When I was a senior at the University of Montana, I was playing basketball in the west auxiliary gym with a bunch of Grizzly football players. At one point between games, several of the players started in on unflattering characterizations of Mick Dennehey. My first response was to laugh and the second was wave of horror washed over me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. A couple of the players went as far as running up and down the floor after missed shots or stupid plays and mocked not only Dennehy but also other coaches and even some of their own teammates. After a while I didn’t know how to respond.
The Locker room.
In my 20 years of being around sports it is hard for me to explain locker room dynamics. I sure as heck didn’t understand them when I was in high school (call me oblivious) and I didn’t when I was in college. I was a rule follower and I sure as heck didn’t speak ill of coaches and teams in public. So I was mortified then of the players choice to engage in the activities they did, but after 15 years coaching football I have come to understand that locker rooms are complex spaces with its own unique social codes and standards.
I have seen some sketchy stuff over those years and stuff that I couldn’t in anyway describe to anyone who didn’t know how football locker rooms operated. Everything from hazing to ritual sacrifice. Observed some sociopathic behavior on occasion (ritual sacrifice) and some attempts to establish a level of humanity. There is no rhyme or reason to what goes on in locker rooms, and the vast majority of them are defined by the individuals within it.
Culture is an interesting concept, because much like political sociology it leans on the group as a whole rather than dependence on particular rules or edifices. Coaches can spend years defining the culture of a locker room, but it really depends upon the players to accept and embrace the structure.
Culture in the locker room:
Now, especially within the last ten or fifteen years, I think football culture has morphed from a culture of assimilation to it takes all kinds. For those who played the game prior to the mid 90’s, I think we still assume that football locker rooms are chock full of manly stuff with a dependence on obedience and order. I doubt they ever really were, but conformity and uniformity were imposed for any number of reasons either implicitly or explicitly.
Blame it on any number of things, #thanksobama/trump, but football and the culture surrounding it has changed significantly in recent years. As such so has the locker room environment. I don’t think there is a standard of how they look or should operate, but it is far less coach and standard controlled than you would think. They are less unified, less structured and much more ‘soft’ about player behavior or even responses to coaching attitudes.
I think that is why ultimately the fascist dictator, Mike Ditka role of the head coach doesn’t play in most modern locker rooms. Kids are motivated by so many different things that ‘playing for the brand,’ or ‘the tradition’ has less play. Kids aren’t softer on the field, but what motivates them off of it is completely different.
That is why I tend to gravel at the concept of coaches losing locker rooms or having locker rooms. Head coaches have to find a way to motivate kids to excel on the field, but much of it focuses around reaching intrinsic areas rather than extrinsic. Players will find out sooner or later whether their coaches are authentic or not, whether they are their friend, a screamer, or removed.
The best one I have ever been around unified itself over the hatred of the head coach. I was the JV head coach at the time and had the ability to see the varsity program from afar while being on the inside. He (the head coach) was a grade A tool, an asshole of the highest order, and found ways to demean kids and fellow coaches on a daily basis.
Most locker room’s are like a bad teenage experience film. They are clique-filled environment with a lot of mutual loathing and objectification going on. Tons of ego, tons of jealousy, and distrust. Coaches are generally wasting their time to try to control locker room dynamics. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to create a common focus, but how every player in the room arrives at it is going to be different. Conformity isn’t a good play in the locker room. Some conformity works, in that there must be a set of rules, but it isn’t a rigid environment.
Cult of Personality:
Stitt and Delaney couldn’t be more different to be honest and I think that is part of the issue. These kids all have different personalities and need different things from the coaching staff. Yet and I have rarely knew locker rooms that would shoot off their nose to spite their face. In other words their desire to compete generally overrides their dislike of a coach or wariness of the message. They want to do things right.
So there can be players who ‘hate’ Bob Stitt, but rarely unless they are outside of the room (meaning they left) they might express frustration, maybe throw some shade, but they wouldn’t willingly give less than 100% because of other guys in the room. Because that says a lot more about you than it does the coach if you willingly bag it over disagreements with the coach.
For all of those people who are complaining about Stitt losing the locker room, he might not have had it to begin with. Might very well be his style. There are coaches that struggle with locker room dynamics. Generally it is the acidic culture within the room, among players that brings down the success on the field. That too is coach related, in the sense that they don’t know what is going on in there, and has happened to me before.
