There are 125 different FBS head coaches, and 125 different sets of challenges they face as preparations for the 2013 season get underway. While each coach’s task is different, there are also some shared circumstances spread across college football.
With that in mind, we decided to reach out to first, second and third-year coaching staffs to take a temperature check at where they stand in building their respective football programs. The circumstances are different, but the challenges are the same.
In part one of our series we talked to new Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken on inheriting a tradition-laden program that fell, hard and quickly, on some hard times in the 2012 season.
1) How will you define success in Year One?
Monken: I think anybody when they take over wants the team to reflect what you want the team to look like. I think you want to give yourself a chance in every game that you play. You want your players playing hard. You want your guys buying into the program and the process of getting better. I think it’s hard to put a wins and loss, other than I think every team wants success when you take over a program. Some people take over a program where they’ve already been to 10 straight bowl games, so going to a bowl game’s not a goal. For here, up until last year 18 straight winning seasons, I don’t think the coach here would’ve thought having a winning season is a goal, but obviously here starting a new streak, going to a bowl game and having a winning season (would be goals).
2) Speaking of last year, how often do you and your staff bring that up to the team?
Monken: It never gets brought up to the team. It just doesn’t. I think you make a reference to it, that everybody had a hand in it. It’s easy just to say, ‘Hey, a different coach. Everything’s going to be better.’ That’s not the case. Everybody had a hand in why you have such a tough season. The players have to take some of that ownership. Other than the initial time when I spoke to them and spoke to that, other than that it doesn’t get brought up.
3) How much of an effort will you make to let your presence be known to your defensive staff and players?
Monken: Since I am running the offense, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult….Obviously you have to make a conscientious decision that certain parts of practice or post-practice or meeting-wise that you’re involved. That’s hard for me to say not having done it yet.
4) How is the ‘buy in’ process going with the players?
Monken: It’s hard to know. Like any relationship, I think it’s tough to tell. Obviously after a tough year it’s easier to get guys to buy in than it is if you replace somebody that had a great year. I think that’s easier. I think the staff previous to me got a much tougher job in that regard after coming off such a great year. We’re just in the early stages of spending time with our players. You take a job and you spend the first month and a half recruiting, and you don’t spend any time around your current players except for in recruiting weekends when they’re your hosts, and you don’t even know who they are, half of them. It’s an interesting dynamic. The first view they have of you and your staff is your strength department. That’s it. That’s going to reflect you and your staff….As we get to meet with them more, and as they get to see the things that we’re talking about and the things that we’re doing, start to see the success on the field individually and as a team, then there’s buy in. Ultimately, you buy in to something that you believe in and that takes time, that takes trust.
5) After three months at Southern Miss, what parts of the job have met your expectations of being a head coach and what has been different than you anticipated?
Monken: I don’t find anything you have to do as a head coach to be hard, but there’s a lot of it. That’s what I probably didn’t realize. Recruiting, coaching, dealing with people, the every day job. We coach for a living, for God’s sakes. We don’t work on a construction crew and lay asphalt. None of it’s hard, it’s just there’s a lot of it. It just consumes so much of your day. There’s so many things that fall into your lap that normally don’t fall into your lap when you’re an assistant. That was something I probably didn’t anticipate just because before you know it half the day’s gone and you didn’t do any football. You do a lot of planning, especially this first year. A lot of things that you’re going to lay the groundwork for moving forward that, once you have down on your calendar, it’s the norm. But initially, probably that more than anything, it takes up a large part of your day.
6) Do you ever find yourself getting nervous in your new position?
Monken: There’s lots of times you get nervous. I get nervous a lot. You just do. Does that calm down? Sure it does. I think the more that you’re around and people know you, there’s less nervousness. I think initially when you do your press conference or when you meet the team the first time or when you meet anybody the first time there’s a little uneasiness. It doesn’t overwhelm you or overtake you, but there’s a little bit there. I think it’s relationships. Everybody goes through it when you’re dating or when you first meet somebody, there’s a little nervousness to it and then as you get to know them it goes away. I think that’s true here as you get to know the players. Nervousness or uneasiness always comes from the unknown. Not only with relationships but with somewhere you haven’t been. When you haven’t done anything there’s always a little bit of, ‘Did I handle that the right way?’
7) What were you looking for in filling out your staff?
Monken: The things you look for are guys that are smart, hardworking and loyal. I really believe that if a guy is smart, he works his butt off and he’s loyal, he can coach almost any position. That was the first thing. Obviously you try to get guys that you’ve been around, that you’ve seen work, that you’ve seen through good times and bad. I think its human nature, it’s easy when things are going well. Everybody gets along, everybody talks about team chemistry and coach chemistry when you win. It’s when things are tough that you know. And then obviously you’re looking for a diverse group of guys that I think will fit well together and work well together. In the end, you’ve got to have guys that have been able to connect with their players. That’s one of the questions you’re always asking because ultimately they’ve got to play for their position coach.
8) What was the process like in whittling down the worthy candidates to your actual assistant coaching staff?
Monken: The hardest thing about being a first-time head coach is you only have so many guys you can hire, and you’ve got so many guys that are deserving, that you know and that you’ve worked with that you’d like to hire. And then especially since I’m coaching the quarterbacks and running the offense, that’s one less spot so I dedicated the ninth spot for a recruiting spot.
9) How many people contacted you after you got the Southern Miss job to campaign for a spot on your staff, either for themselves or someone they know?
Monken: You can’t imagine. The number of people that directly or indirectly are interested, I can’t even count the number. It would probably be in the thousands. You’re talking all the way from high school coaches that are in the area to guys that I’ve known, from lower-level coaches, some guys that might be out of work, some that were trying to contact me indirectly from guys on the staff that I’d hired. It allows you to appreciate the job that you have and how fortunate you’ve been to have good jobs and been around good people that you’ve learned from because ultimately you realize the supply is so much greater than the demand.
10) How did you go about hiring your key off-the-field positions, such as the strength coach and director of football operations?
Monken: Those are a little bit more difficult. Most places have one, maybe two. There’s not a bunch of them out there. You’re kind of going by word of mouth, and then guys that you respect recommend guys that they’ve been around. It’s getting information from people you trust and you go from there. I’ll put the ops guy in the snapper on PAT/field goal, that’s who the ops guy is. He gets no credit but it doesn’t work without him. At the end of the day is he as critical as the kicker? Hell no. Is he as critical as some of the other spots? No. But you certainly know him when things don’t run efficiently. Especially when you talk about an area that most coaches don’t have a lot of knowledge of, I certainly didn’t.