July 30, 2009

Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object

Kamau Peterson

The 2009 CFL season has been very interesting thus far in a number of ways, but one dynamic that I’ve been paying close attention to is the new guard of CFL coaches. To begin this season, only BC’s Wally Buono had more than one year at the helm of a team throughout the league, and I can’t recall another time in my career where this was the case.

To me this signifies a changing of the guard. The CFL from a scheme and chalkboard sense may be evolving now to a point that requires new blood to elevate the X’s and O’s to another level, which makes sense to me. Darwin’s theory is always present amongst the league in terms of the athletes taking part, as they are constantly getting bigger faster and stronger – so it seems only natural to me that the coaches would in turn have to evolve to keep pace.

What comes with a changing of the guard however, is an interesting dynamic that is rarely seen on such a multi-team scale. I must say that I do believe that this circumstance has always been present, and likely will always remain constant for any team that is in the same situation that seven of the eight teams in this league find themselves in. I’m referring to the condition involving the familiar stud player who has grown accustomed to things being a certain way, and the new coach who is eager to assert himself as the new sheriff in town. The Unstoppable force vs the Immovable object.

As much as I’ve taxed myself regarding this topic all week long, I really do think that this problem has probably been in play for as long as football has been around. The thing that is unique about it to me is the fact that I don’t see that state of affairs ever changing, I think that every new coach will have to deal with it unless he completely cleans house, and brings in all new players with him to a man. I feel like I must be at a career crossroads, because it doesn’t take much for me to completely understand and sympathize with both sides of this matter.

From the perspective of the stud player who’s been within that organization for a number of years, has had some measurable success there, and is likely one of the top jersey sellers each season – it is easy for him to feel a sense of entitlement regarding certain things whether he means to or not. Things like playing time, starter’s role, perhaps a certain number of touches as an offensive player, or security of position for a defensive player, perhaps even some leeway regarding tardiness, dress code, etc.

These things can easily be seen as benefits paid by past performance from a player’s standpoint. I can understand how when a player has been with one team for “X” number of years and has seen several coaches and coordinators come and go, it’s easy to allow the thought to seep in that you’ll outlive all of them with that organization, and that if push came to shove the management would side with you simply because you’re such a ticket draw. And why not? The fans love you!

You’ve “won the crowd” so to speak, and in a fan driven league it’s conceivable that one may believe that he has the power of the mob as leverage should he chose to miss a flight to a game, take a media shot, purposefully be late for practice, or meetings, or lash out in any other way at a new coach who’s intent on asserting himself as the authority. If not that assumption, there is always the issue of ego that can raise its head. It’s very easy for a player in this position to genuinely believe that they are untouchable simply because they have led in so many categories for so many years that the organization would be lost without them. The player can become comfortable and content in their situation taking solace in the fact that they sit among the league leaders at their position, and could claim top dollar in the open market should management decide to go another way. In some respects… they’re right! In many cases, it’s taken that organization quite a few years of searching to find a player that has made the type of impact that this one has – and they certainly won’t be hasty and throw all of that work and development away… would they?

Conversely, a new coach comes in and first and foremost wins the room. He must command the respect of the coaches and players that are working under him, and in order to do that, he must lay down the law of the land.

He can choose to conform to the standards that were in place before he got there, or he can bring his own (usually these factors played in to his hiring in some way) but he must be decisive as to how this team will operate under his watch.

This coach will likely bring in new schemes either offensively or defensively that will surely have a place for a stud playmaker in the plan somewhere, but there is no guarantee that a new coach will view or value each player as highly as they have been seen previously by a different regime. Often times, the only thing that separates a playmaker from a role player is opportunity.

A new coach coming into a new team may not have had the luxury of being around when the player in question was having all of the success that they enjoyed. This coach may decide to evaluate all players with a clean slate from the time that they take the job, and let those that would be playmakers rise up and be counted. No doubt any words of advice and wisdom regarding the holdovers from the previous team were noted and accounted for during the offseason building of the team itself, so it is highly unlikely that a stud player remaining after the dust settles is not there for a reason.

This coach may see a different road for the player though, perhaps he can see the benefit of moving this player to another position to better utilize the talents of another player, in attempt to capitalize on the experience that he has acquired throughout his years of success or something of the like. A new coach will likely have to hold fast to his initial parameters regarding things like tardiness, dress code, practice format etc. the reason being that all eyes are on him in that first year.

As noted, the most important thing for him as a coach is to win the room, or have the unwavering support of the players and coaches under him. It is difficult, if not impossible to gain such support by allowing different rules for each player based on status. Of course, even a brand new coach must understand how rare such players are right? Principal aside, and discipline be damned – wins are really all that matters in this league… aren’t they? Every coach comes in with the realization that if things really get rough, it’s much easier to replace one coach to provide the notion that the organization is being proactive in righting the ship than it is to replace 50 high calibre athletes. So if the new coach and the stud playmaker should happen to get into it… who should fold for the sake of the team?

In my experience, that depends on the coach, and depends on the player.  Most new coaches come in wide-eyed off of a coordinator position, eager to assert the things that they’ve picked up along the way en route to their own vision of what their team will be. Some veer off of the path that got them their considerably, and by most accounts “change” in light of the new found power that comes with head coaching and ultimately fail. Others are able to remain true to themselves, and find their way in spite of such new power and thrive. Some decide that special players deserve special treatment, while some decide to hold all accountable to the same rules and regulations regardless of jersey sales, or dollars invested. Honestly, I’ve seen both methods result in championships.

As a player, I think it’s important to know that this is not a fight that can be won on our end, only fought. Unless we don’t have an interest in playing for that team any longer, it’s in our best interest to make it work until our contract is up.

If push comes to shove, the coach
has an obligation to 50 other players that he must fulfill should we as players decide that his methods are not conducive to our continued success. At which point, like any partnership the parties must agree to part and go their separate ways. To me it’s always sad to see these riffs occurring either on a large scale such as we’re seeing now in a couple of instances, or even on smaller scales that are happening on several teams currently. Sad because in my experience, the ones who are hurt the worst by this situation… are the fans.