This week we spoke to three different first-year head coaches, Todd Monken at Southern Miss, Willie Taggart at South Florida and P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan, to compare and contrast their views on how they set out to build their programs.
Now we step forward one year in time to speak to coaches preparing for their second year on campus to see how things went in year one, what advice they have for rookie head coaches and how they plan to step forward for their sophomore campaigns.
Today we start with Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter, fresh off a share of the Mountain West Conference championship, to see what he learned after one season as the alpha Bulldog.
1) What objectives did you want your team to hit in year one? Did you hit them?
We talked from day one about winning championships. I knew from the year before that we had a good core nucleus of guys. You look at the tradition of Fresno State, the program that Pat (Hill) had built, I didn’t think it was a rebuilding project. I thought we had a good core group and we just challenged them from day one that we were going to play for championships. We approached that in everything we did every single day. Fortunately we got a share of it last year.
2) How do you want your program to take a step forward now that you’re in year two?
We established the way we practice and our system on all three sides of the ball. To me it’s about making that next step now where internally the guys hold each other to a standard. A year ago it was a little more external, the coaches showing our guys how we do things. This year we’re trying to get guys to have more ownership. We had some success a year ago. The buy in has been great. I just think that our guys know what the standard is, and they’re holding each other to a standard as opposed to it being top-down, driven by the coaches.
3) Now that you’re a year into it, how long did you think it took for the culture change from the previous staff to your staff to fully settle into the locker room?
To be honest with you, it’s probably a year process. The way we do our offseason program was totally different. The way we run practice is totally different. At first there was a little apprehension from the players. They’re used to doing it a certain way and for a while the previous coach had a lot of success doing it a certain way. Those guys who had committed to him and his program, there was a certain sense of apprehension and maybe skepticism, ‘Is this going to work?’, but I think what happened last year as we won some games down the stretch, we had a few games where we were down and came back to win, guys became more and more confident in the system. Buy in towards the end of the season was really good. Guys thought, ‘This is who we are. We’re going to be fast, physical and fanatical.’ They started buying into that as our mantra.
4) Is there a moment where you look back and realize everything clicked in terms of the players buying in to the program?
It might have been right around the New Mexico game. We were on the road, we were down 21 early, we weren’t playing very well, threw a pick-six. Nobody panicked on the sideline. The coaches didn’t, the players didn’t. We just went about our business and found a way to win. In the past, if they got down on the road, it just wasn’t going to be their day and kind of chalked it up. Our guys fought back, with the tempo we play at there’s not very many leads that are insurmountable for us. A couple weeks prior to that we had San Diego State at home and we were down 14, I think, and came back to win that game. Our guys just started getting that feel that, it doesn’t matter if we’re down, what the adversity is, we’ll find a way. You could just see that grow as the season went on. Like I said, the New Mexico game was when the buy in really got big.
5) What advice would you give to a guy about to take his first head coaching job?
I think the biggest thing is, meet with your team and start establishing relationships. That’s what I did. I knew that these guys had come here because of Coach Hill. When a coach gets let go there’s a lot of hard feelings. A lot of times there’s resentment, ‘Who’s this new guy?’ You’ve got to understand that coming in and sell the guys that there’s nothing wrong with what happened before, that’s what happens in football sometimes, but we’re going in a different direction and I want everybody with me and the guys that choose not to won’t be with us. You set the parameters you want to hold guys to. And the other key thing is I was able to hire a tremendous staff. Guys that bought into the new Bulldog vision. Both offensively and defensively and with special teams, we had guys that were going to coach at a high tempo, that were going to be energetic, hold guys to a standard. I think when you’ve got a staff that is committed and has buy in, it’s a lot easier for the players to have it.
6) Have things slowed down for you versus where you stood a year ago?
When you go through spring ball for a second time, when it’s your offseason program for a second time, there’s a familiarity with the process and that’s always good. There’s five guys here that were with me at Texas A&M and so we’re doing a lot of similar things to what we did out there. For half the staff there was familiarity with how we do things. Now we’ve all been together, we’ve lost one assistant coach in this time, so for the majority of our guys we know how this phase of the year is supposed to go. We’re in spring football now, and (we know) what the next phase will have, all those things where you’re not having to reinvent the wheel. We also know our players much better at this point. A year ago you were trying to figure out who the playmakers were, who you could depend on, who were the guys were truly in the boat and who were the guys that were rowing against you. This year a lot of those questions had already been answered and you don’t have to go figure that out.
7) How long did it take you to come to grips with the off-the-field demands of the job?
That’s probably the most difficult part. You miss the coaching part. You end up being removed a little bit from that. Obviously all that stuff is important. You have to do it, it’s part of your responsibility as a head coach. It’s something that is probably not the most fun, it’s just part of it.
8) As you stepped into the big office for the first time, how did you handle letting staff issues or letting your staff members know you weren’t happy with the way things were going?
The majority of the guys that I hired were guys I had worked with personally in the past or guys that were on our staff had worked with somewhere. You got a pretty good basis for what that guy’s all about. When you do have issues, just like anything in life in my opinion, you confront it. You have honest, open communication about it and you set the standards. Guys want to hear that. Guys don’t want a situation where the boss, whether it’s the coordinator or the head coach, doesn’t like something and doesn’t tell them about it. Our guys know I’m going to tell them if I don’t like how things are going. Fortunately we didn’t have too many of those situations.
9) Is there any one thing from your first year that you look back and wish you did or didn’t do?
There’s probably 100 things. Any one thing in particular, I don’t know. By and large, things went pretty well last year. I really liked our staff. I like our players. I like the fact that we only signed 15 guys a year ago so that we would have a class, we signed 28 this year, where you can get to know guys better. I like the way we train. I learned a bunch from Mike Sherman in how to set a year-round plan. We implemented it this year so a lot of those blueprint things we’ve had in place for a couple years. To me, that was big. I’m not saying we did everything perfect but there’s no one or two things where I say I wish I had done this or that differently.
10) You were Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator in 2011 during Johnny Manziel’s redshirt year. Did you see the Johnny Football phenomenon coming on before the rest of us?
I knew when he was our scout team quarterback he was pretty special as an athlete. He didn’t throw the ball the best of the guys on our team. Ryan Tannehill was pretty good and Jameill Showers I thought probably had an even stronger arm than Tannehill and Matt Joeckel was pretty darn good. I was kind of in the back of my mind thinking if he’s not going to be in the mix at quarterback I want him as a safety because he’s an athlete, as you can tell. He’s a competitive winner, which I loved.
When we were getting ready to play Baylor when they had RGIII, he was our scout team quarterback. I remember getting frustrated at our defense because we couldn’t tackle him. Yelling at our guys saying, ‘If you can’t tackle this little freshman, how in the world are we going to tackle RGIII?’ And then after the game our guys are like, ‘Coach, I’m telling you, that guy was harder to tackle during our week of practice than RGIII was.’ I think RGIII had about 50 yards against us running the football [he had 12 rushes for 15 yards]. Manziel probably had 600 during the week.