“I think there’s a lot of screamers, there’s a lot of shouters, there’s a lot of shamers. My approach is this: Boy, you’re in the middle of the game, and some kid’s having a tough time. They get beat … I tell all my players, ‘Come on over to me during the game and I’ll give you a hug.’ And you think about the power of a hug versus swearing, shouting, shaming at some kid.” – Pastor, football coach, and former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, in 2014 to National Public Radio.
After the Iowa Hawkeyes, there’s no team in college football I’ll be rooting harder for this coming season than Nebraska. As a Hawkeye fan, that’s a hard thought to have and a harder sentence to write publicly.
Usually, I’d pull for Nebraska to go 0-12. But there’s something happening in Lincoln, something potentially transformational to the game of college football. It deserves to be watched, encouraged, and supported.
New Nebraska coach Scott Frost and his staff won’t yell at their players. Instead, they’ll try a more novel approach: they’ll teach them.
“If someone misses a tackle or drops a ball, they don’t need to be yelled at,” Frost recently told reporters. “They need to be taught the right way to do it so it doesn’t happen again. And once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays.”
Imagine being allowed to make a mistake and keep your integrity. Imagine what it must be like to play for a coach who understands that failure is a prerequisite for success.
“One of our sayings is, ‘Have a desire to excel and no fear of failure,’ ” Frost said. “Part of that is the coaches’ responsibility. And I mentioned that we’re not going to yell and scream at kids, and we’re not going to cuss at kids. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and I also don’t want to make kids afraid to go make a great play.”
One can argue with Frost about whether college students are “kids.” One cannot argue with his short but successful record as a head football coach. He led Central Florida to a 13-0 record last season and a (pseudo) national championship. Without yelling and screaming.
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Frost has the pedigree to go with his unique philosophy. Between college and professional football, Frost played or coached under Bill Walsh, Tom Osborne, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Jon Gruden and Chip Kelly. One can assume he gleaned at least a little off each of those Hall of Fame-level coaches.
Which is why what happens in Lincoln this fall will be so fascinating. Football is a game rooted in artificially inflated levels of masculinity. It’s a sport, Ehrmann has said for years, in which the three scariest words a younger player can hear are “be a man.”
Don’t cry. Don’t let anyone know how you really feel. Man up.
“They [transformational coaches] understand the power, the platform, the position they have in the lives of young people, and they’re going to use that to change the arc of every young person’s life,” Ehrmann told NPR. “I think football is an ideal place — sports in general — team sports are an ideal place to help boys become men. And the great myth in America today is that sports builds character. That’s not true in a win-at-all-costs culture. Sports doesn’t build character unless the coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it.”
It’s not just football. The NBA’s best coach, Boston’s Brad Stevens, has the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals despite their two best players out for the season with injuries. The writer Charles Pierce noted this when he recently tweeted “Brad Stevens is proof that you don’t have to be a raving lunatic to coach players into being really tough. College coaches, take note.”
Still, it’s worth acknowledging that Frost might be wrong. Nick Saban’s staff no doubt must include coaches who scream and holler. Same goes for Dabo Swinney’s staff and countless others throughout college football.
Screaming and shaming might be the right way to coach football.
It’s best to think about Frost’s approach as an experiment. It might fail. However, it might succeed. If it does, what does that mean for football? If coaches who yell are successful, but coaches who don’t yell also are successful, how might that inform future college football coaches’ decisions about what kinds of programs they want to run?
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And if Frost wins at Nebraska while employing his unique philosophy, other college programs will hire his assistants, and suddenly there would be three like him in the sport. Then five. Then eight. Then 12. Then, it’s a movement. Then, high school recruits will have a choice: they can play for the successful, screaming disciplinarian coach, or they can play for the patient, successful, teaching, disciplinarian coach.
Sounds like an easy choice.
Nebraska football is finally, once again, for the first time in a decade, relevant. I hope they’re successful. Not too successful. Second-place successful.
Because what Frost is trying to do is truly transformative. Not just for football, but for the culture of all American sport.
* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.