"I would say that, looking back at as much as we could get through in the time we've been off the road, we're really looking hard at our teaching, we're looking hard at what our adjustments are that we asked some of our guys to do based on what we thought we'd be able to accomplish. I think we adjusted. But we're very critical of ourselves that we probably should have adjusted a little quicker."
"From the standpoint of, if in an offense, we want a protection to do a certain thing and they give us a look, A and B is pretty simple, but if they get us to C, we had a breakdown there. So simplify more, especially on defense. It wasn't that we were getting gashed all game. It was that we're giving up explosion plays at inopportune times. And most of those came from a breakdown in communication, a breakdown in fundamentals, a breakdown in execution. You put that on yourselves as coaches. That shouldn't happen, that shouldn't happen. Why is it happening and what can you do better to improve it? And I thought we did as the year went along. Especially our defense, I thought we got better as the season went along. For two of the four quarters of the bowl game, I thought we played as well as we did all year on defense, and that's with four different corners. So, a lot to draw from that was positive. But a lot of work to do, and that started when we got back here in January."
So was it a matter of simplifying? Are you saying you were trying to do too much with them early last season?
"I don't think that we were trying to do too much. But you always learn the personality of your team and how much they can handle, and that's always evolving. Then you get personnel changes and did we evolve quick enough with them? You look back in the rear view mirror, you say you lost five straight games and the answer's no. But you look and you can say, 'Well we were, and we did, and we got better, and we improved, especially on defense.' Not where we want to be, and we're identifying some obvious areas. Number one, communication. Number two, getting off the field on third down. We'd been really good at that. It's a by-product of not only, obviously, tighter coverage. But also of sack production and hitting the quarterback and disrupting his timing, things of that nature. And then eliminating the explosion plays. We weren't at the same level that we had been, especially in that stretch where we ended up on the short end. So you look back at those games and you go, 'Gosh, you know, we're not that far away.' But to make up that far, what do we need to do, how do we need to adjust? That's what we've been working on this off-season."
That's from the coaches' perspectives?
With the players, at this point last spring, your concern was the players getting their stingers back after those tough losses at the end of the 2010 season. When it comes to them now, is there abiding concern this spring?
"Yeah. It's all about chemistry. It's been all about coming together. Obviously, we had a great group of seniors (last season), the all-time winningest group, they played a lot of football here as a body, as a whole group. They're gone. They've graduated. They've matriculated out, and now the dynamic of the team has probably changed more this off-season than maybe any other off-season from the standpoint of the guys who played. Oh, yeah. Corey (Wootton's) graduated. Mike (Kafka's) graduated. But (here it's) the amount of players who graduated. So that chemistry and that mentality and that attitude of coming together and becoming a really tight-knit group, we've tried to accelerate that process. Peer-to-peer. Coach-to-player. Player-to-coach. Program-wide. Obviously, it's a work in progress. It's always going to be a work in progress. But we're pleased where we're at right now. The young men are doing a really good job of that."
And you not only lost a lot of players. You also lost a lot of your leaders. (Quarterback Dan) Persa. (Offensive tackle Al) Netter. (Safety Brian) Peters.
"Exactly. Yeah, exactly. But through that, new leadership evolves. You just look at the Leadership Council, it's a completely new group. Eight of the 12 guys are first-time members, so a very different perspective, almost like going back to three, four years ago. That's a lot of what we've done. We've gone back to when we created a lot of this, and when we studied (the late UCLA basketball) Coach (John) Wooden. We're going back and doing that again since eight of the 12 guys are different. It's been productive."
Are you seeing new leaders emerge?
Would you like to name them?
"I'd like to name them after we played some football. You know, there are always leaders who get involved when you're in shorts, when you're lifting weights, when you're running indoors. Now let's see who emerges when someone hits back. Not that the weights don't hit back. You can get momentarily pressed on the bench press. On the squat, you might not come out of the hold. But someone's going to hit back here starting Tuesday, and that's when real leadership evolves. When it gets really hard."
But isn't leadership also involved in getting the guys to the weight room, getting the guys to drills?
