We sat down with 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald in mid-February, shortly after his team had begun that portion of its off-season conditioning program called the Winning Edge. It is but one more step in the process of building a team for the fall, a process that continues now with a spring practice that culminates with the intra-squad game on April 16. --Skip Myslenski
At this point in the past, we'd have a handful of guys dropping out of workouts. We've had one, because he was sick and we pulled him out. So I think we're in the best shape we've been in at this point maybe since I've been here. That's 11 years.
What's that tell you?
Well, number one, that playing on January 1st is worth it. You're staying in great shape. You don't have the month of December to go home and get fat and lazy and lose your habits. Number two, our strength coaches have done a tremendous job in January. We did tweak some things, nothing major, nothing I'm going to share, but the guys have really bought into it. The competition starts the minute they walk into the weight room in January after having two weeks off after the bowl game. The guys have been going at it. This group has bought in. They're hungry. This senior class now, they need one more win to be the all-time winningest class in the program history. So they see an opportunity for a pretty special legacy.
Did the poor performance at the end of last season play a role in their ...
You look at where we were going into Week 10, was it 10 or 11, whatever
that week was. For 10 weeks of the year, yeah, we didn't win the games,
all of them, but we could have. We played well enough to put ourselves
in the position to be where we want to be. Our failures there at the end
of the year were a direct reflection of us, all of us collectively. We
didn't coach the way we were capable of, we didn't play the way we're
capable of, we didn't play as physical as we had earlier in the year and
that's what hurt us. There were some other little breakdowns here and
there, but those didn't cost us games. We want to get that attitude
back, and that swagger back to where it was those first 10 weeks and
prior to that. Based on what I've seen to this point, it's back. There's
no hangover. There's no woe is me. The attitude is back, and it came
back quickly. The guys came in determined. They came in with a purpose
The key thing is we need to be consistent with what we do and how we do it. That was one thing that came up, we were doing some case studies of other teams and looking at ourselves and that's kind of going to be our off-season with the Leadership Council this year. In the past, I've had them look at books (about leaders and leadership) and go through them. Now we're going to take a look at examples of leadership and examples of Team Positive, Team Negative. I use the example of the Kansas (versus in-state rival Kansas State) basketball game the other day. All the guys were watching that game, and just the attitude and the body language. None of us were on the bench, but we were watching it as fans, how they (Kansas) got run out of the gym by Kansas State. I asked what did you guys see? They saw (Kansas) players arguing with each other, players arguing with Coach (Bill) Self, negative body language. They had a chance to cut it to five and a guy took a bad shot at a bad time. So just heightening our awareness that all those things matter. And obviously coaching our guys better. That's what we're doing right now, going through our cut-ups and looking at the things fundamentally we can improve on this spring. Can I name them all off the top of my head? No. But we've got to block better, and finish blocks better in certain areas. Big plays are there to be made, but we're not finishing because we don't have our eyes in the right spot or we're not at the right leverage position. We're inconsistent with it. Our tackling, our ability to just cut it loose and not be afraid of failure. That's all it came down to. The same guys who made a ton of tackles at the beginning of the year missed a bunch of tackles the last three weeks. Nothing changed. The guy didn't change. The scheme didn't change. Our attitude changed, and the technique on how we went about it changed. So it's showing the guys, this is what it looks like when we do it right. Just continuing to re-enforce it.
When you say more consistent, do you mean more consistent performances on the field or more consistency in what you do with the Xs and Os?
It's both. It's always going to be both. I don't think that's ever going to change. I think that's what the off-season is. You pick up the hood of the car and analyze it. How can we make it go faster and more efficient? How can we use less gas, but go faster? That's what we do. We're right in the middle of it. Now you get into spring practice and you go, "All right, we think we want to go here based on what we saw on last year's video." But Skip's a different guy now. He's a little bigger, he's a little faster, we can do some different things with Skip. You can do that going on and on and on down the line. That evolves through spring and then we go back after spring recruiting, do the same thing as we get ready to plan for Camp Kenosha.
So heading into spring practice, you really can't say what the team's going to look like come fall?
Not yet. I don't know that yet. I've got an inclination based on what we have coming back. But just because you have it coming back doesn't mean it's going to be better. I think sometimes that's where fans get misled. "Wow. We've got 19 starters coming back." Well. If those 19 starters don't improve and get better and if we don't coach them better, we're not going to get any better. But everybody looks, that's why teams get ranked the way they do. They have 19 starters coming back, or 18, whatever we have. So what?
And they'll be away from you for the summer and their heads might get turned by all the smoke blown their way and you don't...
Especially today with the freshmen coming in, so much smoke has been blown up their hind parts from these recruiting services that you almost have to re-teach kids how to fight and compete because they've been put up on such a high pedestal. You've got to fight and scratch and claw for a job. "I know you were the guy. But now you're one of the guys and how are you going to separate yourself." We've got to show them how to do that. Then once we can analyze what their strengths are and the areas where they need to improve, put them in that kind of environment. Really be that specific. That's what we're trying to do right now with each guy (currently on the roster), really come up with a specific plan. "Here are the areas where you really need to improve. Watch this. Watch this very specific cut-up here of the things we think that you need to improve on. That's how you're going to take the next step."
So you bring each player into the office and do that?
The coaches do, oh, yeah. More times than not, it's as a group. You make your cut-up tape and as you go through, one rep is Skip, the next rep is me, the next rep is Demetrius, the next rep is Jeremy. You go around and emphasize fundamental techniques, effort, attitude, whatever it may be that you're making the coaching point on. But it's not only specific to that person. It's also good for the group.
Speaking of this group, which is filled with guys you recruited, has it taken ownership of the team in a way that you like?
I would say overall, yes, in the macro. But in the micro, I can't tell you that yet. They haven't been through the most challenging time and that's this summer. We're about ready to become a kid now. By the end of spring practice, we'll be a teenager. By week one (of the regular season), we're adults and by the end we're dying. So the maturation of this team, I'm not ready to say this one team, in the micro, is where we want to get. They haven't faced adversity yet.
But you do have players on it who have faced adversity.
That's what I'm saying. In the macro, yes.
Guys like Persa.
Absolutely. Without a doubt. I feel very confident in that, and my trust level in those guys is as high it's ever been. Absolutely. I just can't tell you enough about this specific team yet. I like where we're at on February 17th compared to where we were a year ago. But let's see if we can continue on that path. That gets harder every day.
Before we get to specific players, you pushed spring practice up and broke it up? Why?
A couple reasons. I wanted to see what it was like to have a week before our break. What we'd done in the past is gone winter workouts, reading week off, final week off, spring break. Three weeks off. We just kept saying to ourselves as coaches, "Gosh, that break is too long, it's too long. They need a break. But it's too long." Our thought process was, "Let's keep the momentum going. Get back to football quicker so we can give them a little more time off before they start the summer." The time off is still going to happen, but a little bit differently. It's going to happen between spring ball and summer. We're going to start our summer phase a week earlier. They'll have that week off after spring ball, which ends the 16th. They'll have a couple discretionary weeks after the 16th and then we're going to start our summer workouts in May.
Had you not been getting that started under the old schedule?
We did, but we'd get 'em a week-and-a-half later because spring ball ended later.
So now you'll have them for a month before they head off for the summer instead of a couple weeks?
Correct. We're going to analyze it, see if we like it. It's putting a pretty big cramp on our time as coaches right now. But we have a program in place. So we're going to make our little tweaks and points of emphasis from what we saw a year ago. But we do what we do. So it's about blocking and tackling, throwing and catching and covering. That's what we're going to try to get better at this spring.