Leaders of the Pack

November 4th, 2011 by Alyssa Giacobbe

Coach of the Year awards excellence both on-and-off the field – just ask Archie Manning.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It’s drilled into our collective mindset with our earliest athletic experiences: Sporting isn’t about winning or losing — it’s how you play the game. The stakes may be higher as athletes get older (and money’s involved) but for most inspiring — and most successful — coaches at any level, the motto doesn’t falter.

Since 2006, Liberty Mutual has honored the country’s most outstanding college football coaches through its Coach of the Year award. The award isn’t all about stats and rankings: Award finalists are determined first by fan votes and then via a scoring model endorsed by the College Football Hall of Fame in which factors such as sportsmanship, players’ academic achievement, and coaches’ off-field civic and philanthropic contributions are also taken into consideration.

Going on now, fan voting at the Coach of the Year website helps determine 15 finalists from each division. A panel of 55 members of the College Football Hall of Fame and 25 national sports journalists then select the division winners, each of whom receives $50,000 to donate to the charity or charities of his choice and $20,000 for his school’s alumni association. So far, nearly $1 million has gone to such charities as Habitat for Humanity, Coach Kill Cancer Fund, the United Way, and Friends of Pets.

Without question, all Coach of the Year nominees are good coaches. But we asked NFL vet Archie Manning, chairman of the National Football Foundation/College Hall of Fame, Coach of the Year voter, and football legacy patriarch, to share his thoughts on what makes a good coach a great coach. Because that’s what being Coach of the Year is all about.

RP: What do you think is the most surprising quality you and your co-panelists look for in determining Coach of the Year?

AM: As a member of the selection committee for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year, I look for a coach who handles all situations well. You can’t win every game, but you can coach the game with a level of preparedness and professionalism every single time out. Similarly, I expect a coach to preach appropriate conduct to his players and assistants and to respond to any negative incidents in a manner that fosters learning and growth. 

Who was your own most influential coach and why?

Just prior to my junior year at Ole Miss, my father passed away and my head coach, John Vaught, took on the role of father figure. It was instinctive for him—he knew that I needed a trusted figure to provide guidance and advice. He also had to find the right way to give me that advice, which is unique to each player. For me, the most helpful advice was often telling me what not to do.

What do players typically consider two or three 'great coach' qualities?

I think that the most important quality a player looks for in a coach is trust. This extends to a number of different facets: Can I trust that he has my best interest in mind? Can I trust that he is going to put the time and energy into developing the best game plan? Can I trust that he won’t show favoritism?

I also believe that players tend to look for coaches who fit their own personality. Do I want to play for an energetic, emotional coach like a Pete Carroll or Jim Harbaugh? Or does my personality mesh better with a coach who has a more stoic sideline demeanor like a Jim Tressel or a Mack Brown?

Does a great coach always know he or she is a great coach?

I don’t think a great coach necessarily recognizes that he or she is a great coach because it so often comes naturally. That’s not to say that a great coach cannot be developed; certainly all great coaches learn and grow throughout their careers. However, I don’t think a coach becomes great because he or she is actively thinking about greatness as the goal. A coach becomes great when he or she is naturally making choices that are in the best interest of the team and its players.

Liberty Mutual's Coach of the Year award goes to winning coaches. But what can coaches and players learn from coaches who handle a losing season well?

No coach wants to make a habit of losing. In fact, great coaches hate losing. But it’s undeniable that losing provides a growth opportunity. Here’s a stat for you: 20-21-1.  That is the combined won/loss records of Bear Bryant, Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden, and Joe Paterno in their first seasons at Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State, and Penn State.That’s a lot of losing, but I think we’d all agree that those four coaches learned a little bit from those losses.

In your experience, how much have great coaches been influenced by their own great coaches?

I think just about every coach in the country would attribute his desire to be in the coaching profession to one or more of his own former coaches. That’s something to consider to those who are just getting into the profession: Keep in mind that your actions and the way you conduct yourself is shaping the minds of the assistant coaches and players around you.

So in your mind, what makes a good coach a great coach?

Good coaches know Xs and Os; they put their players in the correct position to make plays on the field. Great coaches openly accept the responsibility of being a father figure and guardian to their players as well.

For more about the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year and to vote, visit www.coachoftheyear.com