Most people will tell you that one of the keys to any good relationship is honesty. Honesty builds trust. Trust builds connection. Connection builds loyalty. When it comes to being a football coach though, maybe honesty isn’t the route you should always take.
Case in point, Illinois head coach Bret Bielema. Yesterday, the former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach said this about his team:
Now imagine you’re a player on the Illini roster. You’re already down in the dumps because your team has started the season 2-5. You just got shut out by Wisconsin, and now you’re about to go on the road to take on the No. 7 team in the country, Penn State. Things are not looking good. Then, your head coach decides to blame you for the team’s shortcomings, basically implying that the university shouldn’t have recruited you and that you aren’t the right person for your head coach’s system. Yeah, that’s how to turn a season around — take zero responsibility for yourself and ridicule your players. That’s how a new head coach gets his players to buy in. That’s how you build a winning program from the ground.
I really hope the sarcasm reads through there.
I don’t know what it is, but it feels like more and more coaches are blaming their players for their lack of success. Just the other day, first-year Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell said that his quarterback, Jared Goff, hasn’t stepped up as much as they would like him to.
I remember several instances of this happening in the past, such as Hue Jackson calling out the entire Oakland Raiders roster after being fired as team’s head coach, or Bruce Arians, who has a history of calling out players, including Carson Palmer and especially Justin Bethel, referring to the cornerback as a “failure in progress.” However, Jackson experienced his meltdown after he’d already been fired, and Arians calling out players has become one of his go-to tactics, and as long as he doesn’t do it publicly, Arians’ players seem to respect him for it. It’s become part of the “Arians culture”. No one is above being called out... not even Tom Brady.
Neither Bielema nor Campbell has managed to build a locker room culture where calling out players publicly is acceptable, though. They’ve each had less than one season with their teams, after all. That being said, I wouldn’t be shocked if their players have lost a little bit of respect for them. As a head coach, it is their responsibility to hold players accountable for their poor play, true, but publicly announcing that certain players are playing poorly doesn’t help solve the issue. It only lowers the players’ confidence in themselves and asks the public to start looking at that player with more scrutiny.
While the argument can be made that both Bielema and Campbell were just “stating the obvious,” that action doesn’t build trust in a first-year head coach. Sure, Bielema may have won a few Big Ten titles with Wisconsin and been a solid recruiter with the Badgers, but that doesn’t mean publicly tearing apart everything that came before you is a good idea. You don’t need to call out the obvious, because everybody can already see the obvious. It doesn’t take much research to realize that the Illinois roster isn’t ready to compete for a Big Ten title, or that Jared Goff is a mediocre NFL quarterback. Everybody knows, so re-affirming those claims only builds a culture of distrust and animosity.
I understand that kind of “discipline” (if we can even call it that) can be effective for some players. That’s why I’m not as quick to tear Campbell apart for calling Goff out. Maybe Goff does respond to that coaching technique. However, Bielema’s decision to call out practically his entire roster (of college kids!) is unacceptable. While Bielema’s words may light a fire under some of his players, it definitely won’t work for a majority of them, and even the ones that do respond to that kind of coaching will lose respect for their coach in the short-term, and for a team sitting at 2-5 with two of their next five games being on the road against ranked opponents, the short-term should be of utmost importance.
Calling players out doesn’t automatically make anyone a bad coach. However, doing so publicly in your first year with an organization is incredibly hard to justify if results don’t come pouring in immediately afterwards. We’re yet to see how the Illini do in their next game. However, seeing as how it’s on the road against Penn State and Bielema is yet to work out his “roster changes,” I wouldn’t expect great things from the Illini this Saturday.