Illinois champion coach on building a winning culture during the coronavirus outbreak

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Editor

The emphasis of the Peoria High (Ill.) football program’s spring season is culture building.

That approach has worked for head coach Tim Thornton since his hire in 2010. Taking over a struggling program in a low-income area, he leaned into building relationships and establishing a family feel for his players.

Since his hire, he has led the team to a record of 72-35 and one Class 5A championship in 2016.

Thornton’s annual spring goal of building a winning culture has a higher degree of difficulty in 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak and stay-at-home orders. He joined FNF Coaches to discuss the ways in which he is still trying to emphasize building a winning culture.

We’re all missing the face-to-face element of coaching. How are you working with your team during the COVID-19 outbreak?

“It’s a huge deal for us. We attribute a lot of our success to the time we put into building relationships and culture with the kids. We’re a city school — 92 percent of our students qualify for free lunch. Economically, it’s a tough spot for most kids. Most of our staff either grew up in the area or went to schools nearby. Our kids’ biggest challenges are off the field. The emphasis we put on our relationships is what gives us the edge. That face-to-face contact is huge.

“We went about four days after this first started without being in school. We have kids we talk to on a day-to-day basis and check in on what’s happening at home. We had a staff meeting and decided we have to find a way to make those connections. We started with Zoom and had a staff meeting. Then we delegated responsibilities for kids that need extra attention. We have a couple of guys who are homeless and bounce from place to place. We need to make sure they’re eating. It can get tough.”

Have you set up a weekly schedule?

“We did that the next week. We have a staff meeting every week, and then we meet as an offense and defense after that. We have a full team meeting on Zoom every Sunday. So far, none of it has been about football install. It’s, ‘How’s everybody doing?’ It’s about face-to-face contact. Let’s talk about the culture stuff. We talk about e+R=o. ‘e’ is event. The whole nation and world has been faced with a tough event. ‘R’ is the response. Our response has never been more important. The ‘o’ is the outcome. The emphasis is on the ‘R’ and that’s why that’s a capital letter. You can’t control the ‘e’ or the ‘o’. You control the ‘R’ every time. You put forth your best ‘R’ to influence the outcome.”

Maybe the best way for coaches to establish a team culture this spring is to make sure their players feel supported during this crisis?

“Our district does a tremendous job with that too. They serve thousands of meals; I’m not sure how many they’ve served so far, but it’s over five digits. As coaches, we touch base and make sure they’re taking advantage of those services if they need them. Our district allows them to apply for technology — like streaming tablets — if they need it. Some coaches are on the delivery team, and we make sure our guys get what they need. The cool thing about the Zoom call is most can do it on their cell phones. At least 95 percent of our players have access to a cell — even if it’s not theirs. So far, we’ve been able to touch base with everybody. If we get the majority to check in on the weekly Zoom call, we’ll follow up with whoever was missing. Most times, a phone broke or something came up. We’re touching base to make sure they’re OK. We don’t want our guys doing things together. But we also worry about what’s happening with the guys who go through this experience stuck at home all the time.”

So, you’re emphasizing mental health much more than strength and conditioning training?

“We’ve done a little bit of both. We’ve got a strength and conditioning coach that’s new with us. I asked him to put together something to give your guys. We tweet it out and put it on Facebook. Four days a week, they workout. He’ll do a rep of everything so they can see it. So, it’s not like we ask them to do a Romanian deadlift, and then we get 15 calls asking what it is. We encourage kids to share videos of them working out. It adds a little accountability. They can be sprinting down the street by themselves. We’ve see guys wearing masks running routes at the field.

“The plan is to get into more football curriculum. We’re doing install stuff and getting our minds back into it. Most are begging for that stuff anyway. Just like coaches, it’s what they enjoy. I think our assistants are doing a great job of playing Madden with our guys and communicating while they’re playing. That’s keeping relationships alive and letting the kids know they have someone to lean on. From a mental health perspective, we have guys that need a little extra and might not have somebody at home to talk to about how they’re feeling. When we’re playing games and online chatting, we’re able to give them some of that.”