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  • Kelly and Leadership, Part II: Coaching the Coaches

    by SEE

    (The Rock Report) – When Brian Kelly announced his assistants he said he was looking for “great teachers, great educators, great communicators,” but he also highlighted what he didn’t want, “in putting together what I look for in terms of a staff, I stay away from dysfunction. And those are guys that are not bought into a shared philosophy, number one; number two, think they know it all.”

    After closely observing the last coaching staff, it wasn’t hard to spot dysfunction in action. Whether it was the mismatch between Latina’s style with the offensive line and Weis’s offense, assistant coaches with recruiting skill, but lacking in coaching skill, or having two defensive coordinators with two different philosophies, continuous team dysfunction seemed to be the norm under Weis.

    In a passage from The Five Dysfunctions of Team, Patrick Lencioni writes that a founder of a billion dollar company once told him, “if you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time,” but he added, “Like so many other aspects of life, teamwork comes down to mastering a set of behaviors that are at once theoretically uncomplicated, but extremely difficult to put into practice…”

    What’s intriguing from a leadership perspective about Kelly’s background is that he has been able to create a structure that enables those behaviors. He follows a “coach the coaches” philosophy that creates a coaching roster that can clearly communicate a consistent vision, set a high bar and drive accountability.

    He’s done it by avoiding the five dysfunctions on his staff. The “five dysfunctions” Lencioni describes are:

    1. Absence of trust
    2. Fear of conflict
    3. Lack of commitment
    4. Avoidance of accountability
    5. Inattention to results

    Turning those around, an effective team has to have trust, collaboration, commitment, accountability and be driven toward results. As Kelly put it, “if you don’t have the right people in place, really it doesn’t matter who you recruit.”

    Kelly’s “coach the coaches” model demands that he has complete confidence in his coaches so that he can enable the teamwork and behaviors that have made him successful. Before hiring each candidate Kelly asked, “is there a dysfunction within that wouldn’t allow this person to be a part of the staff?”

    Another way to think about dysfunction is the way Kelly phrased the challenge in an interview right after he was hired, “coaches will mess it up way before the players will, so you gotta keep those guys on the straight and make sure they’re focused. I coach the coaches every day.”

    To understand Kelly’s leadership structure, it helps to understand what he’s ultimately after from his players. His goal is high level execution, where players execute without thinking or as Kelly calls it, “unconscious competence.” Unconscious competence is the highest rung on the competence ladder, which looks like this:

    * Level 1 – Unconscious Incompetence – (You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know)
    * Level 2 – Conscious Incompetence – (You Know that You Don’t Know)
    * Level 3 – Conscious Competence – (You Know that You Know)
    * Level 4 – Unconscious Competence – (You Don’t Know that You Know)

    At the highest level, you’re performing without conscious thought. If you can get your team to this level, they’ll perform under pressure much like Cincinnati did against Pittsburgh in their comeback win last year.

    That’s a lofty goal for a college coach, and when you think about the time constraints in college, you’re not going to get there if you have coaches and players that you have to spend extra time baby sitting or ones you worry could cause team disruptions.

    And since Kelly has to get 85 kids moving in the same direction at the same time, he accomplishes this through his coaches and by structuring his program to facilitate development. In order for his system to work, it’s imperative for him to have a staff that can execute with minimal noise in the system.

    He needs coaches that can carry out his vision every day. Notice how defensive line coach Mike Elston parrots Kelly’s philosophy (via Lou) of trust commitment and caring, “I’m really concerned about building a relationship with them so that when I speak to them and I ask them to do something that is very difficult, they trust that I care about them,” said Elston.

    Kelly’s after high level teamwork. He focuses on removing the barriers to teamwork (dysfunctions) so that he can get every coach “rowing in the same direction.” This approach aligns with the philosophy that he preaches to players, that you can’t start winning until you stop losing, “what I look for is a shared philosophy. Not just hey, I’m the wide receiver coach and I only care about how many catches we get and how many yards we get and yards after catch. I want our coaches to have a shared vision of success across the board. This isn’t about hanging pelts on your wall, or you won’t be on this staff. This is about “we” collectively.”

    From a structural perspective, Kelly’s first leadership layer is made up of two coordinators and strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo. It’s unique, but elevating Longo’s status in the hierarchy gives power to the coach who interacts with the players the most and the one that can give him information that cuts across offensive and defensive silos. Some players under Weis didn’t even know their counterparts on the other side of the ball. What this does in practice is create vertical and horizontal leadership streams. Each coordinator leads from above (top down or vertical,) but Longo’s involvement cuts across both offense and defense (sideways or horizontal) creating an environment where behaviors and goals are constantly reinforced from above and below.

    Here’s how Kelly thinks about strength and conditioning, “Paul joins our offensive and defensive coordinators as leaders of this program. He cuts across the traditional strength and conditioning coach mold because he builds relationships with all players and coaches and serves as a leader, not just in the weight room, but throughout the program. Paul is a critical addition to our program because, arguably, no coach will have more contact with our players throughout the whole year than our strength and conditioning coach.”

    Longo knows he has a unique role, “I take a special leadership role in our football players’ development. Under Coach Kelly’s direction, they see me right next to the offensive and defensive coordinators on our program’s totem pole. What does this really mean? On a daily basis, it means I’m not just a guy in the weight room who tells them how to lift. I follow the football team closely and build personal relationships with the players, so I fully understand the team dynamics and the buttons to push to get individual players motivated. I know who the team leaders are, and the players k
    now that I communicate regularly with the coaching staff about their performance during our strength and conditioning sessions.”

