas State coach Chris Klieman was almost word-for-word in lockstep with Wells, who he has known for some time, and who at one point offered him a job as an assistant.
“Building relationships with the players was the number one thing said Klieman, who was a stunning 69-6 at North Dakota State while winning four FCS national championships in his five years at the helm. “That was the first thing I did the first three days – meet with everyone on the football team. That’s where it all starts. It’s easier to meet the challenge and get more out of them when you know they care. You have to be able to develop a rapport with those guys.”
West Virginia fans probably already know of Brown’s early efforts in the same direction. He approached getting to know his team and building those relationships in multiple ways, from face-to-face meetings to questionnaires. The results of the feedback he received shaped his early days on the job, but at the core was the building of trust – listening to what his players said and making them know they were part of the process too.
Brown has drawn something from each of his coaching stops, but credits a piece of advice he got when he took his first head coaching job at Troy with shaping his first days on the job there and at WVU.
“You learn a little bit as you go. Each situation is different, but a lot of challenges are the same. Without a doubt, I’ve grown at each stage and each opportunity. The hardest thing in a new situation is that males tend to be ‘doers.’ I had one of my mentors say to me that you have to fight every urge in your being and not be a ‘doer’, but be a ‘listener’ early. I thought that was huge in how we were able to get Troy turned around on a quick basis. We’ve followed that same approach and tried to ask better questions at West Virginia.”
The results were great at Troy, where Brown compiled a 35-16 record in four seasons, including three consecutive 10-win years. Learning from that experience, Brown employed it again, focusing even more intensely on gathering information and listening in his first days at West Virginia.
“Before we made huge hires or started recruiting new people, we sat down with all the support staff, sat down with all the players and asked them those questions. ‘What’s going well here? What do we need to sustain? What do we need to improve? If you were named head coach what would you do?’ We tried to be diligent about listening before setting our program,” Brown explained.
Then there’s Miles, who isn’t against any such approach, but has more of an old school view. He pushed a pair of traits that each member of his team had to commit to in order to begin the latest attempt at rebuilding the Jayhawks.
“I can tell you it involves effort and energy,” he said of his initial priority. “I am not going to coach effort and energy. I have to have a team that pursues effort and energy. Then I know that they are going to block and tackle. I can now turn to game plan and calls and make a difference. But we all have to commit first that we will play with great effort and great energy. That is the first thing I had to do, and it’s something I have to do repeatedly until we get to the point that we are doing it [consistently].”
Which one will bring the best results early? There are many other factors involved in answering that question, not the least of which involve talent, buy-in and the meshing of coaches, staff and players.
Brown sums up one of the goals that he is striving to reach as a key to early success.
“Our team chemistry is going to be extremely important,” Brown said. “Your closer teams are able to overcome adversity better, and if you can overcome adversity in games, you give yourself a better opportunity to win close football games. It all comes back to trust.”