WEST VIRGINIA COACH Neal Brown is hesitant when he says there are positive things to be gained from what he and his fellow coaches went through last season.
“Maybe ‘positives’ isn’t the right word,” he corrected himself.
Brown doesn’t want to paint a rosy picture of what was a frustrating situation for everyone involved. Talk to enough coaches and they’ll tell you how exhausting it was going through a pandemic, juggling safety and practice and those endless pages of protocols and, oh yeah, the games themselves.
They’re creatures of habit who thrive on structure and routine. But as North Carolina coach Mack Brown told his staff one day last year, “The only thing consistent is inconsistency.”
So, no, it wasn’t much fun, and there was very little in the moment that felt positive.
But the further away they get from what Neal Brown says was the most challenging experience for anyone in leadership, whether they were a coach, a CEO or a principal, the more there’s something to be gained from the experience.
“I think there are opportunities that have come out of the adversity that we’ve been through,” he said.
Opportunities to rethink the way they practice and recruit. Opportunities to rethink the way they teach and communicate. Opportunities to not look away from social justice issues that for so long were ignored.
Like millions of Americans, Neal Brown has learned to embrace Zoom, which is why he was able to participate in this interview from his home one day last month.
That may not sound like much — it is the offseason, after all — but it runs contrary to an entire career of waking up early, going into the office for daily staff meetings, and since he was already there, staying a while even though there wasn’t much work to be done.
But on this day, he held the staff meeting virtually and drove his kids to school. Then, he returned home and spoke to a reporter from his own couch about coaching post-COVID-19 and how there’s a need for a better work-life balance in his profession, which for too long has embraced the lifestyle of the workaholic who sleeps in his office at nights.
After the call was over, his plan was to take the rest of the day off.
“There was no more, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,'” Neal Brown said. “That’s probably the most growth that I made not only as being a head football coach but personally as well — adapting and embracing change.”
THERE WAS ONE curveball coaches were thrown that they all almost universally enjoyed and want to integrate moving forward.
The NCAA dubbed it “enhanced summer practice,” but what it boiled down to was a sort of pre-preseason practice to help players ease into more traditional training after so much time away because of COVID restrictions.
Similar to the NFL’s organized team activities, colleges were granted two extra weeks dedicated to weight training, conditioning, film review, walk-throughs and meetings. Players couldn’t wear helmets or pads during walk-throughs, but they could handle a football.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was a proponent of the plan, stressing how the practices would be non-contact and how they would provide more education, focusing on things like technique and fundamentals.
“It was awesome,” Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins said.
Because of the limited contact and slow build-up, Collins said, “I thought we were fresher the early part of the season than we had been in the previous four years.”
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell felt the same way about the health benefits of the extended preseason, except he noticed a difference on the back end of the season. In an interview with The Athletic, Campbell said he saw better practices from his team late in the year and quicker recovery times.
The Cyclones finished the regular season as winners of five straight, reaching the Big 12 championship game for the first time in school history.
“I thought the week of preparation, going into our bowl game, was maybe the best practices we had all year,” he told the website. “We were able to continue to add fuel to the tank instead of extracting some of that fuel. When we needed it most, we were able to find it and use it.”
Stanford coach David Shaw, who is chair of the NCAA rules committee, said coaches are hoping to adopt the extra lead-in time on an annual basis.
While there wasn’t enough time to change the calendar this year, next year is a possibility.
First, Shaw said, they need to talk to medical professionals to see whether their hunch that it’s healthier for players is backed up by actual science. Second, there’s the coaches’ quality of life to consider, because it’d be taking away two weeks of vacation.
Time will tell whether everyone gets on board, but in the meantime, Neal Brown has a more radical approach he’s considering.
Last season, out of necessity in order to limit a teamwide outbreak and to make the most out of the limited time they had to prepare, he essentially split West Virginia’s roster down the middle. Instead of holding one practice and one set of meetings for players each day, the Mountaineers held two.
What it did was confront the fact that if there are 85 scholarship players on a team, not all 85 are at the same level of maturity or understanding. So teaching them all the same is going to inevitably leave some players bored and leave others behind.
It’s simple, Neal Brown said: “You don’t want to slow them down where you lose the fourth-year player just so the first-year player has a chance.”
By dividing the roster along the lines of experience and readiness to play, he provided more targeted coaching and, perhaps most importantly, more reps for everyone.
He hasn’t made a final decision on split practices in the future, but said, “There’s a thought that maybe that’s the best way moving forward.”
IT’S SURPRISING THAT the pairing of Zoom and recruiting didn’t happen sooner.
After all, the growth of recruiting departments in college football and video communication technology like Zoom and FaceTime have coincided over the past decade. But before the pandemic, there was very little integration on those two fronts.
Well, not anymore.
What happened out of necessity during a year of no in-person recruiting — namely FaceTime calls and virtual campus visits over Zoom — is here to stay.
Instead of hoping for an unofficial visit to show off their programs, coaches are now able to make a more tangible first impression online, which could be a huge win for difficult-to-reach places like Arkansas and Stanford.