"Absolutely. There's no question. There's no question. And I would say that group of 12 was identified by their peers in February. I think you would start there, and that group has taken on a more active approach. If I would wind back to four years ago, five years ago when we had a young group, to me that's very encouraging. Then we have a group of guys who applied for the Leadership Council and are taking a very active role in that too. They may not be in that symbolic position of leadership, or have the responsibility."
So you're talking about guys who applied and didn't get elected?
But they're still leading?
"Absolutely. And that's very, very productive. Very productive. But. Let's talk about this in August. Now, after going through spring ball, and the ebb and flow of being a football player, and throwing a pick, or missing a tackle, or missing a block, or giving up a touchdown pass when nobody's watching in practice, how do you lead now?"
At first you had guys on the Council read books about leadership. Last year you changed that and had them study examples of leadership. What are you having this new group do?
"We're going back, really, to the genesis of what we value and what our goals are and our vision and our plan to get there and all those things. We're going back through it and kind of re-teaching it, kind of Football 101. We're doing the same thing with our concepts in all three phases. We're doing the same thing with the way that we're teaching, the way that we are in the classroom. We're really just taking a real hard scrub and tweaking the things where we think, 'You know what? We can do this better.' Instead of saying, 'Oh, gosh, we failed.' No. What can we do better? Let's go attack it that way. I think it's been a really productive couple months."
I've come to believe this question of players leading is important after hearing a lot of coaches say the less they have to lead, the better off a team is. Do you go along with that?
"Yeah, on the field. When we get on the field. Off the field, I think there's going to be that component because that's the way life goes. There's the leader of the ship, that's me. But there's a bunch of other leaders and captains and all that and you're kind of in that hierarchy. But when the locker room has ownership of the program, meaning when we're not around each other, when it's voluntary time, when it's time to make choices--our guys always make great choices; very rarely do we make knuckle headed decisions -- are we doing the things champions do? Are we eating and drinking and sleeping and just consumed with being a champion? I think we're evolving there. We haven't gotten there yet. We've been damn close, but we haven't gotten there yet. And that's the goal."
When Jerry Wainwright was coaching at DePaul he told me a story about Rusty LaRue, who was like the last man on the Bulls' '98 championship team. He'd been an assistant at Wake Forest when LaRue played there and said he once told him that his biggest fear in life was going to practice and pissing off Michael Jordan. I assume you'd love to have a leader like that here.
"Yeah. You want to have it on a peer-to-peer perspective. At a certain point, a coach, his influence ends. Now what's going to fill where maybe the rest has to go? Well, number one, you hope it's intrinsic, you hope the guys wants to get there. But then, when they look a teammate eye-to-eye, a brother eye-to-eye, you're saying, "Hey, you're doing great, but let's raise the bar." Or, "Hey, you're not doing it the way you need to do it. This is the standard and this is why and let me help you." Or get after their hind parts when they're not doing things right or making the wrong choice and creating bad habits. Absolutely, you want that. If it's all top down, coach to player, you only get so far, you hit a ceiling. We try not to have that be the model here. I'd like to think I'm not a dictator. It just doesn't work. It just doesn't work. Maybe it works for somebody else, but it doesn't work for me and I don't think it works for our young men. They want to have, they want to know why and they want to be part of the solution. I think through that you can really create a great culture of guys who want to lead."
Is developing that leadership, then, as important as anything that happens this offseason?
"I think it's every year, Skip. Yeah."
Even in an offseason like last year when you knew you had leaders coming back?
"Yeah, we did, we did. But you don't have it permeating through the whole team. So now, if I say it's just the seniors, I think that's the mousetrap of coaching. 'Man, we've got a great senior class. We're going to have great leadership.' Well now three of them get hurt, two of them get beat out. Or if we're waiting to develop them from January to August of their senior year, you don't have enough time. I think a lot of coaches fall into that mousetrap. It's seniors, it's all about seniors. It is. But if you wait, that's why we developed the Leadership Council. It has four underclassmen and, if you include the juniors, you have seven of the 12. So more underclassmen have a voice then the seniors, and this is the biggest senior group. We've got five seniors on the Leadership Council and part of that is because the entire senior class applied. That's the first time this has happened. The entire class. That's encouraging."
Again, going back, the abiding memory at this time were the bad losses that ended '10. What's your abiding memory of last year?
