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By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs

 

As Rutgers football begins spring practice this week, new head football coach Chris Ash inherits a program that has finished in fourth place or lower in the East division of the Big Ten conference- including one bowl win in the last four seasons- all amidst numerous off the field issues. So in his effort to change the culture at Rutgers, Ash-who has spent the last two seasons as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Ohio State-has already implemented some of the on the “on edge” coaching methodology that Meyer has used with his programs since his days at the University of Florida. Mike Kuchar, the co-founder of XandOLabs.com, spent time with Coach Ash this winter talking about his plan to change the culture in Piscataway.



By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar

Introduction

ashrutgersAs Rutgers football begins spring practice this week, new head football coach Chris Ash inherits a program that has finished in fourth place or lower in the East division of the Big Ten conference- including one bowl win in the last four seasons- all amidst numerous off the field issues. So in his effort to change the culture at Rutgers, Ash-who has spent the last two seasons as Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Ohio State-has already implemented some of the on the “on edge” coaching methodology that Meyer has used with his programs since his days at the University of Florida. Mike Kuchar, the co-founder of XandOLabs.com, spent time with Coach Ash this winter talking about his plan to change the culture in Piscataway.

On Edge Teaching is a philosophy that forces players to respond in uncomfortable situations (both on the field and off). It teaches them how to handle adversity in extreme circumstances.

MK: What have you done so for this off-season to change the culture of the program?

CA: “The first thing I want to do is develop the culture that I want in this program. A lot of it is modeled after what we did at Ohio State, but there are things that I’d like to do differently that I’ve been exposed to at other places also. I first define to my players what culture means. Many coaches throw that term around a lot including me. But you have to step back and think about what the definition is of culture in that program. To us, culture is ‘the only acceptable way to behave and to perform.’ We talk about the three components of that culture as being the following:

  1. Relentless strain- everything you do in academics or athletics you must strain to be the best that you can be.
  2. Competitive excellence- putting yourself in position that when your number is called to make a play that you’re ready to make that play. To get to competitive excellence, you must have competitive spirit that means you want to compete in everything you do, from the weight room, the meeting room, the classroom, the off-season drills and in the practice field. If you don’t compete in those areas, you will not compete on a Saturday.
  3. Brotherhood of trust- this is where team chemistry is developed. Doing it at the unit (position) level. Our ultimate goal here is to have ten units strong and we want each unit on our team to have a tight chemistry and the relationships must be completely strong.

Players need to be continually communicated, educated and motivated to make it happen. That is the process we are in right now.”

MK: In what ways are these three components of culture continually reinforced during the offseason?

CA: “In the off-season, you want to accomplish some specific things. You want to get them bigger and stronger, you want to build their athletic ability, you want to build their toughness, you want to build leadership, you want to build their football skills and lastly you want to build their football IQ.  You have to do that in 8 hours a week during the off-season. You can’t slack off on any of those things because rest equals rust. You can’t afford to let any of them be underdeveloped. We build toughness at Ohio State through the artificial adversity we created in our off-season workout. You don’t rise to the level of the occasion; you rise to the level of our training. We use the phrase E+R = O which means events plus response equals outcome. We are an event-based program- we train our players to handle adversity. If you don’t train the players to deal with adversity, they will not be ready for it. We will create a special workout to push them to the limit mentally or physically or change a routine where we ask them to be here at 5 am to see how they respond. We are creating that for good events and bad events so they are ready to respond the right way. “

MK: How do these “on edge” teaching tangibles translate into other aspects off the football field?
CA: “We talk about direct teaching. We want our feet on the floor sit straight up; have your pen and paper and notepad ready to take notes because you will be responsible for that information. It’s about being able to get the learner to reteach the information to the teacher at any moment. If you’ve properly presented the material and the student is listening, learning and comprehending what you are saying he should be able to reteach you the information that he has just been taught.”

MK: How do you apply this? Do you have players teach other players the material?
CA: “I do it in the staff room, our strength coach does it in the weight room and I will do it any time I meet with the team. Through the course of teaching culture, like I will after a team run, I’ll ask a player ‘give me the definition of culture,’ and they will spit it out. I’ll ask them ‘what are our three parts of our culture?’ and they will have to say it. They know at any moment they will be called out on to answer a question to answer a material on the most important stuff they need to know. This keeps them on edge and keeping them alert and engaged. They don’t want to be asked a question that they don’t know in front of their peer group. That means they don’t pay attention, don’t care or even worse, disinterested. We create the on-edge, uneasiness or discomfort with the players in the meeting room which will translate to the experiences they have on the field.”

