Guest speakers, leadership training and NFL cutups: How COVID-19 could change college football coaching for good

Saturday, May 30, 2020 - 12:47pm

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has incorporated leadership development into team meetings.

Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has incorporated leadership development into team meetings. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

When sports shut down due to COVID-19, Jay Harbaugh had to find new ways to connect with his players. So the running backs coach and special teams coordinator devised a series of guest speakers to meet with the players virtually.

Among Harbaugh’s guest speakers were former Michigan running back Karan Higdon, now with the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Matt Weiss and Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough. The speaker series allowed the Wolverines to ask questions they might not be able to normally and get advice on improving their game from players and coaches at the next level.

Harbaugh has sought out a variety of diverse voices for his speakers, knowing that nobody connects with everyone. His hope is that each of his speakers makes a deep connection with at least some of his players, and that all of his players find at least one speaker with whom they relate. While Michigan can’t practice as a team or have meetings in Schembechler Hall, the speakers have kept the Wolverines engaged and focused on improvement during the layoff.

Though the pandemic is a far from ideal environment to coach in, it has necessitated creative thinking from Michigan’s staff — and some of the ideas they’ve devised may stick around long after things are back to normal.

“(Guest speakers are) probably something that will continue too, as an interesting carryover is people realizing, ‘Hey, this is a really great way to connect with people and bring new insights into your group,’” Harbaugh said in a videoconference Friday. “And so I think moving forward, even if we’re physically in the same place, using technology to be able to include some people from elsewhere, some former players, whatever it might be, I think that’s pretty cool and something that I’m looking forward to.”

Both offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and defensive coordinator Don Brown have created groups of the players they deem the top leaders of their respective units. Those leadership groups have extra meetings on Fridays, giving many top players the tools and perspectives they need to step up when football resumes. Gattis has also incorporated leadership development into his meetings with the offense.

Even when players and coaches are allowed back in the facilities, things won’t be completely normal. Brown speculated that masks might be required indoors, that coaches may have to meet in the team room rather than the staff rooms and that there may be a limit on the number of players allowed to be in a room at once. He’s prepared for that possibility, thinking of new ways to hold meetings in smaller groups or virtually — even calling himself a “Zoom magician.” For now, he’s been going through tape with players and giving quizzes on the playbook.

Harbaugh has taken a similar approach with the running backs. There’s no film from spring ball for anyone, so he’s found new ways to incorporate video lessons. Among those are showing players cutups of similar NFL players and having players watch plays from a real game and quizzing them to test understanding of how the play is blocked.

From his virtual meetings, Harbaugh has seen firsthand the virtue of slowing down. Film sessions feel less hurried over Zoom, and the players are more willing to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Going over the concepts without having to immediately put them on the field has helped some players better process the plays they’re learning.

“It’s been fun because without there being film to watch, there’s not that urgent, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta watch this and get this fixed,’” Harbaugh said. “There’s just a lot more dialogue and you’re able to spend more time going through the details of the system, the different plays, concepts and really spend time making sure that guys get it.”

Football, and especially college football, is often seen as stuck in its ways. If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic for the Wolverines, it’s the innovation it’s forced. Years from now, it’s quite possible that even if it is safe for players to pack in a team room with no reservations, some virtual elements will remain. That could be a good thing for everyone involved.

“Throughout this whole deal, it’s opened up a new pathway for coaches across the country,” Gattis said May 14. “I’d never heard of Zoom until this pandemic. I’d never used Google Hangouts until this pandemic. It’s created new opportunities for us to teach and new opportunities for us to understand how players learn, being so virtual. I think this is something that’s going to stay with us in the coaching profession well past this pandemic.”