8-time Iowa state champion coach: Culture is about setting expectations

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Editor

For just the first time in eight seasons, Tom Wilson did not lead the Dowling Catholic football team to an Iowa 4A state championship in 2020.

That’s one way of saying he has established one of the most dominant programs in the country in his 16 seasons as head coach at Dowling Catholic. With eight state titles to his record, Wilson trails only Harlan’s Curt Bladt (11) for career state championships as an Iowa high school head coach.

Wilson shared with FNF Coaches how he has established a championship culture at Dowling Catholic. Wilson will be a guest on the FNF Coaches Podcast later this week.

After you got hired at Dowling Catholic, what was the first thing you did to start establishing a culture?

“When I got here, it was about setting expectations. It’s a broad word, but for us, it’s about: What are the work ethic expectations? What are the expectations academically? What are the expectations socially? It was about putting things in place to hold them accountable to expectations. One mistake coaches make is they allow kids to make excuses when something isn’t going well for them. You have to work to eliminate excuses with a program that ensures they meet expectations.”

How do you hold them accountable to expectations?

“One of the things we do is we have a point system. What it consists of is tracking GPA, giving them credit for playing other sports, credit for work in the weight room, credit for work in the speed and agility program. We track different camps that they go to. Some may go to off-campus agility camps. We give credit for that. We track every player in the program that way.”

So, you’re holding every player accountable and making them feel like a part of the program?

“It becomes very simple. Who is giving his best in the classroom? Who is giving his best in other sports and workouts? It’s updated periodically on a spreadsheet, and it’s there for them to see. We communicate with them 1-on-1 whether we feel they’re doing a great job or they’re deficient. We build those relationships through communication. We reward the positive, and we’re not afraid to approach the negative.”

Do you find that the culture has been established now that you’ve been there for 16 years?

“There’s never an off day when it comes to culture. It’s a matter of how we go about our business. What are the expectations? Are people meeting them? In Year 16, they have an understanding of the expectations. They know that they will be held accountable. Every year, we have a new freshman class. We have new people to train. We have people who have been at the high school for a year or two and want to be a part of the football program. They don’t know what to expect. The culture can’t be one person — whether it’s a head coach or athletic director. It can’t just be me. It takes an entire staff to be on the same page to create a positive culture.”

What’s driving the conversation in your locker room? Email Managing Editor Dan Guttenplan or Tweet us @fnfcoaches. Don’t forget to use that hashtag #FNFCoachesTalk