Learning From the Best
One of the things that I try to do is learn from other successful coaches, there is no shame in copying the best and that goes for yours truly. When I went to the AYF and Pop Warner National Championships in December I got to meet Joe Cianflone, the head coach of the Mint Hill Chargers 8th Grade team. Joe was also named as Offensive Coordinator of the East All-Stars in the Under Armour All-Star game in St Petersburg Florida. AYF President Joe Galat named Joe Cianflone as its “2010 Coach of the Year.”
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Joe via e-mail over the last year but finally got the chance to spend some face to face time with him in December. We also got a chance to see his team practice and play two games. I got the opportunnity to share two meals with he and his coaching staff as they prepared to play their National Championship game. You are going to hear a little about Joe and more importantly what he thinks about the game and what coaches can do better.
Joe is originally from Brooklyn and he still carries a little bit of the accent, which is great. He is a fun, down to earth and outgoing coach with a wealth of experience gleaned from 33 years of coaching. He has lived and coached in Florida, North Carolina and of course New York. He has coached at both the youth and the High School level. His accomplishments include 11 State Titles, Multiple District Championships and 5 National Championship games, of which his team won 4 times. He has won at every stop. He helped develop 22 players that went on to play DI College football.
His best coaching memories surprisingly didn’t come from the championship seasons, but rather in games or seasons where his teams outplayed teams with far superior size, speed and talent like his JV High School team in Lake Mary Florida that went 8-0 and did it with a 5 ‘2” Quarterback that couldn’t throw and a 135 lb starting Defensive End. He also mentioned his 1989 15-16 year old team from Brooklyn that beat a team with 5 DI players on it by the score of 28-0.
Joe’s youth team is from Mint Hill, in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. Mint Hill rampaged through the AYF National Tournament’s 8th Grade Unlimited Division, winning all 3 games by 5-7 touchdowns. Joe likes playing in AYF due to the opportunity for the real big kids to play in the unlimited division and the freedom it allows them to schedule additional games.
On offense Joe likes to run the spread out of the gun, with the base formation being a 2×2. He feels this scheme is a good fit for his kids, plus Joe knows the offense. He has been a spread coach for over 20 years, he was spread when spread wasn’t cool. It’s an offense he knows and it’s an offense his assistants know and believe in. This year they were about 65% run, 35% pass, in years past they have been 55% run, 45% pass, the ratio really depends on the talent which changes every year. Their running game consists of Power, Counter, Trap, G, Outside Zone and Inside Zone plays. In the games I watched in person, the runs were primarily Power and Counter. He only runs zone when he has a back that can run zone, which he doesn’t have every year.
His passing game is very simple, it consists of Bubble, Rocket/Tunnel Screen, Smoke Screen, Slant/Arrow, Go/Hitch, Waggle, Mesh, Slant/Wheel, Stick and a Three Verticles concepts. For pass protection he uses both full slide and a homegrown pass pro, splitting them at about 50/50. His line splits are 2 feet on occasion his tackles may flex to 3 feet.
He feels that building a selfless team chemistry is the number one reason for his teams consistent success, he is able to get his kids to buy into a team first approach as well as Joe’s coaching style. This focus on team is followed closely by coaching an intense level of fundamentals that pays excruciating attention to the smallest of details. He feels his coaching staff does a great job of being able to see where a kid can fit into their scheme to help the team. Joe and his coaches do an outstanding job of coaching a player to his true potential, not just to a level where they can have success and win. They also do a much better job than they know of teaching players to be “football smart”, Joes kids know more than many High School coaches I’ve met.
I noticed Joe’s teams spend a great deal of time on getting their offensive linemens first 2 steps down quickly and at the correct angles with proper pad level. While his kids weren’t as big as several of the teams they played, they never got beat off the ball. Joe’s kids tackle very well and he attributes this to their stressing a very basic remedial tackling progression circuit nearly every day in practice. His Assistant Head Coach Mike Fairfax is a legend in AYF and was named as Head Coach of the Under Armour East All-Stars. Assistant coaches Paul Suznevich, Mitch Kanella and Brian Fairfax round out a staff that work extremely well together. His East All-Stars blew out Deion Sanders West All-Stars on television 38-16.
On offense the timing on their screen plays is pretty remarkable, with their linemen releasing to the playside without even touching the defensive linemen. He likes to start off with a four play script to see how the defense is going to react, then he makes his play calls from there. He uses some basic counts and has a basic script to choose from based on the front he sees. His teams do a lot of preparation based on scouting, but also just on basic fronts. As Joe explains it, in the tournaments many times a team will surprise you and come out in something they haven’t shown before. He likes to make sure his kids practice against a variety of fronts so it lessens the excitement factor when it comes to the big games. You could see that in their games, his kids were cool under pressure even when trailing early in game two.
Other things that seemed to make my smiling jovial friend frown was the lack of good fundamentals, even at the championship level and all-star team level players. He admitted he saw some great athleticism in many players in the tournament and all star game, but he felt many of them were getting by on talent alone and lacked many basic fundamental skills. He is a big fan of the small playbook, even as a spread coach. He was very puzzled by the fact that most of the games we watched together the defenses stayed in the same front the entire game. He didn’t like the lack of trap plays and pulling in the games we watched together, he is a stickler for execution. Coach also claims he has never designed a single football play, what he learned he claims he “stole” from others.
Our friend is the consummate game planner and film watcher. He and his coaching staff spend a lot of time reviewing film and coming up with customized game plans and play lists for every team they play. Mint Hill prides itself on having a dominating defense and top notch special teams, they excelled in every facet of the game, from deep directional kickoffs to safely fielding punts. Joe’s style with the kids was firm, fair and encouraging. Joe is one of those guys who just has to give a kid one of “those looks” to turn a situation around. He asks his players a LOT of questions, his way of getting the kids to see where maybe they made an error. I didn’t see any yelling, but I did see a lot of coaching and intensity from the coaching staff. The Mint Hill practices were fast paced and VERY efficient, with no wasted movement but no one seemed rushed. His team was disciplined but the kids were interacting with his coaching staff to share information in order to maximize the team’s effort.
You won’t find a more knowledgeable, giving and humble person in the coaching world than Coach Joe. I felt kind of silly having him sit in on my coaches clinic in Orlando, what do you teach someone with that level of knowledge and success? What a blessing it was to get to spend so much time with him in Florida along with the subsequent follow up phone calls and e-mails. He even convinced me to run the Bubble like his kids do it, so like Joe I’m going to be a “borrower” and use his version with my kids next season.
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