    So Kelly has three leaders, Longo and his two coordinators and he coaches through them. Kelly said he wants coordinators with head coaching attributes, “I expect a lot from my coordinators. Because they will direct the position coaches and our players, the coordinators need to be effective leaders, clear communicators and self-starters.”

    Kelly has created a system that pushes performance by giving his assistants latitude, but one that holds them accountable. When a player screws up, Kelly may lay into the player, but ultimately he’s going to hold that player’s position coach and coordinator responsible. Here’s how Elston described Kelly’s style, “he gives you opportunities to grow in different areas. He gives you responsibilities and he holds you accountable for them.”

    Defensive backs coach Chuck Martin has a similar take, “the biggest thing is he sets the bar as high as I want the bar to be set so I welcome the expectations he is going to set for the coaches and players. That excites me. You know where the bar will be set and you know his expectations. He’s not a micro-manager, he lets you do your job. You understand you better produce, and to me that’s always the type of guy I’d want to work for.”

    When Kelly’s assistants say consistently that Kelly has a plan, they’re not talking in abstract terms. Kelly has clearly defined his Seven Steps of Leadership as he outlined for the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association. Notice how they align against the five dysfunctions:

    1. Character
    * You better walk the walk when you are a coach
    * Coaches need high character because players need someone to follow when things get tough
    * A person of high character models the right decisions and eliminates uncertainty
    * Demand good character from the youngest to the eldest in your program

    2. Create Collaborative Cohesion
    * Everyone on staff has input and give your players the opportunity to express input on the program
    * Coaches must have a plan to create a buy-in of the vision by players and coaches
    * During teaching moments (practice, film meetings, position group meetings, staff meetings, etc.), seek to stimulate, create, and excite those individuals
    * When every player and coach understands and more importantly takes pride in their role in the program, success will follow
    * No talk in front of players about who’s starting next season
    * Head Coaches must remember that everyone is seeking self validation for their work

    3. Morale
    * Ask yourself, what are you selling (body language, verbal and non verbal communication)?
    * Unexpected and appreciated changes can boost morale (short practice, t-shirts, food, cards, phone calls/text messages saying good job today).
    * Understand and promote that fact that you must be able to delegate to others to get things done

    4. Know what you are good at
    * All leaders have similar goals, but reach them based on their own personal strengths
    * Know what your staff’s strengths are and then delegate to them (i.e. Assistant Coach Smith is very technology smart and you trust him to handle video responsibilities for the team)

    5. Have a change-ready mentality
    * Good football teams have the ability to adapt to sudden change
    * Good head coaches are willing to change the way things are done (no more “but that’s how we always did it”)

    6. The Head Coach
    * Leaders are no longer commanders, but maestros and visionaries
    * Head coaches are the people who puts all the pieces together to create a team
    * Coach up your staffs (in private) to improve the overall coaching ability of your staff

    7. Creative Thinker
    * A head coach must be willing to challenge the status quo
    * Whether you are a head coach or coordinator, you should not be afraid of being innovative
    * Creativity separates great coaches from good coaches

    Kelly’s approach creates a structure and culture that allows him to lead from the top while ensuring his directives are being carried out with minimal loss in translation as they are communicated down to the players. Watching Weis try to make a cohesive unit out of 85 players and nine assistants was an exercise in frustration. Kelly’s goal is to enable unconscious competence at the player level, by running simplified offensive and defensive systems geared toward execution and carefully structuring and staffing his leadership team to ensure that the entire team is focused on winning.

    The open question is whether this strategy will be more effective than hiring a “name” staff. How for example, will Charlie Molnar will fair against a Monte Kiffin (whom Kelly wouldn’t have hired given this model) will be determined on the field.

    5 Responses to “Kelly and Leadership, Part II: Coaching the Coaches”

    1. Irish Sting says:


    2. Rock,
      Your article was about the most interesting and well
      written piece I have seen. Your insights into Kelley's coaching methods makes me now understand why Weis failed. Charlie simply was not head coach material. Again a truly great job on your part- keep up the good work. Old Irish fan

    3. I agree with Anonymous. If you have accurately identified the reason why leadership was missing under Weis and will exist under Kelly, I think success will eventually follow. I say eventually because we might not have the talent right now to compete for a National Championship, but talent will start to follow consistent success.

    4. I was the guy who carried Kelly's banner on this blog from the beginning. I knew he was the head coach this program desperately needed because it was so evident in watching him coach the Bearcats that he was a tremendously special mentor. This article does a really nice job of articulating the reasons why. I could not be happier, and I can't wait for next season to begin.

    5. Actually, I don't like the 'You Don't Know that You Know' tag given to Level 4.

      When I teach my client's staff how to teach their end users about the new software they are to use I break down into learning two different learn theories:

      Behaviorism vs Constructivism

      Behaviorism is this Level 4, where they have undergone so much repetition of a certain germain task that they execute it without thinking about how to do it.

      This is very different from 'You don't know that you know'. Here you do know that you know, but you don't think about it because it becomes a standard behavior … instinct if you will.

      Small nit on the terms to explain Level 4. However, it goes more to the point that repetitive, successful situational execution of the task in practice, preceeded by an understanding of why the action in the situation will lead to success, allows the student (or player in this case) to engage in the task instinctively in the game without thinking about the task itself or how to execute it. This leads to faster execution of the activity as well which increases the likelihood of successful task execution.

      Otherwise good read.