Friday, October 31, 2014

Motivational speeches are so often ... silly

     The cynic in me, growing as I get older, is scoffing at coaches' motivational speeches today. Especially college football coaches.
     Sorry, they are just so over the top, So silly. Forgive my irreverence.
     Perhaps not as over the top -- or weird -- as the fire-and-brimstone preachers you and I have seen and heard, the ones exhorting people to heaven and warning of the damnation of hell. Not as earnest as the motivational speakers people actually pay to hear at seminars. Not my thing.
      (I do know our old friend Terry Bradshaw is one of those speakers, and he is a good one -- as good at speaking as he was at quarterback, and he's a Hall of Fame QB. Go hear Bradshaw and you know you've been entertained.)
     But, gosh, what a show some of these coaches can put on. Do I find them entertaining? Not at all.
     Here's what triggered this piece. I turned on the recording of the Alabama-at-Tennessee game -- played last Saturday while I was watching Ole Miss-at-LSU -- and the SEC Network telecast began with the cameras inside the Tennessee locker room.
     Vols coach Butch Jones, the tough-looking, tough-acting guy with the old-fashioned crewcut, was in front of his football team and staff.
From his first day as the Tennessee Vols' head football
coach, Butch Jones was familiar with the seven Gen. Neyland
 game maxims. (Knoxville News Sentinel photo)
     Jones screamed, "WHO'S GOT MY BACK?"
     Tennessee players: "We've got your back."
     Jones again: "WHO'S GOT MY BACK?"
     Players: "We've got your back."
     Jones (loud, intense): "I've got your back tonight. Everyone in orange has each other's back tonight, on every single play. ... Just do your job. If we win the game maxims, it's going to be a great night for the Big Orange."
     Then he turned to a bulletin board that lists the seven game maxims originated by Tennessee football coach/military hero Gen. Robert Neyland in the 1930s. Jones began reciting those maxims and the players dutifully repeated them.
       This is Tennessee football tradition. The Vols have done this before every game since the '30s. All their coaches know this is part of the job. Lane Kiffin, I heard, didn't want to continue the routine, but the players -- in his one year as head coach (2009) -- insisted. Also, I read that many coaches around the country, some with Vols ties, have their team recite similar maxims.
        With that, the Tennessee team stormed out of the dressing room at Neyland Stadium, ran through the "T" formed by the "Pride of the South" band ... received the kickoff, soon gave up a sack, punted ... and promptly gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass on Alabama's first offensive play.
         So much for starting the game fired up and playing with pride and intensity. So much for
that fiery Jones motivational speech and pregame routine.
          Apply Neyland maxim No. 3: "If at first the game -- or the breaks -- go against you, don't let up ... put on more steam." (Put on more steam; how 1930s is that?)
          Alabama had 27 points by the time Tennessee scored. The Vols did make a game of it, closing to 27-17, but no amount of motivation was going to be enough this night. Not enough steam.
          Don't mean to be picking on Jones or the Vols. We have ties to Tennessee; daughter and son-in-law are graduates, who live in Knoxville, work in the area, and we lived there six years (I worked for the paper there). Granddaughter Josie can sing Rocky Top. I root for only one SEC school, but we don't mind the Vols.
          I'm just using the Neyland maxims routine as an example that what said in the locker room often isn't really meaningful when the game begins.
          It's just kind of a show, part of the tradition of the game. Coaches, at any level and in any sport, have been trying to "motivate" their players for forever. It's really the coach showing how much he cares, and how much he wants his players to care.
          We love a lot of college football traditions -- the pregame band show (it's always the same at LSU, and how great is that?), the team touching the banner, or the bulldog/tiger/whatever statue, touching the rock and running down the hill, and now -- in just about every sport -- the team- and student-bonding drill ... jumping up and down together. Love many traditions in all sports, really.
           But the point is, motivation only goes so far.
           What's a heckuva lot more important is how prepared teams are after a week on the practice field, or in basketball, a day or two; in baseball, day after day. What's important is if coaches -- and players -- can adjust to what the other team and players are doing during games.
          We've all heard the Knute Rockne exhortations for his Notre Dame teams in the 1920s and '30s. Lots of Rockne imitators since then. I'm just not much of a believer that it makes a difference.
          Butch Jones is about as intense as anyone, and he's had success in previous stops. Not so much -- yet -- at Tennessee. But one coach who might be more intense, more frantic, more vocal, is having great success now and has had it in the past: the local guy, Gary Patterson at TCU.
          Putting it bluntly -- he is a screaming fool. (I find him hard to watch.)
          Again being recognized as one of the nation's best defensive coaches, Patterson takes every opportunity to "motivate" his team. Even his comments to the media -- and he is, in my opinion, no friend to the media (nor is that his job) -- are calculated to send messages to his players.
          But maybe his motivational tactics work. He'd say so, and so do TCU fans. I'd say his teams' success has more to do with practice drills and time, and a drive for perfection.
          Certainly that's true for Nick Saban at Alabama (and LSU before that). He can go off during games and practices, but I suspect his pregame/halftime speeches are more calculating than high-volume.
           And I can't see Steve Spurrier -- who has been among the greatest of college football coaches in his time -- screaming at his team. He'll get irritated and livid for a moment, but he doesn't seem to be a "yeller." Bobby Bowden (speaking of great success) wasn't, either. But he was a helluva speaker.
           I've heard and read that LSU coach Les Miles is quite the pregame/halftime motivator, that is if the players can understand what he's trying to tell them. But I really like his softer, more low-key manner during games, even talking to players who have screwed up. I prefer that, although -- honestly -- I would have been in the "screaming" category. That's where I am during some games (not all) watching at home on TV.
           I think high school coaches still believe in motivational tactics or speeches, and it's part of many college basketball coaches' makeup, too. But I just can't imagine that very many pro coaches -- NFL, NBA, NHL, soccer and certainly not baseball -- stand in front of their teams and their well-paid players and scream at them.
            No, I think the pro coaches leave it mostly to the players to motivate each other. Certainly that's true in the NFL, where you routinely see the crazy gyrations by players on the field and the sideline -- before and during games.
            Ray Lewis, who is going to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the great linebackers of his time, retired the "honor" of the nuttiest pregame hysteria. His act alone was enough reason for me to turn off live NFL games for good.
           My favorite football coaches were Tom Landry, Joe Aillet and Lee Hedges (you know Landry; my old friends know the other two), and they weren't "motivators." They were teachers, detail-oriented and organized. They calmly told players what needed to be done, and left the high-tone motivational speeches to their assistant coaches ... and to the players.
           My favorite "motivational" coach was the man who inspired the name for this blog; I heard him give hundreds of talks to kids at the high school level (and not just in athletics). Jerry Adams didn't yell his messages, but he talked earnestly and was always focused on mental preparation.
           When I called him at his home in Tennessee the other day to talk about this, we agreed that the key for any team, or any function, is the work done prior to the event ... in football, the work done on the practice field.
           "It's not necessarily a long speech by a coach before a game," he said. "Whatever is done or said, it has to be the right time. It (motivation) can come from one moment, one sentence, or one play, or from a (verbal) challenge by a player or two. ... But you have to have a good game plan; everything has to be in place. You have to be prepared beforehand."
           Back to those college traditions. I love the tradition of players (and the coaches) singing the alma mater in front of the school band after victories; I especially love it for LSU and Louisiana Tech. To me, that's a reason to be motivated to win.
           I'm sure the Tennessee Vols like doing that, too. That should be Neyland maxim No. 8: After you win, go sing the alma mater. Then you can yell.



