As I’m sure you know, Tom Crean and Jim and John Harbaugh are brothers-in-law. Or are they brother-in-laws? Either way, Crean is married to the brothers’ sister. (Combined salaries: approximately $20 million. Christmases should be ballin’.)
Despite the three families obviously living in separate areas in the country and working in highly-demanding, time-consuming jobs, the three manage to stay close. Or, at least as close as you can given the circumstances. Crean broke away from his season to attend the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl in 2013 and has spent time visiting both brothers at work. It also helps that he’s a big fan of football and football coaches.
With an all-access family pass to view both John and Jim in an intimate way that few others get to do, Crean shared what makes both of the Harbaughs exceptional coaches on the Vertical Podcast with Woj.
“They know how to deal with their best players and they know how to deal with their practice squad players, and they know how to make each and every one of them feel a personal connection, and they’re not afraid to tell them the truth,” Crean said. “I think that’s such an underrated, undervalued, assume-that-everybody-does-it trait in coaching that coaches will always tell a player the truth. You have to have some tact, you know how they learn, you have to know who’s sensitive to this, who’s sensitive to that. I’ve had guys in the NBA that will get a new coach that maybe they came from college, maybe it’s their first coaching job, they’ll say, ‘He’s really good, the meetings are really good, but he’s never direct. He talks general or he’ll talk to the whole group. Everybody will know who he’s talking about but he’ll never address it.’
“A leader of men is going to come in and they’re going to tell the truth whether you want to hear it or not but they’re going to give you a solution on how to make it better. For me, football has got to be time-conscious, there’s so much time spent on football, but yet if you’re not efficient with your time as a coach, and if you’re not efficient in your time with your team, and if you don’t max out the time that you have with them, and if you don’t really manage the best you can the concentration spans that we all have and the limits we all have on those, if you don’t get the most out of that you’re going to miss a lot. It’s such a detailed sport, it’s such a fundamentally driven sport that’s played in such a tough, nasty, violent way, that if you’re not completely locked in on how to do it right, because everybody’s playing really hard, everybody’s playing really tough, you’ve got to have the ability to keep it going.
“To me, the best coaches — and you can learn so much from football coaches and football staffs — is that they’re not afraid to tell players the truth but there’s a relationship built behind it. And it’s not just a business relationship although everybody knows there’s business to it, but there’s a personal relationship that helps get those guys to go to another place and they feel like their confidence is growing because not only are their skills growing, but they’re in a relationship that matters. It’s hard. It’s really hard in football because there are so many people. But that’s why I have so much respect for football coaches that are successful and I’ve learned so much about that just from relationships with my family.”
Crean — who by all accounts is a fantastic human being — spoke at length with former Houston Rockets and New York Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy on the Woj podcast on the coaching life in basketball. While the sports are different but the goal is the same: pushing young people to be the best they can be. What follows below is essentially a wall of text, but unless you want to carve out an hour to consume the entire conversation I suggest reading through it because this is the best coaching education you’ll receive today.
Crean on coaches’ obligation to push their players: “The level of demand that you’ve got to put on your best players is so high if they don’t understand how to put it on themselves…. It gets harder and harder to make guys better when you’re afraid to push them beyond where they want to be…. Too many coaches are afraid to push somebody beyond what that person feels are their limits. If you don’t push somebody beyond what their limits are, they’re never going to find out what their limits are. And too many people are getting a false sense of security and hope and believing that they’re at a place that they’re really not and all of a sudden they get to college and they’ve got a rude awakening.”
Jeff Van Gundy on walking through a New York Jets practice with Bill Parcells: “Keyshawn Johnson comes over… and Coach Parcells says to me, ‘Hey Jeff, do you like restaurants?’ And I said yeah. He goes, ‘If you want to know about restaurants, Keyshawn’s your guy.’ And I’m like, okay. He goes, ‘Do you like clothes?’ I said, ‘Have you seen me dress? Not particularly.’ He says, ‘Well if you ever change your mind, Keyshawn is your guy.’ And so he says to me, ‘Do you like winning?’ And I said, ‘Of course, Coach, I like winning.’ He said, ‘Then don’t talk to Keyshawn Johnson. He knows not one thing about what it takes to win.’ And we walk away. This guy, as blunt and as direct, but humor was always a part of it and I have found humor resonates well with guys.”
