Interview With Dan Schlager, Winning Youth Football’s Coach of the Year and 2011 Pop Warner Midget National Championship Winner
Dan Schlager from Jupiter, Florida was named by Winning Youth Football to be our 2011 Youth Football Coach of the Year award winner. Dan’s Pop Warner Midget team finished 16-0, winning a Treasure Coast League Championship, Southeastern Region Championship and Pop Warner National Championship in the Midget division of 12-14 year olds.
I first met Dan back in 2005, doing a private clinic for his program in Jupiter. Dan shared the trials and tribulations of running what was then a bit of a non-traditional offense and defense for his area of the country. Dan suffered quite of bit of funny looks and naysayers in those early days, but he was able to stay the course and develop a reputation for playing very sound, physical and competitive football, no matter the talent he drew.
That reputation grew as Dan’s teams piled up blowout win after blowout win every season, the skeptics became a little less vocal, not that it bothered him much. Dan isn’t short on confidence in his kids and his approach to coaching the game, but always gives credit for the teams success to his assistant coaches and players. He spends a tremendous amount of time getting better as a coach, doing research, planning and developing relationships with other coaches to sharpen the edge of his coaching skills axe. His massive research library has many or more books on how to develop the minds of players than books on X’s and O’s.
Dan isn’t a pure theorist or copycat, he has a unique coaching style to say the least. While his practices are very fast paced and they are very disciplined, he seems to be very bonded to his team, more bonded than about any team I’ve personally worked with. His teams, especially this team had great chemistry and a never say die attitude. These kids played for each other and for their coach, they were true believing “Kool-Aid” drinkers. This was evident in their thrilling come from behind win in their quarterfinal game at Disney where they scored on the last play of the half and won the game on the last play of the game. That was also the case in their win over a very talented Landsdown Ravens team, where Jupiter had to overcome 3 turnovers and some untimely penalties. The pinnacle of course was their National Title game win over two-time defending National Champion on a 39 game winning streak, the seemingly invincible and heavily favored Far West Jets.
I know you’ve coached for a long time and had a lot of success, what made this team different than the others that you’ve coached? It was obvious from watching your team practice and play that your team had a lot of great “Chemistry”, how did that happen? What did you do to bring this team together?
This year was a little bit different a lot of us have known each other and been together for quite some time now. At the beginning of the year I just had a feeling that there was just something special about this year. From the first parent/coaches meeting I said that I felt we had a chance to do something special this year and I truly believed that we had a shot at it and we just had to go and get it.
I was able to connect with the kids at their level, using popular music, sharing personal experiences aa well as popular movies to bring home some of the lessons I knew they would need to be taught and buy into to be a championship level team. At some point we would be tested and have to come from behind even though we won all of our league games in blowout fashion. I prepared them for that situation from the very beginning of the season. We were prepared to be knocked down and prepared to be able to get back on our feet when that inevitably happened. I also think my personality and approach may be suited best for this specific age group, it was a great fit.
Our kids bought into the idea that we were brothers and a family and that if someone was going to try and harm that family or take something like a win from us, the kids were going to fight to protect their family members from that. We keep it real, I’m genuine and honest with the kids, we have a very deep trust and respect bond that has been earned over time. The kids know they can trust me and that I’m willing to do anything from them as well as work my tail off to make sure they are the team I know they can be.
In several playoff games, your team was in a bad spot. You scored on the last play of the half, last play of game and seemed to be in a tough patch in the finals. In every case they rallied to win. What did you do to instill that “never say die” attitude in your players?
It was my first year at this age level and my personal belief in my life I believe it’s a reflection of my thoughts and beliefs on life so being a younger coach I communicated with my team through music, team building events like we all went bowling at the beginning of the year, had cookouts at the beach etc… Using the music they/we listen to as a way to communicate with the players. To instill the values of being a team and never giving up kind of attitude. Our team motto for the year was “go ‘n’ get it” And I really felt we were gonna go make it happen and our time had come. I sold the kids on the idea it was our time and our destiny to win it all this year.
You played Far West Jets who came into the tournament with a 39 game win streak and won back to back National Championships. You had plenty of film on them and everyone in Orlando knew they were the team to beat. How did you convince your kids that they could play with and beat a team almost everyone thought was unbeatable?
I never thought they were unbeatable. They were just another team in the way of our goal. I thought we were the team to beat. It kind of blew my mind watching the ESPN version of the game with the commentary and speaking with others after the game how they thought it was an upset. I never go into anything in life feeling like I am going to lose, I prepare to win and don’t prepare to fail. I use visualization techniques to reinforce where I want the end result to be. I believe in my kids, my staff, and myself. I knew they had had a lot of success in previous years but things change. I always believed that we would win and because ,I believe, I believe my players felt it, my staff felt it, and our parents felt it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Far West Jets. Their head coach, coaching staff and players all showed great heart and sportsmanship. They were definitely the best coached team that I had ever faced.
In the finals against Far West late in the game with a small lead you had a 4th and 15 from the 50 and instead of kicking deep, you faked the punt and got the first down. What made you decide to do that?