  1. From Patrick Locke Sr.: Oh, Nico, you seem to have forgotten who those speeches are for. ... I've given my fair share and, while I'm not in the league you speak of, the athletes I spoke to simply enjoyed being a part of the process, tradition, no matter how lame it can seem. This is proven by how important those traditions and speeches are to the upper classmen (a dying breed at elite campuses). It may have seemed lame, old-fashioned at first, but by their third year or fourth year on campus, it's what they'll remember and, sometimes, talk about the most later.

  2. From Ed English: I would love to read the post but I just don’t have the energy. If there were only something that could spark me into action.

  3. From Coach Maxie Hays: I especially agree with you on the Ray Lewis thing! I wouldn't watch him.
    Motivation begins with preparation and ends with truths spoken in a normal tone of voice. Such as, your team's record is 0-9 going into the 10th, last game, of the season, and as they are sitting in the locker room before the game starts, the coach says to the team, "You and I are the only ones in the world that believe that we are going to win this game tonight. We are the laughing stock of the district and our opponents tonight are over there in their locker room laughing at us. The only difference is that we are more prepared to play this game tonight than they are. We are going to win tonight."
    This actually happened for me the only two times that I was faced with going 0-10 for the season as a head football coach.(Won both games).
    I never was big on motivational speeches. You try to make adjustments at halftimes and more importantly, you prepare the team for the game during the week on the practice field.
    My motivation for my track teams was being on the track first waiting for the athletes, teaching them during practice and being the last one to leave the track. I didn't hunt or fish. I coached and let them know that I loved and cared for them.

  4. From Jim Robinson: Well said. I agree, as we both got to observe some amazing coaches that were not screamers. There are two real big ones that have always stayed with me: (1) I remember when I was in the 10th grade at Woodlawn, hearing Coach Adams say, "I wouldn't ask you to do anything that I would not do myself." That was just before he turned his hat around and showed them how he wanted it done; (2) Coach Ken Ivy getting out on the floor and playing defense against Robert Parish and the other guys on our basketball team, showing them how to slide their feet, work those arms, and take that charge on. I saw him get run over several times, showing them how to get in position on defense. Those two men were some of the best coaches and teachers that I have ever seen. I never heard either one raise their voice. ... I do not remember Coach Ivy ever making a motivational speech to the basketball team. He always said, "If you execute what we practiced, we will win."

  5. From Tom Arceneaux: Speaking of traditions, when Don Akchin was editor of the (LSU) Reveille, he let me write a column, which was called “In the Shorts” (as in taking in the shorts). It was the fall of 1972. At that time, the LSU Band customarily played the alma mater during halftime, but if the other team brought its band, they skipped it.
    In one of my columns, I suggested that the alma mater was important and that it could be played before the game. It has been ever since, now two verses.
    My contribution to Tiger tradition.

  6. From Jesse Grubbs: Coach Adams was awesome at Woodlawn. When he found out I was Herbie's brother, he seemed to take a liking to me for some reason. I'm really glad we became good friends because I did not want to get on his bad side and I'm sure you know what I mean. Meeting Coach made my life better. Coach was the reason we had the great Big Red defense.

  7. From Sandi Tison Atkinson: Never heard a locker room speech, but heard plenty of them at coaching conventions over the years. Not that he was necessarily motivational, but I was never more entertained than at a dinner table one night with a conversation between Spike Dykes, who was quite a talker, and the ever stoic LaVell Edwards. LaVell, I do believe, relished being Spike's straight man. It was hilarious.