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The single biggest key to being a coordinator in football

Which plays you can design matters so much less than whether you can teach them, as two head coaches explain.

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NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State
Joe Moorhead
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation’s Richard Johnson dove into the nitty gritty of a good football playbook. As he points out, no matter how much we think playbooks are simply buttons you press in a video game, these things are more mission statement than X-and-O documents.

Despite the drill sergeant nature of coaches, the philosophy section of playbooks is a place where coaches actually explain themselves. “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how and why we’re going to do it.” Today’s teenagers don’t just jump when you say how high, and they need to have the why explained to them, but older playbooks show it’s been that way for a long time.

There’s something else about a playbook that we need to understand: when you’re reading them, they all make sense.

The philosophy behind any playbook makes sense, while you’re reading it.

Take, for instance, Auburn’s 2004 defensive playbook, authored by coordinator Gene Chizik.

In 2004, Chizik was reaching the peak of college football’s coordinator totem pole. The next season, he would move to Texas for a stint as DC that included the 2005 title. By 2007, he would be Iowa State’s head coach, and by 2009, he would land back at Auburn. He would win a national title in his second season.

This playbook is 14 years old; the game has changed a lot since then. The spread offense erupted and infiltrated the SEC and NFL to varying degrees. Nickelbacks have become more common. Defenses have had to get smaller and faster. So you’d think this book would appear outdated.

It doesn’t. Not even slightly. While reading this, you wonder why everyone doesn’t still run Auburn’s 4-3 and focus on the things he preaches: forcing three-and-outs, hacking at the football, gang tackling, and never loafing. The structure is sound, there’s an answer for any question the offense asks, and the entire defense seems foolproof.

But so does Carl Torbush’s 4-3 eagle defense.

Or Nebraska’s 1997 I-formation offense.

Or the Texas Tech spread.

Or the old Air Force flexbone.

It’s all sound. Every play is in each of those very different books for a reason.

They all work on paper. Deployed on the field, however, they can’t always work.

The personnel — the size, speed, and talent level — matters quite a bit.

And what matters even more is what you can actually communicate and teach to your players.

Joe Moorhead is regarded as one of college football’s best tacticians. The system he devised at Fordham and perfected at Penn State earned him a head coaching gig at Mississippi State.

The tenets of the offense, as he explained them to SB Nation, are simple, but it is a system devised to make both defenders and defensive coordinators guess wrong at all times. You have to have play-makers, but Moorhead hopes to give them the biggest possible opportunities for tactical advantage.

If he can’t teach his system, though, nothing else matters.

Here is a quote that I did not use in that linked interview:

It always works out well when you’re on the whiteboard, and the Xs and Os aren’t moving. You can usually get a good play drawn up and get a good block and get the route run, but ultimately it comes down to execution.

And the three things in our offensive playbook — our philosophy about what our coaches’ goals are — we have a three-pronged approach:

1. Is it sound?

2. Can we teach it?

3. Can they execute it?

If it doesn’t meet all three of those criteria — you know, [former UConn offensive coordinator] George DeLeone used to say this at UConn all the time, that he could wallpaper the facility with plays. And it’s true. Any coach can do that. But it’s not about what we know.

It’s about what the players can execute. And when we hold ourselves to that, it generally weeds out some of the stuff on the board that either the coaches can’t teach it the right way, because it’s too complicated — and if that’s the case, it has no business being on the board — or we can teach it, but it’s either too complicated or not sound, and it doesn’t work well from the practical application standpoint.

There’s another aspect: time. Bill Walsh or Mike Martz could try to install 14,000 plays at the NFL level, but in college, you’re working with less polished personnel, and you’ve got a hard cap on the number of hours of practice. So you have to keep things simpler, and you have to be selective about what you teach. You aren’t going to have the time to be as good as you want at everything you want to be good at.

That is a lesson every emerging coach has to learn.

When I spoke with Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin for my BSU oral history in 2017, he shared an anecdote.

I remember as a GA, going into [head coach Chris Petersen’s office] with a play idea — as a young coach, I felt like I had ideas — and putting an idea up there. Pete turned around and said, ‘Okay, so tell me exactly how I’m supposed to coach it. It’s not just the play. You can design it all that, but great, now tell me exactly how I’m supposed to coach this. What do I tell the quarterback?’

I didn’t have the answer, I just had the idea, and I saw someone else do it, and I said we should do this. And he was like, ‘why?’ It was a great learning experience to me; don’t walk in here and throw stuff on the board and tell me that this is what we should do, but you should do all the work, you should explain it. You just added to my plate. If you walk in here and give me something with all the ideas, and everything is thought out, I’m gonna listen to you.

Basically I got crushed, shot down right there, like, don’t ever do that again. So I had to make sure that I was prepared and detailed. ‘So here’s another idea, and boom boom boom, this is what you’re gonna teach, this is how you’re gonna read it, this is what we’re gonna get out of it.’

I truly learned coaching in that moment.

We tend to treat coordinator jobs as being 99 percent based around play-calling.

It’s certainly what we roast them for when something goes wrong.

But the play-call itself is the last step of about a 423-step process.

And if the other 422 haven’t gone well — if recruiting hasn’t brought in usable personnel, the philosophy hasn’t been enforced and reinforced, or the concepts in the playbook haven’t been taught effectively — then it doesn’t matter how smart the plays look on paper or how well-timed the calls are during the game. The play isn’t going to work.