It’s late February and an off-season visit to the Simpkins Stadium Center, abuzz with action, is much like most football programs around the country.
The vibe is a bit different than in-season naturally, but the level of work and effort is about constant in the world of division one college football these days.
On this day, the approach was to not only watch and observe but to spend a good amount of time asking obvious, off-beat and maybe a bit personal questions; all the while trying to be a fly-on-the-wall.
Walking into the lobby, special teams coach Fred Guidicci offers the first welcome of the morning - while director of operations Ben Thienes and 40-year veteran sports information director Lawrence Fan eventually come around to check in.
Throughout, various other staff and players see someone different and proactively offer their greetings. A family atmosphere is clearly present, as expected - a long reflection of head coach Brent Brennan’s personal style and beliefs.
The bulk of time would be with tight-end coach Matt Adkins and Brennan in one-on-one discussions and sitting through an interactive players’ meeting.
Assuming things weren’t all staged for a nosy reporter, it still certainly had the feel of an in-season day. Let’s just say it was pretty authentic, especially hearing the echoes of loud “coaching talk” from one meeting room, laughter and joking from another room, and the constant hustle and bustle of players and staff. Pretty normal stuff, especially for those familiar with football documentaries on Netflix:)
Meeting with TE coach, Matt Adkins
It’s an off-season Monday, describe a typical day.
Basically, it’s all really fluid in the off-season and not so typical actually. Today, I thought I’d come in, ride the bike some and go through some administrative stuff, but I got a call from one of the players needing support and we met at 7 a.m. (Adkins is also a counselor). It can range from unexpected meetings to where an individual player needs help or personal guidance. We have to remember they’re kids and we have to be there for them. For freshmen, it’s probably the most jarring.
Can you compare and contrast to in-season?
In the Fall, we’re very, very regimented. Meetings and schedules are usually set to what we plan to accomplish each week.
This time of year we can watch the previous year’s film all day. We call it “self-scout.” Say we look at 10 run plays; discussing what we should and shouldn’t have called, based on this situation or not having the right player in or this technique is poor and we’re doing a poor job coaching it or it was more effective on these defenses and not these defenses. Everyone in the country does something similar.
We still have to comply with CARA (countable athletic related activities, typically 8 hours per week in the off-season). You only get a certain amount of CARA a week to assure players get some semblance of a healthy lifestyle, though a player can volunteer outside of those meetings. We can’t mandate any time beyond that.
Any weirdness, superstitions or quarks around here?
No, not really. It’s all based on how well or not we’re prepared. I’m not quarky or superstitious at all, BUT when I was younger as a coach’s kid, I had crazy superstitions. Like I was really convinced how well our team was doing was based on where I was standing on the sidelines. No one could talk me out of it then.
We’re a close staff; really comfortable with each other with real relationships having been around the guys for years.
If you hang around more often, I think you’ll say, “these guys are super weird,” because we’re so comfortable with each other as friends. At the same time, it’s a professional environment, of course, and we consider ourselves lucky to have these jobs.
On another front, we can argue with civility. For example, me & QB coach Gunderson had a big disagreement last Fall about a certain philosophy. For 10 minutes we went on. It was very direct and we were both speaking our truths. You need the ability to listen vs. hearing what you want to hear. If someone was listening to us, I think they would say “that was the nicest argument I ever heard.” We got better after that conversation.
How is it really different here at San Jose State?
I pride myself having a good relationship with the players; that they’re enjoying the experience. I’m never trying to be a car salesman. I’m just talking to you, not at you. I believe that’s the way this generation wants you to communicate with them.
As a third generation coach, my dad and my grandfather were very big, masculine men, very direct obviously. It was a different era of norms & communications and I’m very much not like that. Also, the Beyond Football program with Tobruk (Blaine) gets face-time and internships in the Silicon Valley. Coach Brennan himself is a huge selling point. He’s very approachable and genuine. When kids come here, it feels like a family and I think they can see how good it is to be here and how it is for the coaches too. And we all try to have life outside of football; not like many other places.
Being the tight-end coach can be more overlooked, but what are its challenges?
