Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Lesson of...Ray Handley? | by Mark

In 13 of his 15 seasons coaching in the NFL, Charlie Weis worked for two legends, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. And as much as he absorbed from their incredible success, it's interesting to think about what lessons he may have gleaned from the third head coach he worked for, Ray Handley. After all, the euphoria of success often doesn't teach us as much as it should; we seem to learn a hell of a lot more from the painful sting of failure (well, except maybe a certain ex-coach who "never had a bad day").

You all remember Ray Handley, right? Took over as head coach of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in 1991 after Bill Parcells retired (for the first time, anyway). Charlie stayed on after Parcells, and Handley promoted him from a defensive and special teams assistant to running backs coach, a job he held for two years under Ray. Around New York, Handley is remembered for a few things - and none of them are good. Foremost among them is helping drive the Giants franchise into a tailspin.

Tabbed as one of the smartest men in football, Handley had a masters degree from Stanford, a genius IQ, and a steeltrap mathematical mind (he once got bumped from a Reno casino for counting cards). He inherited a great situation with the Giants, taking over a team that had gone 25-7, reached the playoffs twice and had won the Super Bowl once in the two previous seasons. So what did he do? He benched Phil Simms (who would return to the Pro Bowl in 1993, the year after Handley was fired) and went 14-18 overall. The Giants failed to make the playoffs in either of his two years as the head coach. In fact, it's the only time in Weis' NFL career that a team he was part of failed to make the playoffs in two straight seasons.

(On a lighter note, one time Handley went off on a tangent during a press conference about the way Brett Favre pronounces his last name. Handley, for all his cerebral brilliance, couldn't understand how it was pronounced "FARv". That should have been a clue right there.)

In the book "Coaching Matters", author Brad Adler devotes some attention to a special kind of failure that some "genius" coordinators experience when attempting to make the transition to head coach. One of his prime examples is Ray Handley:

Important in a coach's repetoire - and most often neglected - is the manner in which he operates. One of these operational functions is the process by which a coach communicates his ideas...the true essence of coaching may exist as much in the way a coach conveys his methods and strategies as it does in the true merits of those tactics. Otherwise viable coaches may face a difficult task imparting their knowledge to players due in large part to the ineffectual fashion in which they communicate and/or demonstrate their methods.

Former NY Giants head coach Ray Handley comes to mind as a prime example of this postulation. Handley was, quite literally, a genius. He had an IQ of 140 and...was handpicked by head coach Bill Parcells...to lead the Giants. With all that intelligence and experience, Handley was a flop...

Handley was a brilliant assistant coach who...was as sharp a football mind as there was in the business. In fact, he developed many of the successful offensive schemes and strategies utilized by Parcells. Handley, though, had no conception whatsoever of the process by which to successfully communicate strategies and techniques to his players...He could never seem to grasp the fact that not everyone responds to a single teaching process and that he might have to engage different educational techniques in order to ensure that everybody understood each concept.
Many of us have probably met similar types of folks. Somewhere along the way you get a teacher that, on paper, seems like they should be able to teach you anything you would want to know. An IQ through the roof, absolutely brillant, and they have every degree and every credential you could ask for. But put them before a class and they simply can't convey that knowledge to the students in front of them. Intelligence alone simply does not make a person a good teacher.

It's also easy to understand why former greats have a tough time teaching what they know to players of lesser abilities. Most of the time these guys had such an intuitive feel for what they were doing that there is almost no way they can explain that to someone else. Do you think Barry Sanders would make a good running back coach? Quite literally, the things that made him so fantastic can't be taught. Adler discusses it a little bit:
In many instances, the situation involves a former superstar who turns to coaching. Due to their innate abilities, every aspect of the game comes easily to them...consequently, these individuals are rarely exposed to the clinical atmosphere prevalent in teaching situations - a fact that tends to diminish their capacity to adequatley explain and/or demonstrate techniques.
Magic Johnson as the Lakers head coach, anyone? Quick, name a coach in college or pro football who was an exceptional player (Jeff Fisher doesn't count). There are probably a handful, but the only one I can think of is Steve Spurrier. You'll find the same in most any sport. There's a limited number of exceptions, sure -- Frank Robinson maybe, or Lenny Wilkens -- but by and large the best coaches were mediocre, or worse, during their playing days. (On another note, I wonder how the Great One will adapt to coaching).

