The Turnaround Artist
There is a tiny niche of football coaches at the High School level that thrive on going into downtrodden programs and turning them completely around in short time frames. These are a rare breed of coach who welcome the daunting challenge to help improve the fortunes of long suffering players and fans. Donnie Kiefer is one of these guys that I have admired from afar for years, he was kind enough to agree to do an interview with me. His stated goal for the interview is to help both youth and High School coaches to understand that their situations aren’t impossible and give them some ideas that they might apply to their own situations. Donnie is currently head coach at Tuscola High School near Asheville, North Carolina. Tuscola has 1,038 students.
Dave- Coach Kiefer, how long have you been coaching High School football?
Coach- For 29 years, 25 as a head coach, primarily in the Carolinas.
Dave- How many different schools did you coach at?
Coach- 7 Different High Schools as head coach.
Dave- Tell us about some of the turnarounds from a numbers perspective.
Coach- I’ve been in some rough spots, places where the kids were embarrassed to be part of the football team, embarrassed to wear the team gear. At one inner city school the 3 years prior to me arriving, the team went 0-30. In my first year there we played for the first ever East Region Championship game.
At the next school the team had won just 4 games total in the 5 years before I got there. In the first year there we played for the East Region Championship. We went 35-7 while I was there and went 12-2 in my last season.
Next I went to a well off suburban school they had won just 1 game in the previous 4 years before I coached there. We won 15 games in the 2 years there and lost both years to the eventual State Champions.
At another school we put together the first back to back winning season that the school had had in over 20 years.
I was a head coach at a school where we won 9 games 3 seasons in a row going 27-9, inheriting a program that was considered by many to be unsalvageable.
Where I’m at now we took a team that was 2-9 to 5-7 in the first year, losing 2 games in overtime. The last 2 years we went 11-1 and 12-2-1 and made the playoffs this year in an injury riddled season.
Dave- That is amazing, why do you take on these rebuilding projects instead of staying where you have built a winner?
Coach- Probably ADD (laughs). I like the challenge but I try to just stay open to be obedient to what God wants me to do. I think this is what He wants me to be doing instead of maintaining what someone else has built.
Dave- What are the things you have to do to turn a failing program around?
Coach- First is faith in God, to give you the wisdom to succeed in your task. The number two thing is to change the mentality of the kids. I don’t talk about improving I talk about winning championships and setting that as the standard they embrace. I like to talk about why we are going to win, how we are going to get there and do it with extreme enthusiasm. I set the bar very high and get them to believe in not accepting mediocrity or small improvements like winning seasons. I’m a big believer in a competitive strength and conditioning- we get results there and the way we do it gives us an advantage over our competition. X’s and O’s and strategy are important as well as being a master at making adjustments, if for anything so the kids believe in the coaching staff. Being able to motivate and develop players. Teaching players to be smart football players and intelligent about the game. Treat the players like your own children, love them and let them know it, but be firm. They don’t need another buddy, they need someone to show them how to be a man. Teach great fundamentals, our schemes may change but our emphasis and how we teach fundamentals do not change. Strive for perfection in everything down to how you do cals, demand it from your coaches and players. Put the kids into a system they can realistically execute.
Dave- What must a school have in the way of facilities, administration, players and community wise for you to take on a rebuilding project?
Coach- I don’t really look at everything. We can get the facilities improved when we start winning, there are some things we can improve on our own. I don’t worry myself with what we don’t have and what I can’t control, I worry about the things I have control over. I don’t look at the players, we don’t have a lot of control there. We haven’t needed great players to turn these places around I’ve been at. I just look for an AD that wants to win, that has a passion for winning and believes that I’m the one that can do it.
Dave- How important are schemes?
Coach- They are important in that they need to be well thought out, but I think the schemes ought to fit your personnel. A scheme should put the kids in a position where they can have success. I don’t force kids into an offense or defense that I want to run, I run a scheme that fits my kids. We have run Wing T, Single Wing, Spread, I Formation, Power I, Run and Shoot and Triple Option. Heck with one team we ran a different offense 2 years in a row and we were winning big in both seasons. You always have kids graduating and new kids coming up, those new kids may do something a lot better or worse than the previous group, so changing makes sense. If you teach great fundamentals and teach kids how to be smart football players, you aren’t going to hurt yourself, you aren’t going to be out of position and give yourself a chance to compete.
Dave- What did you do to get players, coaches, administration and stake holders to trust you and buy into your approach to doing things?
Coach- You just have to be genuine and confident. People see through bluffing and bravado right away. I let people know I’m there for two purposes, develop young men and win championships. They all know I’ve never used any job as a stepping stone to get another job.
Dave- Was there much “dead wood” that you had to cut loose at the places you went to?
Coach- Some, unfortunately you do have to hold kids and coaches accountable and sometimes they will not meet expectations. The kids have to know you are serious and you have to be able to have the courage to lose your best player. I’m a big fan of second chances and we give kids plenty of time to make things up, but in the end they have to be held accountable. Most of our kids see that the enthusiasm we have is genuine and they see results pretty quick. The kids are getting stronger, getting faster, jumping higher that gets us some nearly instant credibility, we don’t have as many problems there as you might expect from schools that are used to losing.
Dave- Are you a my way or the highway type communicator? What is your communication style?
Coach- I’m more of a lets do it the Right Way type of guy. We try and model high character, high effort, high accountability and build an environment where we don’t tolerate those how don’t.
Dave- Do you take your coaching staff with you or do you hire new coaches?
Coach- I’ve never been able to take my staff with me, I usually inherit a staff that I have to sell on my approach and retrain.
Dave- What do you look for in an assistant coach?
Coach- Willingness to learn, Loyalty, ability to relate to kids, knowledgeable and ability to work with staff. My best assistant coach ever was a kid fresh out of school whose goal was to be a Varsity Baseball coach. He didn’t know much about football. He is now a head coach, his teams have played for the State Title 2 times in the last 4 years and was named as an assistant coach of the Shrine Bowl. He just had an appetite for learning and knew how to work with kids.
Dave- So many people out there today say the game is all about the Jimmys and the Joes, whoever has the best talent is going to win the game. Do you believe that? Why do you think that premise is so prevalent today?
Coach- Obviously I don’t believe that. It’s a cop out, a convenient crutch. Many coaches are just plain jealous of coaches who work hard and coach well. They tell everyone that will listen that with the talent levels they have, they can’t be expected to win. It’s an easy way out.
Dave- How have the teams fared after you have left?
Coach- Some have maintained, some not. It’s heartbreaking to see it when they don’t. One season coming off an 11 win year I left for another program. We had all but 3 starters returning, left them in a situation where the table was set, they ended up winning 3 games that year and won just 2-3 games combined the next couple of seasons.
I’ve never left the cupboard bare at any of the places I’ve coached at, that wouldn’t be right. If anything if I see there is going to be a dip, I stay just to make sure I’m leaving them on high ground. In the end all glory is to God, I’m giving Him credit for everything, I’m just trying to do what He wants me to do and go where He wants me to go.
Dave- I might add coach Kiefer needed some coaxing to tell much of his story. If you know Donnie, you know he is a humble guy who loves his kids and wants the very best for them. He is selfless to a fault a truely great coach, the kind of guy you would love your kids to play for. What an encouragement it is to those of us stuck coaching in a program that is a perennial loser or for those considering taking over a program that has been down in the dumper for a long time. There is hope, it is doable, it has been done. For those of you coaching youth football the path out of the cellar is not as hopeless as you think.
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