COACH’S CORNER: Being a head coach – Game Day on Friday

Pete Kempf (Courtesy Photo)

This week is the final part of our four-part series evaluating some of the aspects of becoming and performing the role of a head football coach.

Pete Kempf is elated to co-author this series with former Fremont head coach, East Noble and Angola defensive coordinator Nick Maksimchuk. Nick is currently a social studies educator at Angola High School and serves as self-scout and video analysis consultant for high school programs across the United States.

In Part 4 of “Being a Head Coach,” we take on Fridays!

Intro to Game Night – Nick Maksimchuk

Friday Night Lights is uncommon and something you as a head coach need to take a moment and soak in every chance you get. It is an extraordinary feeling, but your duties start first on Friday morning.

As a head coach, one of the first things you need to do is make sure you have everyone at school. At Fremont, I always liked to have the players check in with me in the morning, but we did run into issues where I was not seeing every athlete.

You may be wondering why I was doing that. The Indiana High School Athletic Association sets out requirements for student-athletes and school attendance, so make sure you know those requirements.

Instead of having players check in with me, I would have a short film session or a team meeting at 7:30 a.m. (NOTE: It is always good to have donuts with you)

You need to take care of so many little things before you even get to kickoff, so have a plan/routine and enjoy the ride!

Intro to Game Night – Pete Kempf

After our last three columns together, we are now on the one evening players, coaches, parents, schools and communities spend months working to celebrate. Some families spend years for these Fridays.

As a head coach, you are the face of that experience. The players live out your beliefs and practices and reflect what you represent as individuals and coaches. Yes, there are factors outside of your role as head coach, but part of your job is to best mitigate those uncontrollables from negatively influencing the locker room.

In Indiana, you are rewarded 10 guaranteed nights for your commitment every season. Those evenings are a ballet of emotions, tradition, technology, planning, delegation and trust of every stakeholder within and around the program.

Nick and I will describe a top-level overview of what that dance. 

Pre Game – Pete Kempf

The final bell rings, the school song comes over the intercom, it is 3:20 p.m.

Today, we are going to focus on a home game. The prep for kickoff started Thursday night, getting all the necessities organized. I was fortunate to have a man on my staff named Steve Jones. By the time I arrived at the locker room around 3:45 p.m. on Friday, Coach Jones would have everything laid out, most of the pregame prep done, and everything organized. He kept a few years on my life and gray hairs away, for sure.

Other coaches would wander in around 4:00 to 4:30 p.m., with each having their own pregame routine and jobs. Coordinators are finishing and laminating their play call sheets, other assistants are prepping all the cameras, sideline replay and call signs, and each coach is ensuring they have their checklists complete.

Coach Jones would have the field fully prepared, balls in the correct places, kicking nets set up, “get back” sideline cones in place, play call boards, tables, water jugs, etc. I can’t recount everything he did on those game days. 

Players were not allowed to leave school on home games, pending an emergency. Starting at 4:15 p.m., we would meet for a team meal in the cafeteria. We provided meals for the players both on Wednesdays and Fridays. Players would break down into position groups and coaches would discuss final game prep. The time gap between bell and meal, the players would prep pads and follow their routines.

After the team meal, our players would break into the locker room, finish pad prep, then report to the “darkroom.” The darkroom is a long-standing tradition at DeKalb. Upon arriving back into the locker room, it would be time to get the pads on and get ready. 

At the start of pregame, specialists (long snappers, kickers, punters, returners) would walk, followed by skills, followed by the lineman. A standard pregame would be an abbreviated practice, starting with a team active warm-up and then breaking into the offense, then the defense. Each segment is broken down into its specific periods. Dynamic warm-up would take 11-12 minutes – three minutes at each position group with a built-in transition period.

When moving from individual positions to team, it should be time for the coin flip. The refs have also checked the game balls just prior. The team session would allow both sides of the ball to run a certain number of plays.

Upon completion, we would execute extra points and field goals, then break it to the locker room. There would be 13-15 minutes on the clock when re-entering the locker room. 

We would have either differed or taken the ball on the coin flip based on the game plan. If you lose the coin flip and the opponent differs to the second half, make sure you take the ball. A time or two happened where a captain would elect to kick in the first half. This poor decision allows the opponent to receive the ball, opening the game and then electing to receive in the second half. Real football isn’t Madden. Considerations during the coin flip, other than possession, include several factors: do you want the wind, the scoreboard, away from car headlights? If the field is grass, you need to consider turf conditions along with a litany of other smaller factors.

As coaches, we will come together, address any last-minute issues, adjustments, or concerns. Based on the pregame speech and other events like Homecoming, Senior Night or youth league night, the pregame speech will begin with 5-7 minutes left on the clock before kickoff. The goal is to be walking to the field with 3:30 left.

With the pregame speech delivered, it is time for kickoff!

Nick Maksimchuk (Courtesy Photo)

Game Time – Nick Maksimchuk

As a player, you got those butterflies in your stomach right up until the ball is kicked; the good news is those feelings will still be with you when you are a head coach.

Before those butterflies go away, make sure you have designated who the ball boys are to the ref, who is keeping the players back out of the coaches box, who is going to keep you back (sometimes those refs will give you a friendly reminder to get back) and is the video staff ready. Those small administrative details never stop; it seems we complicate things more and more every year. 

Now that the game is underway, we can look at some in-game situations that may arise and talk about calling plays or having coordinators calling plays. 

