Mike Sirianni has made a case to be considered one of college football’s most successful head coaches through 15 seasons at Washington & Jefferson College.
A six-time Presidents’ Athletic Conference Coach of the Year and the 2012 D3football.com South Region Coach of the Year, Sirianni has led W&J to the postseason in 13 of his 15 seasons, including 10 NCAA playoff appearances. Sirianni’s squads have won at least nine games 11 times.
Sirianni offered his thoughts on coaching high school football in a recent interview with FNF Coaches.
What inspired you to start coaching football?
“My dad (Fran) is a retired high school football coach. My youngest brother (Nick) is a receivers coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. My middle brother is not coaching anymore, but he won two state championships (2008, 2009) in New York with Southwestern High. I grew up as the kid of a high school coach, and I love high school football. I find a game to watch every Friday night. I love watching it.”
What advice would you give high school coaches at this time of year – just as they’re starting the offseason?
“The day the season ends, I take a deep breath and relax. Honestly, some people are into the 365-days-a-year thing. Coaching football is fun. You have plenty of time to get ready. The day after you’re done, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the success. Or take a deep breath and be glad that a tough year is over. Two or three days later, it’s time to move on.”
Do you also take time with your staff to self-scout at the end of a season?
“We do that right off the bat. What I would tell high school coaches: Call and talk to people you trust. I have people I talk to and trust. I get ideas from them. We look at every aspect of the program. The last couple years, I didn’t fire anyone. I haven’t had to fire a coach, but I had a position open a few years ago. Instead of hiring a football coach, I went for a strength coach. I wanted my own strength coach, and I prayed he could also coach linebackers. Two years ago, I felt like we got pushed around a little bit. That’s the first thing I did – hired a strength coach. When you have an unsuccessful season – and we haven’t had a lot of them – you ask, ‘What can we do better?’ In terms of X’s and O’s, every year we’re tweaking it. Look at what other people do, and go with what fits your players. That doesn’t mean you do something new every year, but you can incorporate different ideas.”
Who do you trust to seek out advice after a season?
“Fellow coaches. Every time I do an interview, it always comes back to the fact that I’m a Mount Union graduate. I coached there too. In my opinion, [Mount Union coach] Larry Kehres is the best coach ever at any level. I have friends at Toledo and Ohio State. We ran a two-point play that I stole from my brother with the Chargers. Being associated with a program like Mount Union, I have a lot of people I can talk to and get different ideas. It doesn’t mean I use everything. But being a coach is about stealing ideas and pretending it’s your own. I’m not afraid to admit it.”
Did your new strength coach bring anything new to the program that you would be willing to share?
“I hired a young man with a $10,000 intern position. We’re a great Division 3 program, but we have budget constraints like many high school teams. We hired a man (Ian Hennessy) that played for me and I trusted. He interned at the University of Arizona, and he’s passionate about weight-training nutrition. I just wanted someone with them who was passionate about that and would sell out. Did we do anything different? I have a track background, so I ran track and coached track. We always work on explosiveness with plyometrics. I don’t think we concentrated on it any more. I just said, ‘It’s 4 percent of your day to make yourself a better football team and program.’ I think it was an attitude change, and they really got focused.”
What’s the best way for a coach to prioritize academics to ensure his players have success in the classroom?
Washington & Jefferson is an elite academic institution. One thing I don’t do here is study tables. I can’t make you study. Now, with social media and electronics, the worst thing you can do is take their cell phone. I have a teenage daughter, I know what it’s like. We can’t have 20 tutors, so study tables are a waste of time because I don’t have resources for tutors. I make them fill out a time management sheet to see how much time they have to get their studies done, spend in the weight room, and enjoy being a college student. They might say they don’t have time to study, but the sheet shows them they do have enough time to study for two or three hours a day. So, we account for the time management and check on grades every three weeks.”
WHAT TO DO WHEN THE SEASON ENDS
Sirianni isn’t afraid to take constructive criticism from players. In fact, he welcomes it.
“I talk to returning players, and let them close the door. I say, ‘Look, it’s me and you. Talk to me about whatever you want to talk about. What do you think we did well? What can we improve on? I’m not going to get mad or yell.’ I get feedback from graduating players, but I really want to know what the returning players think. You can get a lot of knowledge from those kids.”
Would Sirianni listen to a player who suggested a major overhaul in his coaching philosophy?
“I’m not going to listen to a kid in terms of scheme or who should play more. To give you an example, last year we lost a game, and one of my players said I looked different that week. He said I was uptight and nervous, and we lost the game. I think it had something to do with it. A few years ago, we didn’t practice on a Friday because we were on a bus all day. We played really well the next day. The kids said their legs felt fresh on Saturday. Now, we have meetings and film on Friday.”
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