MK: One of the things you are doing with your strength and conditioning regiment is forcing players to drink a mandated amount of water. You made a point that concussions are caused more by dehydration than by contact. How are you able to monitor your player’s hydration during the course of your off-season workouts?

CA: “What happens is most places provide water for athletes, but there is no follow up to monitor them. They will drink it and think it’s enough and stop drinking. It’s about constant communication. Being constantly on a player to hydrate. We ask them every time we are around the player. We talk about the “why.” We have a series of “Why’s” in our building where we give our players paperwork on why we are asking them to do what we are. We are educating them everyday. You constantly communicate about hydration and educating them on the why. The benefits on why it’s important to hydrate. It allows you to stay healthy; it will cut down on concussions and soft-tissue issues. It will make you more alert. We have hydration competitions. We find out who in a unit (position group) will be the most hydrated. We test their urine weekly. There is a chart on where their hydration needs to be. If they come in and they are over a certain level like 17 or higher, they are not doing what they need to do. It’s holding players accountable and calling them out. We had a player strain his hamstring during an off-season workout. We went back to gauge his hydration level and found it wasn’t where it needed to be. It’s an investment in them. Combining sport science with the old school methods of building a team is the way to do it. We track our athletes sleep time. We try to be around 8-10 hours a night, which is what you need to be at. We use GPS modules to track how much distance they are running. It can help drive decisions you make in your program by keeping players healthy.”

MK: Coaching is all about relationships. How are you developing a one-on-one relationship with your players every day?

CA: “We are connecting to our players right now. We talk about the three C’s. To build the level of trust that we need to here, we have to do three things: we have to demonstrate character, we have to be competent in our jobs to help them improve, and the third part is connection. How do you get a player to go extremely hard for you? You’ve connected with them. How do you connect with them? You get to know them. How do you get to know them? We ask them what they do away from football, we ask them to tell us about their family. Each position coach goes through a questionnaire when we first got here to find out about their players. Questions would something like who is your girlfriend? Where did you grow up? What are your hobbies? Why did you come to Rutgers? Who do they live with? What is something that very few people know about you? It’s usually around 15 questions. We will constantly ask your players about details in this study. It’s all in an effort to build a connection. I took this from Urban Meyer. Every coach talks about creating a culture, but how many are intentional in making it happen? So far in the month of February, every coach has taken his unit to dinner outside the facility. Each coach will have to do community service with his players. Each coach will need to do something fun with his players. That’s how you are intentional about doing it. To get a player to lay his body on the line for you.”

MK: Ohio State has had a tradition recently of getting second and third level players ready to compete when their number is called. What is the process you’ve established there and will continue to do here to get backups ready to play?

CA:  “It’s about getting the team to be ready to play at competitive excellence. How do you do this when the backups haven’t gotten the reps the starter has during the course of the week? A backup quarterback will get a third of the reps during the week and now the starter gets hurt and the backup comes in to win the game (as Cardale Jones did guiding the Buckeyes to a 2014 national championship).How does that happen? He rises to the level of his training. He has to take mental reps. He has to stand behind the starting quarterback and any time that ball is snapped he has to take his steps, and stimulate a throw or handoff, etc. It’s no different than a defensive back. He has to be in the back of the first unit, about 10-15 yards behind, and take the mental reps in his head to play the play in practice. It is part of their culture. It’s how you reinforce the importance of it based on how it’s worked in the past from previous players. Coach Meyer used the Kenny Guiton example in 2012 when Braxton Miller got hurt and Kenny Guiton came in to keep our undefeated season intact.He had no reps but was ready at that moment because of the mental reps he took that week.”

MK: Will you deviate from some of Coach Meyer’s methodologies? If so, how?

CA: “It's a different situation than Ohio State. Ohio State is at a different level than Rutgers. Coach Meyer is in a situation where you don’t need to fundraise much to support the program. People want to be associated with Ohio State and they’ve done so for a long time. We will not be fully funded here until 2021. Here at Rutgers we use the phrase ‘the power of the pen’ which I got from Bret Bielema (Ash worked as the DC under Bielema under Wisconsin and Arkansas), which helps to build relationship with the people that want to help you. We will send hand written letters to fans, boosters, high school coaches and recruits. It’s amazing what a hand written note can do with somebody. We use hand written notes to administrators and parents.”

Conclusion

Rutgers football spring practice begins this Thursday, March 24th. There will be 14 practices that lead up to the Scarlet-White intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, April 23rd.

 

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