My last few years as a head coach at Fremont were some of the best in-game coaching I have ever done in my life. The reason for feeling that way was because I did not call any plays. I had a great coach (Chris Snyder) calling defense since Day 1 that I trusted fully, and then I had a coach (Kagan Gentry) on the offensive side of the ball that I trusted fully. These two allowed me to actually coach the kids between plays instead of worrying about getting the next play call in.

It took me a while to get used to not calling plays, but I truly felt that I could manage the game better and best be able to coach the athletes on both sides of the ball. Depending on your situation, you may feel like you need to call either defense or offense, and that is perfectly fine. I’ve done that, but with this article, I will give you the perspective of not calling the plays.

Managing the game can be very stressful, as you are wondering when is the right time to go for two or go for it on 4th and short. On my call sheet, I always liked to have the two-point conversion chart that helped me see if we needed to kick the extra point or go for 2. Even when I was a coordinator, I still put the conversion chart on my call sheet. Sometimes as a coach, you may want to throw in a fake, and now that I am not calling plays, I felt I could better understand when it was time to try a fake or go for two. 

As we know, clock management from watching some NFL and college games this year is critical.

A vivid memory of clock management happened once for me in a crucial game when I was at Fremont. We were playing Angola and were up 14-8 with under two minutes to go. We were facing a third down from inside the 10-yard line. We ended up picking up the first down, and were then just one yard away from scoring. There was just over one minute left and we decided to take a knee. I could hear the parents yelling to punch it in to go up two scores, but I did not want to give the ball back to Angola and give Austin Bauer the chance to touch the ball again, because the Hornets could score quick and get an onside kick and score again. Yes, highly unlikely, but there was a chance.

So doing the quick math and knowing we only needed to take two knees to win the game, we lined up in victory formation and ended the game, never giving the ball back to Angola.

Make sure you take advice from your assistant coaches during these situations, as they may be able to focus on the clock and even timeouts remaining better as you may be calling plays. I always enjoyed knowing when the game clock was under six minutes and then under two minutes for each quarter. 

As a head coach, you may develop an excellent game plan with your coordinators throughout the week, and then come game time, your opponents may be giving you a new look on both sides of the ball. This is where staff communication is vital. Having a coach in the booth to help you see the entire field will help you make those in-game adjustments.

However, don’t abandon what you worked on throughout the week. Use this time to talk about blocking assignments or attack the new looks the opponent is giving you. At the half, make sure you have a checklist to go over what is working and what isn’t, and then communicate with your athletes what your plan of attack is for the second half. Keep your call sheets from year to year, even if you write all over them, so you can be prepared again for next year when you face the same opponent.

During the game, you may run into some issues that you will need to think about. How will you react to a turnover, personal fouls and parents?

As a coach, the most annoying thing was dealing with “fence dads.” A group of them will like to voice their opinion on everything, but they will also try to coach their son from the stands. Make it clear at your parents’ meeting the expectations for athletes and parents like. Talk to your athletic director about a 24-hour rule if one is not in place already. The parents can make you lose focus during the game, so if an issue occurs, take care of it when the time is right.

We are dealing with high school students, and there will be mistakes such as turnovers and personal fouls. I always liked to wait and review the film (eye in the sky) to determine the extra conditioning for a player committing a personal foul, but have subs ready to get the player out when this occurs to prevent future similar penalties. As a young coach, I freaked out over these penalties, but as seasons went by, I focused on the next play call. 

Once the game is over, remember you have quite a bit of tasks to cover, from film upload to opponent scout to getting your JV/freshman ready for their upcoming games. Don’t forget you need to review the film with your varsity to get better for next week’s opponents. 

Conclusion – Nick Maksimchuk

It seems like a headache to deal with all of these situations/administrative tasks, but this is why we became a head coach, to teach these young men about football and life.

I will leave you with the biggest advice: Do NOT be afraid to reach out for help! If you are unsure about something, ASK! Don’t feel like you have all the answers because you won’t. So again, reach out for HELP when needed.

If ya’ ever want to talk ball or would like me to self-scout your team, hit me up! I am always here to help. I hope you enjoyed the article and will see you all again soon!

Conclusion – Pete Kempf

Being a head coach, coordinator, assistant or even equipment manager requires a level of organization and execution. You cannot do it all alone. Leadership is a lonely place. By investing in your vision, you need people willing to follow and support you and advocate for the mission you present.

Friday nights are wonderfully orchestrated chaos. The three-hour show comprises hundreds of hours of combined planning, organization, and diligently executed infinitesimal details.

This series discussed significant level high topics of being a head coach, and as so many coaches know, until you experience what it means to be one, there are no words that can fully prepare you. 

Hopefully, you found this series enjoyable and a tad bit enlightening. Coach Maksimchuk does a fantastic job working with so many coaches across the country, and I have been so fortunate to work with several coaches across the region this year. This article has been a big part of that.

The late Hall of Fame coach Ron Kock always stated, “Good things happen to good people.” I choose to believe there cannot be a more real statement said by a mortal man. So as you fight whatever battles your program faces right now, there is a light on the other side. Keep fighting for that light for the people who need it most, your players. 

Please reach out if you have any questions or if you just want to talk about football with either of us! We hope to continue to bring content together to the masses down the road. Continued best of luck in the playoffs and carry on. 

Yours in the Pursuit of Excellence, 

Pete Kempf and Nick Maksimchuk 

Coach Kempf’s Twitter: @PeteKempfVI or e-mail:

Coach Maksimchuck’s Twitter: @NMaksimchuk or e-mail:

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