During the pandemic, Shaw said his staff got creative and learned how to “bottle” the Stanford experience. That meant virtually introducing prospects to their professors and students, and showing off the beauty of campus, along with its terrific weather.
“We can’t wait to get people on campus,” Shaw said, “but we have a good program now to show them as much of campus as possible — the people as well as the scenery — to entice them to come.”
While Arkansas coach Sam Pittman says there’s no substitute for in-person contact, the value of virtual visits makes too much sense to ignore.
It’s a matter of logistics. Because Fayetteville’s nearest major recruiting hubs — Atlanta, New Orleans and Dallas — are all at least a five-hour drive away, it’s difficult to get recruits to campus.
“Instead of saying, ‘This kid can’t make it to Junior Day,’ why don’t we take the Junior Day to him?” Pittman said. “I learned that and we may use that in the future.
“We may have a weekend totally committed only to Georgia or Florida or someplace where the kids can’t get here.”
Neal Brown, whose West Virginia campus is a hike for many of the country’s top prospects, said it’s a win three times over to go virtual in recruiting.
“Players save money getting to and from campus, and universities save money, and it’s a better life for an assistant coach,” he said.
Plus, it’s fewer nights on the road for everyone.
MACK BROWN FOUND himself pouting last year.
During the first wave of the coronavirus, when everyone was forced to leave campus and it looked like the football season might not happen, he wondered why he bothered to come out of retirement.
“Why am I doing this?” he thought. “I came back to be around players and try to help them and help younger coaches, and I can’t talk to anybody, I can’t see them, they can’t even come around. What are we doing?”
That’s when his wife, Sally, spoke up.
“[She] jumped on me and said, ‘You know what? There’s never been a more important time for leadership. You need to help people understand this. You need to help solve the problems. You’ve been around a long time, so you need to figure it out,'” he recalled.
“And at that point I kind of woke up and said, ‘All right, I got it.'”
He had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
That meant acknowledging what he didn’t know, whether it was about the pandemic or the social justice issues playing out in Raleigh and cities across the U.S.
At 69 years old, Mack Brown confronted some harsh realities.
For so long, he saw the locker room as a place free from racism. But then he heard the pain in his players’ voices as they discussed the murder of George Floyd. And then he found out that two of his coaches — one white and one black — hadn’t spoken in days.
“That really bothered me,” he said. “I could tell there was pressure, there was tension.”
Rather than sidestepping it, they confronted it head-on as a team.
“We talked hard,” Mack Brown said.
And he also listened. A lot of what was said surprised him.
He kept hearing about white privilege, which he took to mean that he had money and a good life. So he asked his players questions about it and began to understand.
“I’m white privilege,” he realized. “I don’t feel race. I don’t see it. I don’t get stopped going home. I don’t get shot in the back.”
Talking it through brought them closer together, and it led to conversations about mental health, drugs and homelessness.
“I’m not sure it wasn’t the closest team I’ve ever been around,” he said.
Kentucky’s Mark Stoops was one of many coaches across college football who walked arm-in-arm with his players last summer to protest police violence against people of color.
But just because the protests have subsided doesn’t mean the issues have.
“I’ve learned that we need to continue to not let this matter go away,” Stoops said. “We have to continue to address it. We have to continue to work at it. We have to continue to do our part to be part of the solution to grow closer together, and keep that at the forefront of our program through communication and education.”
BAYLOR’S DAVE ARANDA says he saw the worst in a lot of people and the best in others.
He doesn’t name names, nor does he cite specific issues. He doesn’t want to be polarizing. But the last year revealed a lot to him.
He referenced the TV show “Ted Lasso” and a scene in which the lead character, a soccer coach, is playing darts in a pub and quotes Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.”
“Keeping that approach all the way through COVID when there’s really good and really bad things happening and you’re seeing bad parts of people, I think is the key,” Aranda said. “When you come out on the other side of it, there’s an opportunity to blossom.”
But to blossom into what?
Aranda sees a shift taking place in college football in which the old-school ways of coaching are fading.
“I’m not saying we’re it,” Aranda said, “but I do sense that along with the NIL and all of it, the birth of a modern coach — of someone that [deals with] social justice issues, race and inequality, the transfer portal, social media, mental health. It’s self-talk, positive talk, negative talk. It’s perfectionism. It’s bullying. It’s parents and expectations. It’s all of it.”
Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz talked about that trend toward a more holistic approach as well.
This generation of athletes is so flexible and adaptable, he said, and coaches are generally more rigid and routine-oriented.
There’s a fine line, of course, but whether it’s a pandemic or a life event, Drinkwitz sees a need for coaches to be more amenable.
He brought up Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address and the idea of striving to become a more perfect union. That notion of striving — admitting you’re not there, but you’re working toward it — is where he finds meaning.
It’s about listening and learning and working together.
“I’ve learned there’s a lot more capacity to do things than I ever thought possible if you take it one step at a time,” he said. “Then, before you know it, you get somewhere. You don’t look at the totality of the task, you take it one step at a time and put one foot in front of the other.
“And that’s really what we were trying to do the whole time — keep moving forward and try to make a positive impact, whether it was the pandemic or social justice, whether it was our football team trying to improve and establish our identity, every day let’s take a little step forward.”