Characteristics of the Great Active Coaches

As potential for a new head coach at A&M looms if Kevin Sumlin can’t win enough games this season I got to thinking about the traits that make a great head coach.  I’m talking about truly great in these are active coaches that have at least five championships to their names.  Unless I’m leaving someone out there’s only four active head coaches in major men’s sports that have five championships to their name.  Those four are Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Gregg Popovich, and Mike Krzyzewski.  There’s some coaches in other sports that qualify like Pat Henry in collegiate track and Geno Auriemma in women’s collegiate basketball but I’m talking about major men’s team sports which is what Sumlin coaches.  As we go through this piece you’ll see Henry and Auriemma exhibit the exact same traits as the other four mentioned based on what I know.  I’m just not familiar enough with each to write about them.  Even with Coach K I’m mostly familiar but not intimately familiar as I don’t follow men’s college basketball as closely as the other sports.

As I got to thinking about the traits of Belichick, Saban, Popovich, and Coach K I realized there are a LOT of similarities in their personalities and how they coach.  I mean they are eerily similar and different from their counterparts.  First off, there’s no doubt these are extremely intelligent people.  They’re the kind of people that would be successful no matter their chosen career path.  In coaching they’re different because they take a truly systematic approach to how they handle everything.  And I do mean everything.  I truly believe these 4 people live their life to win at their chosen sport and nothing else matters.  Not a win at all cost mentality but a focus that’s unlike anyone else.  Their raw intelligence is definitely a factor but the application of their systematic approach is what makes the difference.

I decided to list out what all these coaches do and came up with the following list.  This doesn’t include everything but it’s pretty exhaustive and it really pertains to each coach.

What they do great:

  • Focused on winning. Nothing else matters.
  • Minimize distractions.
  • Don’t care about being popular.
  • Fundamentals matter. All aspects.
  • Game awareness. Continual adjustment and adapting.
  • Team plays as a unit. No malcontents.
  • Players police themselves.
  • Minimal trouble off the field/court if at all.
  • Second chances given but with a super short leash.
  • No individual stars above the team even if extremely talented.
  • Next man up drives starters to compete. No job security.
  • Game plans ALWAYS evolve based on opponent.
  • Identify situational players and utilize their strengths.
  • Objective analysis of team and players.
  • Practice has a specific purpose and not just a routine.
  • They are the main reason for success. Subordinates don’t find the same success.
  • Their approach is much more basic than most people realize.
  • Relate to players differently on the field/court and off.
  • Assistant coaches are hired to do their job. Always hire the best.
  • The media is a game.

That’s 20 characteristics and while there’s some overlap in some of them it’s a truly impressive list of what each one does.  Each one of those coaches does this entire list for the most part.  I thought of some other coaches this might apply to and I really don’t think they belong.  The biggest name I tried to apply this to was Urban Meyer and while he’s an outstanding coach he doesn’t fit them all.  My main issue with having Urban Meyer on this list is he handles his players differently than the four coaches I’m talking about.  I think Urban Meyer is about himself and that resonates with his players in how they act.  Really good coach but I don’t think he belongs with those four names.  Apply these to any other active coach and I really don’t think they fit like they do Belichick, Saban, Pop, and Coach K.

There is truly a systematic approach these guys take when it comes to everything they do.  How they handle the actual Xs and Os, the players, the games, their assistants, the press, the fans, and everything else they do that is eerily similar between the four.  These guys have five championships to their name for a reason.

Let’s roll through the characteristics and how they pertain to how they coach:

Focused on winning.  Nothing else matters.

I truly believe these guys live every second of their life thinking about winning at their respective sport.  They’re not major personalities and actually very dry because all they thinking about is winning.  They’re not horrible people by any stretch and actually probably really solid friends once you get to know them but they just have this aura about them.  Maybe that aura is because of their championships but look at how they act compared to their counterparts and I really feel they have different personalities.  It’s a focus of always thinking about how they can win their respective sport.

Minimize distractions.

Along with the one above not only are they focused but I think they purposefully minimize distractions to help that focus.  If whatever it is doesn’t help them win then they don’t care about it.  They really don’t.  Belichick doesn’t care how he’s dressed and I’ve heard Nick Saban’s wife sets out his clothes every day so he doesn’t have to mess with it.  Wasting time on something that doesn’t help them win their respective sports is eliminated.  It’s a little different than always being focused as I really feel they’re active in eliminating distractions that don’t help them win.  You can still be focused and ignore distractions but I think these guys purposefully eliminate distractions so they don’t even have to be ignored.  They just don’t exist if they can help it.

Don’t care about being popular.

While I do think these guys are genuinely good people in their everyday life I don’t think they give a damn about being popular.  If they weren’t winning I bet fans would run them out of town like any other coach that wasn’t winning.  In fact they’d be working with a short leash because they’re not really endearing to their fans other than they’re winners.  They don’t care what fans, boosters, media, or anybody else think about them because winning is all that matters to them.  They know if they win they’ll be accepted and that’s good enough for them.  Worrying about it otherwise is a distraction that loses focus.

