Former National High School Coach of the Year Gives Tips on Establishing Culture

Cincinnati St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht has been the coach of St. Xavier for 17 seasons, leading the team to three state championships. He is the 2012 recipient of the NFL’s Don Shula National High School Coach of the Year Award.

Coach Specht recently published a book: 4th and Redemption — Faith, Football and the Journey Down the “Long Blue Line”.

The book shares the story of the 2016 season when Specht’s squad, decimated by injury and a 5-5 start to the season, went on to win a state championship. Specht recently joined the FNF Coaches Podcast to talk about a chapter dedicated to culture-building.

The two coaches that you mention as examples of culture-builders in the book are Bill Belichick and John Wooden. How have they impacted your coaching philosophy?

“Those are guys I’ve studied over my career. They call it ‘The Process’. I call it adhering to the mission. You follow that mission and don’t make exceptions. When guys start making exceptions, they no longer have a positive culture.”

You write about setting a high standard for your players. What is the standard for St. Xavier football?

“The football standards are indigenous; they flow from the school mission. We have a mission statement at St. Xavier that I’ve adopted with the football program. We want these kids to develop their faith, their leadership and their character. They’re here to be men for others. We want them to understand the reason they’re placed on Earth is to make a personal sacrifice for a cause bigger than themselves. It’s called leading a purposeful life. That’s what we focus on — leading a purposeful life that centers on being men for others.”

How do you monitor the players to make sure they’re leading that type of life?

“At the beginning of every year, I meet with the senior class, the captains, in particular. I make sure they understand. ‘Look, I was asked to be a steward for the program. So. it’s my program, but it’s not my team. It’s YOUR team. You need to police it. If you police it, we’ll have a pretty good team and a pretty good season. If you don’t and it becomes my team because I police it, we’re not going to be very good. It’s a culture of these kids holding each other accountable. I don’t like rules; I like a mission. If you hold each other accountable for the mission, we’ll be fine. But if I have to come in and start levying discipline because guys aren’t adhering to the mission, that’s when it falls apart.

“The key for us is to continue to build the mission within the kids, let them take ownership so they have faith in the system, develop their leadership, and hold each other accountable. That’s when great things happen, in my opinion.”

Why is it so important for a coach to demonstrate accountability after a negative outcome?

“It all starts with trust. If you’re accountable to teammates and the coaching staff, they have to trust you. You have to build that trust. You don’t build trust by pointing fingers and laying blame. That causes more dissension. We preach that we all have permission to fail. Sometimes in this world, kids are so afraid of failure, it inhibits growth as people and athletes. We remind them: ‘You have every right to fail. You’re human. You’ll fail more than you’ll succeed. But you have permission to get back up.’ You’re going to support them even when they do fail. Then they’ll see growth and develop at the high school level. At the end of every game, regardless of outcome, it’s important to deflect praise to the kids and take ownership of our own failures as coaches. If we don’t succeed, that’s my fault. I’m the steward of the program. I captain the ship. When we lose, I deflect all blame from the kids. I say, ‘I failed you.’ They say, ‘You have permission to fail.’ It’s important to take ownership of that and admit fault. They see your transparency. They know that if I get on you, it’s because I love you. I’m going to coach you hard, but I’m going to support you and have your back regardless of what happens.”

You call St. Xavier alumni ‘The Long Blue Line’, and you preach that if any member of ‘The Long Blue Line’ returns to a football practice, it should look right. What is it supposed to look like?

“We have one rule: It better look right. We harp on: Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Show me. If a member of ‘The Long Blue Line’ comes back to practice, walks into a class or the weight room, what should it look like? If you come back in 15 years, you’re going to want to make sure it looks right. The culture was established a long, long time ago. It’s our responsibility as alumni to hold them to the standard of what we talk about.”

So, how should it look?

“If I walk in a classroom, what I look for is — unless the teacher seats them alphabetically — if they pick a seat, it better be in front. Don’t walk in the back. I want them engaged, raising their hands and asking questions. Some kids are introverted. Well, I better see you paying attention. If I saw a player sitting in the back on his phone, texting his girlfriend, that’s a major problem. I won’t yell at the kid. I’ll address it with the team and name the kid. But I’ll ask the kids in the class with him why they didn’t address it. You know what it’s supposed to look like. We have to police ourselves. They have to take a step beyond and do the hard thing. There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.

“In the weight room, we look for incredible effort. We want to see them spotting for each other and supporting each other. We want to see great emotion and great effort.

“It’s the same thing on the practice field. We say that we walk to class, but we jog on the field. We want to see great effort regardless of their role. If it’s a scout team linemen, I want him to try to be the best scout team lineman he can be.”

Check out the full episode below.

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