Crean on the challenge of commanding players’ attention: “Every young person that comes into college, they are 365 days more ingrained than the last class that came in when it comes to social media, lack of eye contact, lack of verbal. I saw a study done, I was at Marquette so maybe 15, 16 years ago, that non-verbal communication was 92 percent of communication in people from 14-to-22. That was 15 years ago. I’m not sure you could even quantify that right now because there’s so many distractions…. That’s part of life, right? You have to learn. Don’t complain about it, don’t neglect it, don’t ignore it, learn how to deal with it, learn how to manage it, learn how to thrive in it. One thing I did two years ago which was so helpful — I think football coaches, because there’s so many meetings that they have, there’s so much film time, there’s so many rooms that are dark, there’s so much time that they’ve got to demand their concentration — I wanted to hear a clinic at Notre Dame because I wanted to hear the speakers. The speakers were Bill O’Brien, Ron Rivera, the speaker that I really wanted to see first and foremost because everything I’d ever read about him (said) he was absolutely revered by his players was Rod Marinelli, the defensive coordinator of the Cowboys. And then you had the entire Notre Dame staff. It was one of the best days of learning that I’ve ever spent. Brian Kelly was so gracious in the way that he treated me. I tried to really pay attention to how these guys ran the clinic and the way that they interacted with these 800 coaches. Rod Marinelli hit me with something that I thought was really important. I said, ‘How do you keep your room engaged?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to constantly be on the move and understand that their mind is moving all the time. I might start the film session in the back of the room. I might stop and go to the front, turn the light on (to) make a point. I might point the laser pointer here. I might go to the side of the room. I might be sitting down, now I might stand up.’ He was as aware of how he was teaching them from his body movements and his voice inflections as he was anything that he was teaching on the film. And the other point that he made that was so good, and I started doing this more and more, he would be in the middle of the film — whether it was their practice field or whether it was an area that was right off their film room — he would stop the film at some point in time, walk out, walk through something out on the field, come back and watch the film some more.”
Crean on getting players to concentrate: “The average concentration span of the average human being, studies say, is eight seconds. We’re foolish if that’s even enough. I’ve had guys that I’ve coached, their concentration span might be three or four seconds. You’ve got to really, really work to engage them and as a leader it makes you better. I know I’ve gotten better by studying those types of things…. In sports, when you’re down four and it’s two minutes to go with a sellout crowd, you’ve got to make sure they’re engaged. You’ve got to make sure they’re grabbing what’s coming out of that timeout that there’s enough communication that the distraction of where they’re sitting is not going to override the detail that they’re going to walk out and play with. We’ve got to work at that because it’s only going to get harder because everyday it becomes that much more. I think the coaches that spend time working at that and developing that are going to be the ones that are most successful moving forward.”
Crean on a coach’s most important responsibility: “The old (quote from) Bill Parcells, I had it in my office, my brother-in-laws have taken it to their office, I saw it a long time ago and it is so hard to do, it’s basic but it’s incredibly hard, and it says: ‘Just coach the team.’ Anybody that’s followed Bill Parcells knows that was part of the mantra of him. It’s very hard to do that because you’ve got to spend time in so many different aspects, you’ve got to really force yourself to really think. To think about not only what you’re doing schematically, but how to make your individuals better, how to make the communication process better, how to communicate to the media, what the right message is going to be. It can be so easy to become caught up in, ‘Well, I can’t say this because this wouldn’t be politically correct. I can’t say this because I don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings.’ There’s so many things that you can do, but when you really think it through your message can be so much clearer.”
Listen to the full podcast below.