I wasn’t out of touch with the players, I had great interpersonal relationships with them, but I was out of touch with the dynamic within the room. Seniors provided resistance at every moment and I gave them too much latitude. That was apparent after the fact. You give leadership to Seniors because they have earned it but in some cases that leadership isn’t earned because they have shown they can lead but rather by seniority they are the default leader.
What it comes down to honestly is the message being received in the locker room and are they working with you versus against you. You need to have more advocates in the room than you have detractors. Again it really doesn’t matter if they like you, or you have the room or not, or even if they are buying what you are selling, but rather if they are buying the message.
One of the greater issues I have seen in recent years is forgoing the individual for the group. I think that is where leadership of any kind is important in the locker room. Calling out behaviors that are negative to the team concept. Yet when your leaders in the locker room aren’t leaders on the field, it doesn’t matter what inroads you have made. Because one or the other can tear it apart.
Those seniors I had spent a good time on the field ‘acting’ the part, but they weren’t in the locker room. If coaches either aren’t aware or aren’t approachable in regards to those issues, any culture can decay no matter how much you promote it. You need to cultivate leadership that not only is from players that are going to be looked to on the field on game days, but also provide the type of leadership in the locker room that doesn’t degrade from your culture and your on-field play.
I over estimated the character of my seniors. I had three senior leaders and two of them were poor choice in retrospect. Two were bitter about their role, the other because of some personal issues, wasn’t as effective as he normally would have been. That more than anything else can tear apart a locker room more than anything else.
Good v. Bad:
Some teams win in spite of themselves. Brawls start in the locker room, guys date other guys girl friends, or just aren’t trustworthy but they still find ways to win. My high school baseball team was that way. We pretty much hated each other, but on the field we found a way to turn it on. As I noted before the best football locker room I ever had been a part of was one that unified in hatred of the head coach.
Yet the teams with the most potential and great kids were undone not because of on the field behaviors because they couldn’t coalesce into one group. No matter how hard they tried, we tried as coaches, they just didn’t trust themselves or anyone else when it came to on the field. They liked each other outside of the locker room but they didn’t in the locker room, undone by petty jealously and bitterness about roles and statistics.
I think you have to convince kids there is a common good. What each coach does to get them there is unique to themselves. You might be a lombardi, or you might be stiff and aloof. Forcing kids to abandon themselves is a difficult scheme even in the best environment. Yet getting players to buy into a team concept, abandoning behaviors that degrade from those team goals can be accomplished.
Some of that is Tradition. The weight of those who came before you and upholding it. You don’t want to be that guy, or that team who breaks it. I think the difficulty in recent years is that the UM has had a break in that tradition, that culture and whoever the coach is has struggled in establishing a locker room environment that might create positive results.
If there is a drawback from Stitt’s personality, rumor is that he is a manager more than hands on, is that it was a sharp divergence from Delaney’s desire to know each player on a personal level. Some guys can’t handle that as a head guy or are not built that way, but that is what assistants are for. That was true to a degree under Hauck and most definitely true under Dennehy. They just have to be able to buy into the message, no matter who is giving it.
The culture of expectations is one that is developed by procedure and practice and not rule. If players aren’t receptive to the rules then you have to find a way through the things you do elsewhere to create the accountability and expectations that you can’t develop by tradition. If there is ever a disconnect in the development is the message is there but the follow through either on the coaches end or the players end isn’t there.
I doubt significantly the expectations or even the message was a significant turn from Delaney or even Pflugrad, but who and how the message is delivered might have been. Administrating and dispensing justice might be different. I don’t know. Those who got axed, punished, promoted or lauded does effect the locker room, but most of it is always mitigated by clear communication. Good locker rooms, despite the character of it, are generally better because people do communicate.
No matter how much players bitch outside of the locker room because kids have to vent, complain, and bitch about things there is a limited amount you know about the locker room until you spend time in it. Dysfunction is to be expected because you have 100 kids in the locker room, and the baggage they bring is so varied.
Coaches can bring the locker room together through message, communication and expectation but the players themselves are responsible in carrying it out. You hope that message is being received, and if it isn’t you have to find a way to make sure it is. That isn’t always easy, it isn’t always genuine, and there is no standard way to do it.
In the end you have to do what you need to do to get the locker room on your side, to get them to compete. I don’t know that you absolutely have to have it to be successful, but it surely doesn’t hurt.