Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Personalizing coaching

As I was posting about Dwight Lowery yesterday, I came across an article from the San Francisco paper about his coach at San Jose State, Dick Tomey.

As one of his assistants points out, Coach Tomey is less about recruiting players and more about recruiting personalities.

"He's not caught up in a lot of tangibles" such as how fast a guy runs the 40 and how much he can bench press.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Tomey relies on his eyes and his gut to pick players others passed over or to put them at positions others would not consider. Then he relies on personal relationships with his driven players to extract more than they thought possible.

"You're concerned about what somebody has inside," Tomey said. "The Tedy Bruschis of this world are not hard to find, if you understand what you're looking at. I don't consider myself any kind of super evaluator; I just think you need to know what you're looking for, and not just follow what all the gurus say, because the gurus are wrong a bunch."

Tomey coaches from the inside out, "getting under the skin" he calls it.

"He personalizes coaching," [the late, great Bill] Walsh said.

Tomey's introductory speech to his players immediately after being hired was not a fiery call to arms.

"I felt really uncomfortable, because when I looked out at the sea of faces, I didn't recognize many guys," Tomey said, "so I said, "Guys, we're going to stop, and I want to talk to every one of you guys for a few minutes, and after I've done that and I feel a little more comfortable with who we all are, we'll resume."

He spent all of the next two days speaking with each player in his office, asking them about their family, telling them about his.

"If somebody feels they are valued as a person, you can ask more of them, and they'll give you more," Tomey said. "It's all about us being uncompromising about what we can demand, and then delivering."

"He's a father figure you would die for," said [one former player].

Warm and fuzzy is not the traditional description of a football coach, whose job is to produce tough, disciplined players, but Tomey gets as close as he can, learning what buttons to push for motivation or for consolation.

"He keeps the heart and souls of young men in his pocket," said [assistant coach Dave] Fipp.

To foster a one-for-all attitude, Tomey will manufacture ways to break up cliques, such as having a senior quarterback sit by a freshman defensive lineman at team meetings. To get his point across in practice without alienating players, Tomey will often blame a position coach for a player's mistake. He can yell with the best of them at practice, but wide receiver Rufus Skillern likens it to a father trying to get his son to do something.

"And he's not afraid to get in the middle of a drill and hug you," Fipp said.

Ambition has not hardened Tomey.

"His goal was to be a high school assistant coach," Rich Tomey said. "That's all he wanted to be."

Tomey dresses like someone with modest goals. He owns one suit, and these days he usually wears socks after going without them for years.

"I'd be watching him on his coach's show in Tucson," Rich said, "and he had on these cowboy boots with no socks on TV. I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God,' but he doesn't care."

Tomey's recruiting M.O. is to become part of the family. He'll wander into a recruit's kitchen on a home visit, open the refrigerator and rummage around. He'll sit on the floor, play with the dog, maybe use the knick-knacks to demonstrate something.

One of the first things he did at San Jose State was get out of an office he thought was too big, trading down to a smaller one so academic personnel could have the larger room.

"An office never beat anybody," he said.

Tomey does not need room for a cot in his office. The job gets done without spending 18 hours a day there. He ended the spring scrimmage early so players could spend more time with their families. He lets assistant coaches go watch their kids play in athletic events.

While at Arizona, Tomey carved out time to watch his son play on the Wildcats' baseball team, even though it coincided with spring football.

"He basically formed the spring football schedule around the baseball schedule, and saw every one of my road games," Rich Tomey said. "He looked at the baseball schedule, and said, 'Here's when we practice.' "

Tomey nudges accepted coaching methods toward the personal, or what he would consider the practical. Practices during the season will begin at 7 a.m., an unusual schedule that makes sense for the day's demands, Tomey says.

Tomey is imprinting his personality on his team, a method that takes time, although the inspiring productivity of walk-ons and undersized players hastens the process.

"His favorites are the walk-ons," Rich Tomey said. "Those are the guys he wants to model the team after."