Fundamentals matter.  All aspects.

I’ve always said if I was a head coach I would have a coach on staff titled Coach Fundamentals and I’m dead serious.  This person would constantly preach the fundamentals of the sport and chew ass whenever someone has a mental lapse.  These coaches start with fundamentals which mean they rarely beat themselves.  They might get beat by a better team or even out coached by another team but they’re not going to beat themselves by forgetting the fundamentals and basics for the sport.  Watching these teams is usually like watching a clinic in fundamentals for their sport and it BOGGLES my mind how that seems so rare.  I don’t get how other teams forget about fundamentals and wind up beating themselves.  These great coaches live for teams that have lapses on fundamentals because they’ll take advantage of it.

Game awareness.  Continual adjustment.

I always love watching these teams play because you can see the adjustments they’re making.  They know a game plan can always blow up in a moment’s notice so they better be ready and anticipate that happening.  The focus on fundamentals allow those adjustments and knowing what their team is capable of.  They don’t focus on fundamentals during a game because they’re ingrained in their players so adjustments in strategy are easier to implement.  They’re always looking for adjustments by the other team or weaknesses in their own team so they adjust the game plan accordingly.  Very few times are these coaches just flat out throttled because they anticipate it before it happens.  These coaches are working with their assistants rather than just letting their assistants run their component.  These head coaches are watching every play of the game thinking about how it impacts the entire game plan and what’s worked and hasn’t worked up until that point.  They’re not just a spectator as they’re thinking about every play and how it factors into the game plan as a whole.

Team plays as a unit.  No malcontents.

They have total buy in from the team.  They all understand they’re a cog in a machine and have jobs to do that affect other players on the team.  Not doing a job will is letting a teammate down so they’re all focused on what they’re assigned to do or should be doing.  It really is all players working together toward a goal for each other.  It’s not individuals free lancing what’s best for them.

Players police themselves.

While the coaches are exceptional leaders because the team has bought in as a unit they police themselves.  Not only on the field or court but in the locker room and in workouts.  Even when the head coach isn’t around the players are always watching each other knowing their work and actions in the locker room, weight room, track, practice field or wherever else is part of their preparation to win.  They don’t want to let one another down because they have total bought in to be champions.

Minimal trouble off the field/court if at all.

This kind of goes with the one above but you RARELY see off the field issues with the teams these people coach.  If you think about these teams they seem to have less off the field issues compared to other teams.  Sure there have been some arrests or suspensions for mis-conduct but I feel it’s REALLY rare compared to the other teams in their sport.  I think it all goes back to the type of people these guys create.  I think many of their players see their coach as a respected father figure and don’t want to let them down.  I think they’re also aware any punishment will be swift and just and they don’t want to miss out on being part of something bigger than themselves.  They really seem to have good players on and off the field compared to other teams.

Second chances given but with a super short leash.

These guys don’t just have saints on their team as they’ll give someone with a previous issue a second chance.  The rules are clear and any mis-steps are dealt with swiftly which is usually dismissal.  I can’t speak to Coach K but I can think of examples where Belichick, Saban, and Pop have brought on players that had some conduct issues elsewhere and given them a chance.  Sometimes these guys stick with their second chance and sometimes they don’t but if they don’t they don’t hang around for a third chance.  They’re gone.

No individual stars above the team even if extremely talented.

While there are certainly stars on these teams they don’t hold themselves out differently no matter the talent.  Tom Brady is the perfect example for the Patriots.  Alabama had Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, Amari Cooper, and a host of other guys who have been 1st round picks but they never pretended to be bigger than the team.  The Spurs had the ultimate super star in Tim Duncan but you never knew it.  Duncan has as many rings as Kobe Bryant and one more MVP over basically the same period but Duncan never made the team about himself like Kobe did in L.A.  The Big Fundamental.  Duke is an interesting scenario as they seem to have players that other fans and the media hate like Christian Laettner and Grayson Allen but those guys appear to have been great teammates despite the attention they received.

Next man up drives starters to compete.  No job security.

The mantra of their teams appear to be that no job is ever guaranteed.  If you ever slip in your preparation or performance there’s someone else behind you ready to take your job.  It’s why when someone goes down with an injury the team just soldiers on.  Even without Tom Brady the Pats still showed up expecting to win.  Without Tim Duncan the Spurs expected to win.  Bama and Duke don’t worry about losing a player to eligibility or draft because someone else is behind them.  Every starter knows there’s a guy behind him ready to take his job and every second teamer knows with hard work or an injury they’ll be on the field with the same expectations of the person that previously started before them.  Some of it is because they have talented depth but most of it is attitude your job is never safe if you don’t work or execute.

Game plans ALWAYS evolve based on opponent.

These coaches don’t have “systems” they trot out for every game.  They have basic platforms they prepare their team with but they adjust for every opponent better than any coach in their sport.  Even Alabama that usually has more talent than the other team takes a different approach to each team they play.  They really do.  I feel Bill Belichick is the king of this as he’s said time and time again he adjusts his offense to attack a weakness of the opponent’s defense and his defense focuses on taking away the strength of the opponent’s offense.  Pop and Coach K are no different.

