I’ve gotten hundreds of phone calls and e-mails asking me what happened to me this season. I’ve not made any posts to my blog and there have been no monthly newsletters coming out. The answer is I was shooting a television pilot called “Worst to First.” It’s a show about how to take a failing youth football team and turn them into winners.
We chose an 8th grade team in Reno, Nevada for the show. A little background will help frame where we are coming from on the show. We had a number of options for the show, but we chose a team in Reno that had everything going against it. This team had been together since the kids were in the second grade, they had won about 6 games over the last 6 years. They played in the largest and most competitive youth football league in the Reno/Sparks area of Northern Nevada, a metro of about 450,000 people.
The Sierra Youth Football league consists of about 82 teams, in single grade classifications. The Sparks 8th grade team, which I head coached, was the ONLY team from the Sparks organization. All of the other programs had multiple teams, a team in each age group. The Sparks team had just one team, mine. All the other Sparks teams had folded over the years due to lack of success and lack of interest. Sparks High School is where we practiced and where most of our kids went to school. The High School varsity won a single game this year, their last game, breaking a 30 game losing streak. They were outscored 330—80 for the year and were outscored 411-59 in 2013.. The Sparks JV didn’t win a game this year and were outscored 298-35.
The Sparks area is low income and has a very high concentration of Latino- Americans. Soccer is the sport of choice and Sparks High School has a very successful soccer program. The Reno- Sparks area is big on football, with both Reed High School and McQueen High being nationally ranked in the USA Today Top 20 several times over the years.
The youth leagues in the area are the unlimited weight SYFL, with 82 teams. The organizations in the league are attached to the local High Schools and the attendance boundaries for the High Schools are the same for the youth league. All of the top High Schools have SYFL teams only. Pop Warner is much smaller and much less competitive league made up in many cases of programs that had little success in the SYFL. This isn’t a criticism of Pop Warner, there is need and value in all football leagues. Pop Warner is the tops in many areas of the country, but it isn’t in Northern Nevada.
Back to our team. They were a group of kids who had stuck together for the most part, despite the consistent losses and blow outs. All but one of the coaches had been on board for 3+ years, 2 had been with this team for all 6 seasons. As is the case with many perennial losing teams, this team lost players. Every year their best players were illegally recruited by other teams and jumped ship. Our best Running Back from the previous year, ended up switching to the eventual league champion. The fastest kid on the team from the previous year, didn’t come out. Of the 5 new players that were assigned to our team, one weighed just 66 lbs at weigh-ins. I will show you all a picture of him in future posts. He was a first year player that wasn’t in our attendance district, but the other teams were “full” and he was assigned to us. Same for an 81 lb first year player who was in the attendance district of the undefeated regular season champion. We had the same or fewer number of players than most teams in the league, we started with 23 kids. We played teams that had between 22-32 kids.
I chose to take this team about 2 weeks before the season started, meeting the coaching staff in person for a quick 60 minute question and answer session in mid-July. I arrived on Tuesday, July 29th, the second day of practice and got the ball rolling. My following posts are going to detail, how I was able to take this team who scored just 63 points the previous year (minus one game) to a team that scored over 400 points, made a first ever playoff appearance, went to the semi-finals, put a scare in all the league bullies and won 9 games overall. There were games where we had over 72 point turnarounds from the previous years games, games where we were mercy-ruled the previous year, where we won by mercy-rule.
The net is, turnarounds can be engineered almost anywhere. We did it using the Winning Youth Football system by the book. This wasn’t a group of poorly coached 9 year olds who had one bad season under their belts. It was a group of 8th graders who had experienced 6 seasons of beatdowns. I knew no one in the area. I didn’t recruit a single player or even speak to any players until the season was already under way. I had no experienced coaches or “ringers” helping me, all were dads, all but one had been with the program for a number of years. The organization was in shambles, no feeder program at all, this team was an orphan child. Football wasn’t popular in this area, soccer is king, we had pretty much every strike against us. Add in the downward spiral of the better athletes kids quitting and even worse, going to play for the competition and the equation looks pretty dismal.
Hopefully as I share how we turned this program on its head coaches can pick up a few things that can help their team have some of the same results.