New Pac-12 Coaches Bring Swift Culture Changes

Sam Obitz / August 23rd, 2012 / No Comments »

Four Pac-12 schools will begin this season with new head coaches running their respective programs: Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State. When a new coach arrives, he normally not only brings an entirely new staff with him, but also a brand new culture as well. Though every coach is different, often the culture the new staff brings with them is a much bigger change to the team than the offensive or defensive system they bring with them.

It is generally believed that when a team changes their offensive or defensive system, they will not see the full result of the new scheme until they begin their second season in it. The reason for this is that during the first year that they are transitioning into the new system, the players are forced to actively think about what they are doing on each play and in every situation. When we are in this learning mode we use a part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) that is not associated with peak performance.

Through repetition, once they are in the second year of the new system, these new skills will have started to become ingrained. At this point the players will no longer need to think about what they are doing on the field and they will begin using a different part of their brain (the basal ganglia) which is associated with peak performance. As the years go by, the new system tends to mature and improve even more, but generally at a slower pace than in year two.

Conversely, a culture change can often bring about more immediate results. Many programs’ players grow frustrated and lose faith (often as a result of hypocrisy) in the old way of doing things. In these cases, simply a fresh start and the more positive approach of the new coach can temporarily breathe immediate life into a program (Rick Neuheisel’s first year at Washington would be a good example of this phenomena).

Other programs underachieve as a result of a lack of discipline and accountability. Once a new culture comes in that demands more player and coach responsibility, things often turn around quickly (Chip Kelly at Oregon would be an example of this).

Jim Mora at UCLA and Todd Graham at Arizona State wasted no time implementing new rules and traditions into their long-time underachieving programs. UCLA has historically been thought of as a “soft” team and the most recent Arizona State teams have clearly lacked discipline. Both Mora and Graham took their teams away from campus for the beginning of Fall Camp to enhance both team bonding and toughness.

At the University of Arizona new head coach Rich Rodriguez has placed a heavy emphasis on playing faster. In order to play faster you have to be in better shape, so changing the off-season conditioning program and instilling a better work ethic has been the first order of business for Rodriguez.

Mike Leach’s job at Washington State is far less difficult than the three previously mentioned coaches, as far as changing the culture goes, because former coach Paul Wulff did a good job turning things around culture wise during his tenure. Were it not for several key injuries (including the starting quarterback) early last season, Wulff might still be the head man at WSU. Though Leach’s offensive system is quite different than what they ran under Wulff, the main culture change has been Leach’s ability to reinvigorate the Cougars fan base, which has resulted in bringing more excitement to the team.

An effective culture, if implemented properly and constantly reinforced, will pay increasing dividends in the years to come. Unfortunately, as the years pass by, many leaders fail to act consistently with the culture they installed, and this usually undermines what they built when they arrived. When this happens the players will grow frustrated, begin to lose faith, and soon thereafter another new coach will be introduced to the program.

It will be interesting to see how things play out, for better or worse, in each of these programs over the next few years.


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