By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
Tony Annese took over the Ferris State (Mich.) program in 2012 following three years as the head coach at Grand Rapids Community College, which came on the heels of a highly successful 25-season stint at the prep level.
Annese offered his thoughts on coaching high school football in a recent interview with FNF Coaches.
What is your process for evaluating your program during the offseason?
“I would advise high school coaches to establish what they value in their program. My first initiative is to establish a mission statement with core values. Ultimately, high school teachers and coaches understand that their primary purpose is to serve the young people they coach. Our core value and motto is ‘In the FOLD.’ It means being intertwined together in all aspects of the relationship. We want to develop the entire person. FOLD is an acronym for Faith, Order, Love and Discipline.”
How do you ensure that your assistant coaches are spreading the same message?
“We always establish clear and defined expectations for the coaching staff. I want to make sure they know their overall purpose. A lot of times, you lose your sense of purpose because you get challenged by forces outside of the football family. Then it becomes a toxic, negative environment.”
What’s the best way to keep your players engaged in the offseason program?
“As a college coach, I keep telling my staff to make sure they recruit the players that are here. You work really hard to get buy-in from a whole group of players. Sometimes, you get so focused on recruiting players not on campus, you forget the people on campus. We try to spend as much time with them. After they’re gone for a month for winter break, it’s a celebration to see them again. The buy-in ultimately comes from the tight relationship you establish with a young person.
“When I was a high school coach, I would stand outside my door between classes. Any player that came by, I’d shake his hand, hug him, and talk to him. I’d do as much as I could to develop a special relationship. Ultimately, if the player feels you care about him in a deep and authentic way beyond football, he will bring success to the program, classroom and community.”
What advice would you give high school coaches looking to increase participation numbers?
“It comes with the relationship building. Some young people don’t play football for themselves, but they will play for someone who shows great care for them. With dwindling numbers, you have to give them a reason to go. There are forces drawing people away, so it has to be bigger than, ‘This is of value to you, and you can help the team be successful.’ I don’t think kids are built that way. They need validation from a peer group that loves them. They love having a group of teammates that they can call brothers, authentic relationships.”
How do you create competition for players during the offseason?
“When I was coaching in high school, we established a power lifting team. A lot of football players were on the team, and that became an offseason motivator. We didn’t have 7-on-7 or as many camps, and those forces draw people to the game. I had little incentives to bring kids to the weight room. One incentive was making them feel great about being there. It was a family atmosphere. Anything that can bring kids to the weight room and conditioning program is worthwhile. Make it about more than just the game of football. Spend time teaching the principles of leadership, drawing them to a learning environment.”
How do you foster team chemistry?
“Teach young people team dynamics. Go bowling with position groups. I tell my position group coaches to organize one team activity per week. It doesn’t have to be anything special. Watch a football game or have them over for a picnic. All of those things draw kids to the culture.”
What is the best way to balance playing to your players’ strengths vs. implementing your scheme?
“I’ve always played to my players’ strengths. Every year, I get the question, ‘Why did you change your offense?’ Because we play to the strengths of the players. We don’t establish a system based upon what we think is best for us as coaches. We establish it for the players. When we’ve had a quarterback who can sling it around, that’s what we’ll do. If we have a dual threat, that’s what we’ll do.”
Is there a product you’re using this offseason that is helping your team?
“No, a lot of times, everyone is looking for the next big thing. Ultimately it comes down to a bar, plates, weights, dumbbells and a lot of work. We’ve had guys – like Justin Zimmer – go to the NFL Combine and put up the best numbers in 10 years. It’s because of the culture we’ve established and a blue-collar mentality. When you go to the weight room, the expectation is you’ll give 100 percent of what’s in you. The offseason is about identifying weaknesses. You have to work every day to make your weaknesses strengths. That’s what great programs do.”
Teach NCAA Qualification Standards
One thing that breaks Annese’s heart is when a prospective recruit is ineligible to play as a freshman because the player lacks the minimum requirements for NCAA qualification standards. Many times, Annese and the Ferris State staff have to move on from that prospect in search of a player who can help them right away.
“It’s a great financial value to a family when a young person gets a scholarship, and some players miss out on that opportunity because they fail to meet NCAA qualifications,” Annese said. “The coaches, players and parents need to work together to make sure that student-athlete is on the right path to be a full NCAA qualifier.”
Annese suggests a coach meet with each player and his parents prior to the start of his freshman season to review an academic plan. He also feels that high school counselors should be more involved in explaining NCAA qualification standards.
“Everybody has to be in the circle together,” Annese said. “A lot of people still don’t know what the NCAA qualification standards are. That’s tragic when a high school doesn’t make sure a person takes core credits. High school coaches need to know the information and share it with players.”
Do you have a thought about this article that you would like to share? If you do, email managing editor Dan Guttenplan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet us @fnfcoaches.