How To Succeed in the NFL Without Yelling

Posted: Jan 23, 2011 12:01 AM
How To Succeed in the NFL Without Yelling

Several years ago, when my younger son was playing high school football, the players' dads would organize a team breakfast before Saturday home games. I remember one father in particular.

He was quiet and unassuming. He would mingle a little, eat eggs alongside his son, listen to remarks by the head coach and leave with everyone else when it was over. You'd hardly have noticed him, except that he was the head coach of the Chicago Bears, a guy named Lovie Smith.

If it had been Rex Ryan, I think things would have gone differently.

The Jets coach brings to mind what Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of her father, Theodore Roosevelt: "He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening."

Ryan's press conferences are great fodder for SportsCenter. He gets more headlines than Sarah Palin. He became a full-fledged media phenomenon when he let HBO into the Jets training camp, giving viewers weekly blasts of his profane, trash-talking persona.

I could appreciate Ryan -- if the problem with our society were a shortage of loud, obnoxious attention seekers. But in a nation blessed with Glenn Beck, Joan Rivers, Rahm Emanuel and Dick Vitale, we have a surplus.

Smith is the sort of coach who, when his team is losing, gets roasted for being dull, passive, uninspiring and clueless. He doesn't raise his voice, throw clipboards or needle rivals. Some people find this behavior strange. In the aftermath of an embarrassing defeat, they think his calm demeanor indicates he is unable to grasp the depth of his failure.

Maybe the real incomprehension lies in thinking that noisy, abrasive coaches are needed for success. Among the four coaches left in the playoffs, three are about as colorful as an Ikea store.

They've probably deduced that any player who gets to the NFL doesn't need verbal fireworks to be sufficiently motivated. They've doubtless figured out that screaming abuse at referees is a futile indulgence. They realize that if they expect self-discipline from their players, it helps to set a good example. Ryan's outsized personality, on the other hand, only distracts from the real cause of his success -- his football acumen.

Most of what football coaches do is invisible, so if they are restrained, it may look as though they are doing nothing. Getting in someone's face conveys an impression of strenuous effort. But it doesn't accomplish much except to draw cameras and microphones.

A lot of the most successful coaches didn't need to be told that. Tom Landry guided the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories and 13 division titles without once changing his facial expression.

Green Bay's peerless Vince Lombardi was intense and demanding, but he didn't make an offensive spectacle of himself. If you say New England's Bill Belichick has the personality of a robot, you can expect to get heartfelt complaints from robots.

The same pattern holds in the college game. Alabama's Bear Bryant could barely be heard for his mumble. Florida State's Bobby Bowden made "dadgum" a trademark.

Compare these with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who during a game this past season flew into multiple rages, drawing a penalty and provoking the university president to rebuke him. Or Ohio State's Woody Hayes. His heralded career ended in disgrace in 1978 after he punched an opposing player for intercepting a Buckeye pass.

They serve as lessons in the dangers of inadequate self-control. Smith, however, labors in the shadow of Bears legend Mike Ditka, who provided not only wins but nonstop drama. He screamed at players, broke his hand punching an equipment trunk and nearly came to blows with his own defensive coordinator (the father, as it happens, of Rex Ryan).

Ditka remains a beloved figure because he suits Chicago's image of itself as a brawling, working-class town. Smith, by contrast, has the soothing air of a suburban undertaker.

But Iron Mike's blown gaskets didn't actually help. Ditka won 56 percent of his games as a head coach in the NFL. Through the 2010 regular season, Smith had won 56.3 percent.

Smith is not one to trouble himself responding to critics of his subdued, stoic personality. But given his performance lately, a suggestion for them is in order: Shhhh.

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