In my five years as a head coach I have only punted one time. I feared a block punt and I also knew that they were most likely thinking that there’s no way you’re going for it on 4th and 15 in the 4th quarter in a National Championship game so they would be playing punt all the way. If we can throw and catch it’s a first down and we run the clock out. I felt the reward was greater than the risk.
How is your coaching staff broken down?
I feel that my guys are the best there is. I surround myself with great people. I don’t break it down with different coordinators (offensive/defensive). We just get together and I let things fall into place.
Your kids give great effort on every play, they play to the whistle. How do you get your kids to consistently do that?
I care about them a lot and they know it. They feel it. There’s no faking it. I have a lot of respect for them and they know it. Because of the respect I have for them they want to go out there and give their best every play. I tell them all to play every play as if it were their last play, and that’s what they do.
We also use the “Fist” acronym, which to us means several things. First of all it’s Finish It Strong Together, secondly we also use it to wipe out the memory of any mistakes. In any game a player is going to make mistakes. While we want the player to learn from that mistake, we also want him to play his best. He can’t do that if the coaching staff and the player are dwelling on the mistake. We let him know what he needs to do better, raise fists, tell him to flush that play memory from his mind and finish strong for his teammates. I’m a believer in nueuro-linguistic programming and this approach has worked well in getting our kids to focus on the present, go to a happy place and get them thinking in a positive way.
There are a lot of people out there in Pop Warner, AYF, UYF and other leagues who say you can’t win without illegally stacking your teams. How do the Jupiter Mustangs put your teams together?
We do it through a draft. Then once you have a kid on your team he stays with your team throughout. Jupiter Mustangs are actually one of if not the largest organizations in the Treasure Coast, so our kids and talent is actually more spread out than any other team in our league. We do a legitimate 1 for 1 draft, absolutely no stacking, in fact a number of kids I recruited to play in our program who I really wanted to get on our team were drafted by the other Midget team in our organization.
I noticed your minimum play counter usually had all of your minimum play kids their snaps prior to halftime. How were you able to do that?
I believe that every kid provides value to the team. I call it “bringing something to the table”. As a coach your job is to find out where he best provides value to the team. That allows him to feel good about himself, gives him a job to do. Then just let him go do his job.
You are a no-huddle team, why?
I like to see what the defense is giving me and to be able to run more plays. Helps me with my minimum play kids too.
What in your coaching approach is maybe different than what you see other youth football coaches doing?
I don’t have a kid on the team but even if I did this wouldn’t change. I don’t care who scores, who makes the tackle etc… I say this at the beginning of every season. I call whatever play I feel gives us the best chance to score with the kid I feel gives us the best chance to do just that. I want to win. When you go in with that philosophy all the other good things fall into place. You win big and then the kids can play other positions and have some fun. One year I had 21 out of 23 kids get into the end zone. When someone scores a TD or makes a tackle, We all score! We all make the tackle! The team wins. It’s a team effort. We know football is the ultimate team sport. You just put each kid on the team in a position to be able to provide as much for the team as they are capable of.
What top 5 pointers would you give that coach who wants to win a National Title?
1. Care. Really genuinely care about your kids.
2. Educate yourself and study the game. Know your enemy.
3. Don’t be out worked- you have to be the hardest working coach out there. Don’t get outhustled.
4. I feel that most people have kids out of positions. Spend a lot of time figuring out each kids position on the team. Even if it takes all year. Find the best spot for every kid.
5. Surround yourself with people who are smarter and better than you. Make sure they all care about the kids and the team as much as you. They have to have that caring mindset.
I went to see the Championships in Orlando back in 2006, when I felt my team was 1 play away from making it to Disney. I checked out the venue, what teams were doing and what I needed to do to be able to have a team that could compete at that level. I visioned our team on the field, winning the title and made that our goal, not to win our league or the region, but to win a National Championship.
Who are your main coaching influences?
If you want a list of “famous”football coaches that inspire me I can give you that. But for me…. it’s life….
My Lil Bro Kevin
My Mom and Dad
My Friends and family
What are your future coaching plans?
I’m not 100% sure right now but I definitely will continue to coach because I love the sport and I believe it is the best tool out there to teach young men life lessons. I wouldn’t pursue anything higher than the High School level because I believe the fun and all that is taken out of it. I’ve coached some at the High School level and I know I could do well at there and I would love to be apart of that experience. Bringing a whole community together in a positive way is something that really motivates me, Jupiter and our parents went nuts for our team this year. From my experience coaching at both levels, High School and youth, Pop Warner coaching especially at the Regional and National Tournament level is just as challenging or even more so than some High School experiences I’ve had. We played some great teams that were really well coached in Miami in Regionals before we even got to Orlando, where we got the chance to play three very well coached and talented teams.
Dan is a very successful coach who goes to his own drum beat. He’s a great example of a coach who not only spends time perfecting his X’s and O’s but prepares his team mentally and emotionally and brings them together as a team with a common purpose and vision. Dan is someone who is first in and last out at any clinic and he’s definitely the guy you want to be sitting next to when the story telling starts at the local watering hole once the clinic is over. Congrats on a great season and congratulations on your well deserved Coach of the Year Award.