Inner-City Coach on Setting a Culture: The Standard Is the Standard

By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Editor

Public school coaches may look at the culture set by private school coaches and think it’s impossible to pull off. One public school coach in Memphis, Tenn., has proven that a championship culture can be established anywhere.

Rodney Saulsberry is the head coach of the Whitehaven Tigers in Memphis, Tenn. He led his alma mater to state championships in 2012 and 2016. He recently joined the FNF Coaches podcast to share his thoughts on building a program that an entire community can be proud of.


At Whitehaven, it’s all about GPA — but not necessarily in the way you might think. Yes, academics are a major emphasis for Saulsberry and his staff, but GPA actually serves as an acronym for: Grateful, Positive, Accountable.

“We focus on grades and academics because it helps open doors,” Saulsberry said. “Combine academics with athletics, and no doors will close.”


Saulsberry’s goal is not for every player to get straight A’s since players enter high school with various educational backgrounds. However, he does strive to make sure every player is an academic qualifier by NCAA standards so that they have opportunities to play beyond high school. The NCAA requires a high school GPA of 2.3 at the D1 level and 2.2 at the D2 level.

“We challenge our guys,” Saulsberry said. “You have to want to be an achiever. You can’t be afraid to sit a kid down for not performing in the classroom because there’s a direct correlation to how they perform on the field.”


Saulsberry has found that the best way to connect with high school players is to take an interest in their academic performance. Saulsberry looks at every player’s report card so he’s aware of how they’re performing in the classroom.

“I want to take it personally,” Saulsberry said. “It binds me to that kid. Academic performance shines a light on other issues that may be involved in that kid’s life. I want to find out how to inspire them, because ultimately that’s what matters.”


Whitehaven has a trophy room with accolades dating back to the 1940s and 1950s so that the players can grasp the excellence they are expected to maintain. 

“Although things change, the standard doesn’t,” Saulsberry said. “We say the standard is the standard. That’s what we try to achieve at Whitehaven.”


Two of Saulsberry’s former classmates are youth football coaches in his district. A former and current defensive coordinator from his staff coach the middle school program. As a result, Saulsberry has great relationships with the Whitehaven Junior Youth Association.

“We allow those kids to come to games and wear their jerseys,” Saulsberry said. “They’re ingrained in the system. They’re learning what we’re learning. We teach the right principles at a young age and they continue to grow.”

Daily Affirmations

Saulsberry appointed a culture coach after his squad fell in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Tennessee state playoffs. Last fall, players were required to learn four daily affirmations and they were randomly chosen to recite the affirmations in front of the team. The affirmations included:

  • I’m grateful for the opportunity to play football.
  • I’m aggressive and relentless.
  • I have no fear of losing or making mistakes.
  • I will never give up.

Saulsberry and his staff also created an acronym for the team mascot to create an identity for the Whitehaven Tigers.

T — We are tough.

I — We are intelligent.

G — We are grateful.

E — We are eager to learn.

R — We are relentless.

S — We are strong.

Podcast Alert

Listen to the podcast with Rodney Saulsberry.