Well, it’s really, really hard to get a tight-end to play his first year. Though most people would say the QB is the most difficult position, tight-end is very tough to play, especially the way we use the tight end. Look - they can line up here, here, here, here and then, we can flip that configuration (Adkins draws up the X’s & O’s showing all the tight-end variations). He has to play as well as the tackle, a wide receiver, slot, etc. It’s extremely challenging to play like Jack (Snyder, offensive line) or Isaiah (Hamilton, wide receiver). Definitely, not easy. The general progression to that point is about a year-and-half from when you walk in the door (for an underclassman). There’s so much muscle memory there to execute the run blocking stuff, for example. Everyone knows how long it can take, but think about 4th & 1 in a packed Autzen Stadium (Oregon Ducks) and that’s a whole other thing. We’re constantly developing & developing.
Heading next into a 10 a.m. players’ meeting, which is voluntary, Adkins really comes alive.
A 20’ x 10’ conference room accommodates a couple dozen players from five different position groups in a game of identifying terminology combinations to predicting coverages and protections.
Other players flow in and out of the room, sometimes joining in the festive game show-like atmosphere with host Adkins pressing and critiquing the contestants’ answers on protections and formations. “Copper, left out, fish, water return,” “Blue, devil, go fish, parrot face.” (these are fake calls for the protection of this writer:).
The players also run through 2019 game film reviewing the nuances and subtleties of various plays; reading and predicting the opposing defensive movements and the reactive options and contingencies.
“No! You’re way off!” shouts one player. “What are the heck are you looking at?” replies another. “He’s giving you the answer right there!” says yet another. The friendly banter goes on and on; all the while a collaborative learning session is taking place.
Close to noon, several of the players continue to talk shop well after the players’ meeting has ended.
Meeting with Brennan to cap off the day:
Describe the off-season pace for you.
You’re not here as late, of course. There’s more big picture stuff, more fundraising, more recruiting, and going out to support the other sports. My wife & kids go with me as much as they can too and I can get out to watch my daughter play CCS soccer.
In the off-season, I’m still an early guy; here anytime between 5 a.m. & 7 a.m., but with Spring practices, I’ll be in before 5:30 every day. Also, in the off-season, it’s not as much X’s & O’s, but more administrative and business stuff.
What off-the-field things pop up in your head at this moment?
One of the biggest ones is clarifying the discrepancies between college & NFL. I hear, “You guys should run some of the stuff the 49ers are running.” You see some of those NFL players call sheets? They have anywhere from 200-300 plays. You can’t get that all taught with the limited time the NCAA mandates on college players.
Also, not as much drama going into year four. Guys in general are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s a lot of time making sure the players are making the right choices and time with strength coaches goes up a lot. The strength coaches role this time of year becomes critical because they spend more time with players than the coaches can.
How or what do you do to keep everyone improving, not just your direct staff?
We go to clinics, speak with other coaching staff, meet with other coach D1 programs, P5 and NFL or like coach Carter’s minority internship with the 49ers. There’s lots of people I can call on too. Sometimes it’s David Shaw, Justin Wilcox, coach Rolo, Chip Kelly, Dino Babers, and for a long time it was Dick Tomey before he passed. I also talk to coach Arroyo (UNLV) every other day and what he’s going through. It’s chaos right now for him.
We also need to keep highlighting our story if we want to get big companies involved and contributing. For the amount of graduates we pump into the valley, they should become more involved in how they spend their donations. There are efforts to build some of those relationships. People think that it’s easy to ask Apple for $1M. It doesn’t work that way.
Off-season, we also want coaches and players to take a little time away from us, but the way college football is right now, it’s very hard to turn off. Like, I can’t imagine turning my phone off for 24 hours, because recruiting or demands of this job. And young people are counting on me to respond.
How do you keep yourself centered in all this?
I exercise almost everyday. I’m a daily mediator and journaler. I found these things necessary long before I was a head coach to handle the natural ups & downs. I run at 5 am & I love it. When I get that done, my day is always better.
Considering from August 1st to February 5th, for the most part, we’re gone 7 days-a-week with some extreme hours. So in the off-season, I try to take walks and hikes with my wife and I ask we all invest time in family and your marriage, as it can take some serious hits in this profession. For me, my wife is my absolute rock.