Tom Osborne brought a sideline demeanor to Nebraska so profoundly level you could set a shelf with it. When UCLA tore through college basketball, John Wooden, stoic and wizardly, was a picture of calm in the eye of the storm.
The talk shows weren’t raging about a lack of passion on the sideline. Because they won. A lot.
When Mike Riley keeps a straight face at Memorial Stadium while he’s being de-pantsed by Ohio State on national television, the postgame callers want to attach jumper cables to the man’s extremities and start revving the engine.
“Fans, they find that important, but most important is that they want to see that in the players,” explains Dr. Marty Martinez, sports psychology coordinator at Iowa State and a Nebraska alum. “And if they don’t see that, they’ll go, ‘Why is that?’ And if the coach is not rah-rah, they’ll blame that.
“[Bo] Pelini was the rah-rah guy, but that’s not what they needed in that way. And Osborne wasn’t the rah-rah guy. He was beautiful, they loved him. Of course, he was an offensive genius. That helped.”
Scoreboards speak louder than words.
Louder than actions, too.
‘The authentic and genuine type coaches last longer’
“In the case of Nebraska fans — extremely loyal and knowledgeable — I feel they are showing their frustration,” offers Tim Hamel, a physical education lecturer and sports psychologist in Fresno State’s department of kinesiology. “Look at how the great Tom Osborne displayed his emotion during a football game. He was a rock. Then look at former coach Bo Pelini — he seemed fired up all the time.
“Research has demonstrated that the rah-rah, super motivational head coach works in the short term — 1-to-2 seasons, then the athlete begins to get very tired of being ‘yelled’ at. Athletes know when a coach is true or fake. The authentic and genuine type coaches last longer.”
And on this, Martinez and Hamel agree: A head coach’s sideline energy and/or passion — or lack thereof — doesn’t necessarily affect the energy and/or passion of players in the moment. Or a team’s success.
‘That high correlation with success with athletes is if the athletes believe that the coach believes in them.’
— Dr. Marty Martinez, sports psychology coordinator at Iowa State and a Nebraska alum
“With players, really, the greatest kind of energy players get from anybody — first, it’s from their teammates,” Martinez explains. “Second, it’s their teammates. And third, their position coaches, the assistant coaches.
“All great coaches have great assistant coaches that energize the guys. In my many, many years of doing this, the correlation of a rah-rah head coach has very little to do with a team that’s going to be successful. But if they have an assistant coach like that, that then correlates with player energy and likely success.”
Martinez did his master’s and Ph.D. work in Lincoln a few years back, when the Cornhuskers swung the biggest stick in the old Big Eight. During his undergraduate days at UCLA, Martinez watched the legendary Wooden sit on the bench with his arms folded, a game program in his hand, while assistants such as Denny Crum would be the ones going bananas.
While he thinks complaints about Riley’s perceived “lack of passion” are overblown, Martinez says that Nebraska faithful who questioned defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s preference for working a game from the press box instead of the sideline may have a point.
“When I’m roaming the sidelines, those coaches come right into the huddle, right into the bench when the offense is on the bench, and they’re man-on-man, face-to-face,” the sports psychologist continues. “[The Huskers] are missing that.
“Now, of course, you talk to coaches that are roaming the sidelines, they know they’re missing stuff because they’re not up top. And there again, if you’ve got an assistant that you trust — the defensive coordinator has his line and linebackers and secondary coaches — they’re going to be doing that [on the field]. But they pick on the face. They pick on the face with the headset. They’ve got to find some reason why the Blackshirts aren’t doing it.”
‘When players get over-aroused, the potential for mistakes increases’
It’s human nature: When the party’s rolling, the drinks are flowing and the kielbasas melt in your mouth, nobody cares how the sausage gets made. But when the Big Red are on the wrong side of a 42-point defeat, when J.T. Barrett is putting up Xbox numbers in your backyard, when Wisconsin won’t give the ball back, every wrinkle in the program, every part of the process, is fair game.
“A college football game, especially in October, has enough distractions,” Hamel says. “A coach has to limit the game down to things the entire coaching staff can control. Hence it is extremely vital that the head coach has control of his emotions as the game plays out.
“Far too often the emotional behaviors of the head coach — or staff on the field — get out of control, which gets the players on the field over-aroused. When players get over-aroused, the potential for mental mistakes to happen increases. Successful coaches stay ‘even-keeled’ throughout the game. They need to be focused on the next play. They understand how important it is to be focused in the moment.”
They understand the fishbowl, how a camera is recording their every breath for posterity, how social media has given everyone the microphone, a color analyst unchained.
They understand that their players can spot a phony from 50 yards out.
“I think Riley is certainly a smart guy,” Martinez says. “He’s good with people. Again, that high correlation with success with athletes is if the athletes believe that the coach believes in them.
“Wooden would never rah-rah, he didn’t get guys up. He said, ‘If I get them up, they’re going to come down.’ The success does not correlate to the rah-rah. You like it, and like to see it, [but] it doesn’t mean anything.”