"Our ability to stay the course when we hit a storm. Obviously, we hit a pretty rocky road there and the way that our young men persevered through it, nobody wants to go through it and, as we sit here right now, I don't anticipate going through it this fall. But it happened. And I think everybody, we stayed the course and we kept trusting what we do and we kept coaching our guys and our guys stayed receptive to the coaching. I think a lesser team would have completely fractured because of losing games. But they just kept working hard to find a solution. We didn't get it right away. We didn't get our guys to make those plays that winners make in that crunch time moment for a couple weeks, and in football a couple weeks is an eternity. Five weeks now, it's April. Five weeks in the fall, five hours is an eternity then. So I wouldn't want any football team to go through that and, again, it's football, it's losing games. It's not the end of the world here, it's not cancer, it's not world hunger. But we went through it, we persevered through it, we stayed the course, and I think we improved through it. I know the program improved through it. But I also think a lot of guys individually said, 'You know what? I learned a lot about myself through that time period.' It's so easy to start pointing fingers, it's so easy to place blame, it's so easy to, 'All right, I'm a senior, I'm in it for me. All right, I'm a redshirt freshman, I'll worry about it next year, I'll just play out the string and we'll be better next year.' You can have all those seven dysfunctions of a team happen, the book. But at the end of the day it's human beings, and you want to be successful and you work your butt off to be successful and when you're not, the first thing you do is question. Why? I thought we fought through it.
You said the program improved through it. How?
"Number one, I've seen a real hunger in the guys' eyes in the way that we've gone about it from the standpoint of, nobody wants to walk off the field in your last game as a loser. Our seniors have now done that four times, our fifth year guys have done it four times. So you have that as a goal, a motivator. Our goal is to win championships. We haven't done that yet. And then the guys saw what we went through a year ago, which can fracture you or make you stronger. I think it made us stronger. I think we realize, we thought we were close. But we weren't close enough because, when a storm hit, we couldn't get the ship righted (immediately). We got a little off course, then we got it back. That's something we can solve now. The fundamentals of football, the techniques, the communication, all that other stuff. Now that's the next phase and we're going to test the crap out of that now. Here we go. But at the same time we're going to try to build confidence for our guys who are maybe a little less experienced in the way we're going to go about our teaching. Again, really taking a hard look internally at what we're doing. Going back. Good to go back."
That hunger, that would be the residual effect of last year?
"You would hope it would be, and so far so good. And then you have some guys going into their third year and it's great. That's kind of like the magic year. You've either had a great start to your career and now it's time to make that All-Big Ten jump. Or you're an All-Big Ten player and now it's time to make the All-American jump. Or I'm not pleased with my role and now's the time or my career is over. To see that group kind of start to emerge, I've been pleased with the winter of some guys who haven't really had the role they dreamed of or we dreamt for them make some strides."
We're talking redshirt sophomores?
"Yeah. Or true juniors that maybe have played but haven't had the role they wanted or we wanted. Then the same things happens to the group coming out of their freshman year, their redshirt freshman year. This is the first time there's no more card (showing them how opponents run their plays), there's no more it's OK to not do it the way it's supposed to be done. Not that you're mitigated. But it's off a card, you might not be doing something that we do. Now it's time to go and execute. Both those groups, they're at different ends of their career. But I like where those two groups have gone. They're kind of on different stops on the track of their career. But those two groups are typically the groups you want to see, you're hoping that maybe the group that hasn't had the role, the light switch has gone on, the ah-ah moment has happened. 'OK. The issue here is me.' Then they take inventory, take stock of what they've done. 'OK. Here's what I've got to fix.' Whatever might be the catalyst, there's a change. Then, I don't know, that youthful excitement of those guys coming off being redshirted, "All right, here's my chance to compete now. I redshirted last year, I was getting better, but I was competing against myself. Now I got a chance to compete and win a job."
Care to name any names who look as if they're ready to make either of those jumps?
"Aaaaaa-hhh. Not really. Not yet. Again, nobody's punched them back."
And, as you love to say, everybody looks good in shorts.
"Yeah. Yeah. Although it's been glorified now, football is not a seven-on-seven game. It's just not."
Visit NUsports.com Tuesday for Pat Fitzgerald's position-by-position breakdown of the Wildcats this spring.