Now, let's apply all of this to Charlie Weis.

As we all know, Weis didn't play football in college, let alone the pros. So he's not even a journeyman player like a lot of other coaches.

In fact, Charlie would seem on the surface to be a lot like Ray Handley. Ray didn't have much of a playing career, but had a brilliant mind and gained a reputation for his offensive system. His prowess contributed to Super Bowl championship teams. But a few key differences become apparent when you look a little closer at Weis' background and compare the two.

First of all, Weis got his degree at Notre Dame in speech and drama. At that time Weis had intentions of going into sports broadcasting, and so he was drawn to studying communication from way back when. Essentially, he wanted to be a type of performer. Effective teachers, too, are often good performers - a large part of what they are doing is getting up in front of a group of people and helping a certain subject "come alive".

Then, when he was coaching at South Carolina, Weis earned his master's degree in -- education. I'm no genius but I think I'm starting to see a theme here.

Now consider where Weis began his coaching career - at the high school level. In addition to coaching, Weis was also an English teacher. He has said many times that, more than anything else, he considers himself to be a teacher. Not a "professor", but a teacher.

A true teacher - in high school, college, in the workforce - isn't the person that knows the most about something. It's not a guy from Mensa with an IQ of 160 talking over the head of his students. It's the person that gets in there and actually is able to transfer his or her knowledge to students. That was the problem that became a major part of Ray Handley's failure.

And the impact of clear communication? Consider these quotes from a former Irish player that learned from Weis in the pros as well as from current players during spring practice:

David Givens:
"He's been a teacher and coach of high school kids and he's got so much experience coaching NFL players like myself. There's no doubt in my mind he would be an outstanding recruiter because he relates so well to young people.

Brady Quinn:
“Coach (Ron) Powlus turned to me and said, ‘That was the simplest I think I’ve ever heard — through college, NFL, everything — going through hots and sight-adjusts and having someone explain it. That’s a great example of coach Weis as a teacher. He makes things so simple that can be complicated at times...It probably has been the best experience I could have had. He knows the ins and outs and everything, and he knows the best way to teach it."

Dan Stevenson:
“He doesn’t just teach you your position and what you’re supposed to do. He teaches you philosophies...When you can understand the philosophy of the offense, and the philosophy of each play, it can help you better understand why you need to do certain things.”

Darius Walker:
[Darius] always assumed an offense that won Super Bowls would be beyond him, but he has wrapped his head around it in a hurry. "In a sense," Walker said, "I guess it just all depends on the coach getting his players to understand it and learn it."

So how did a guy who never even played in college succeed at the highest level of coaching? By knowing the game so well, inside and out, that the player has no choice but to believe him. By being crystal clear in what he is saying. By telling him something is going to happen and sure enough, that is exactly what occurs. Simply put, by teaching. Walker once described Weis' ability to tell him exactly how a play was going to unfold before the play even started. Things like that are what build credibility between a teacher and a student, and really go to the heart of what makes an effective teacher. If you watched the video coverage from IrishEyes of Weis' post-practice sessions with the media during the spring, you know that each was basically a mini-tutorial in some aspect of football. You'd walk away from a viewing feeling like Weis had been teaching you personally about some facet of the game.

And the ability to teach is something Weis targeted when he filled out the rest of his staff, too. As he said when he introduced his assistants, "I wanted guys that were good teachers because I consider myself a teacher first..."

But back to Ray Handley. It's possible Charlie was already well beyond Handley in terms of teaching -- err, coaching -- ability, that he already knew enough to avoid making the same mistakes that would eventually be the undoing of Ray Handley's coaching career. But those two difficult seasons with the Giants likely did a very good job of driving those points home. Ray Handley was a brilliant thinker. But Charlie Weis is a good coach, and by definition, a good teacher.