Identify situational players and utilize their strengths.

This is more pointed to Belichick and Pop because they have roster limitations based on draft and salary cap limitations.  Saban and Coach K can go out and recruit the best but even then they identify specific players for their team.  Its uncanny how there’s no dead space on their rosters.  EVERY player on their roster has an identified strength and there are no roster fillers or hope that someone is a development in the works.  If you can’t contribute to winning you’re just not on the roster.  A player knows their strength and role and executes it.  They’re like CEOs that can ride the elevator with anyone in their company and not only know their name but know how they contribute to the company.

Objective analysis of team and players.

Coupled with the above I think they objectively analyze all of their players and how they factor into the team as a whole.  There’s no emotion with their players when it comes to evaluating their performance.  They don’t hope a player will come through as they know what their player is capable of and how they’ll contribute to the team as a whole.  They know when their team is overmatched and adjust accordingly or when their team is the superior team to make sure their team doesn’t take another team lightly.  They know every player and opponent is different so they’re objective in their assessment of every component.

Practice has a specific purpose and not just a routine.

Practice isn’t something that you have to do.  It’s an opportunity to become a better player and prepare for an opponent by installing a specific plan.  These coaches instill that practice is THE key ingredient to winning championships.  There’s no wasted effort in practice just doing things to do things.  Everything done in practice is specific to make better players and the team to win championships.

They are the main reason for success.  Subordinates don’t find the same success.

This is kind of a weird one but I can’t think of one of the subordinates that have even come close to their success.  Maybe Jimbo Fisher under Saban but I can’ think of anyone else for these other coaches that have even won a championship.  There have been some coaches that have left and made the playoffs but I think Jimbo Fisher is the only subordinate for any of these guys with a championship to their name.  I’m not sure why that is because I think what they do is able to be replicated but I don’t think the people under them have the raw intelligence and discipline these guys have.  I really think that’s the secret sauce.

Their approach is much more basic than most people realize.

As just mentioned I really think what these coaches do can be copied pretty easily.  The problem is it takes a LOT of discipline and focus.  It’s truly about fundamentals, preparation, and managing players like a good parent not letting anyone get away with too much.  While I think these coaches have a high level of intelligence what they do day to day really isn’t all that complicated other than they can manage so many things at once.  But still it’s very basic what they do.  You don’t ever hear them talking about a schematic advantage or something like that.  Other people talk about “the process” these coaches have but you don’t ever hear them talking about them.  I really think to these coaches what they do is common sense and they don’t think it’s all that complicated.  There’s a lot complexity managing everything but they’re not overcomplicating any specific thing so it’s easier to execute everything.

Relate to players differently on the field/court and off.

I talked about it briefly earlier but I really think these coaches are seen as respected father figures on and off the field/court.  They’re able to switch in and out of mentor and coach mode depending on the situation.  They know when to coach to a game plan and when to mentor to be a better person and player.  Their players truly respect them as more than just their coach.  They see each of these coaches as being a mentor for their life beyond the sport they play.  They give respect where respect is given.  They don’t really abuse their players and the players don’t feel abused/used.

Assistant coaches are hired to do their job.  Always hire the best.

Assistant coaches are hired to do a specific job and nothing else and they hire the best.  This goes back to being objective in their evaluation of everything they do as they don’t hire their buddies or “yes men.”  They’ll hire someone they’re not familiar with if they believe that assistant’s body of work is the best hire they can make for the team.  Much like the players, the assistants know they have a specific role and don’t deviate from it and know lack of preparation will let down the other coaches and the team.  They won’ t have as much fun as other assistant coaches on other teams but they’re hired to win championships and winning championships is pretty damn fun.

The media is a game.

Coach K is kind of an exception to this but even he’s not a great sound bite.  He sees the media as something that’s necessary related to the sport but he’s not super jovial like a Les Miles or Mack Brown.  Belichick, Saban, and Pop are DEFINITELY in the same boat when it comes to the media.  They don’t hate the media but they see it as wasted effort so I think they see it as a game to annoy reporters like they annoy them.  I think they respect some media people but if you’re a stupid reporter they going to make sure it’s pointed out.


I don’t think any of this is earth shattering by any stretch but I do think it’s interesting to look at this entire list and realize it really only applies to the best of the best.  These people are the truly great active coaches in their respective sport.  It’s like what I remember the first semester of business school being like.  We weren’t launching rockets or curing cancer so anybody with basic aptitude could do it.  It took a basic level of intelligence, extreme focus, and minimizing distractions while not overthinking what you were working on.  It really was about managing so many things to be so successful.

So how was I in business school?  I’d like to think of myself as a step better than Sumlin.  I was better than average but I let distractions like they serve beer on campus get in the way of truly being great.  I was definitely not the Belichick, Saban, Pop, or Coach K of my class.  However, knowing what I know now I truly think I could go back and be a great of my class.  Eh, who am I kidding?  I like beer too much to be great in business school.  I’m fine being the Kevin Sumlin of business school.  I just wish I got paid $5 million a year to be a touch above average.

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