By Michael Bradley
Michael Bradley is a freelance writer based near Philadelphia. He is a frequent contributor to Coaching Management.
Coaching Management, 12.4, April 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1204/readyformore.htm
After watching its players score just 10 points in 30 minutes at Boston College, the University of Pittsburgh coaching staff had plenty to talk about. Although the Panthers possessed one of the nation's most efficient passing attacks, the host Eagles had done a good job keeping Pittsburgh at bay.
Moreover, they had kept star receiver Larry Fitzgerald out of the end zone, no easy feat. Fitzgerald entered the game having caught at least one touchdown pass in 13 consecutive games and was hoping to set an NCAA record by extending the streak to 14 games. The Eagles were just as intent on keeping Fitzgerald-and his teammates-out of the end zone.
At halftime, as the Panthers coaches went over what had worked and what hadn't, Offensive Coordinator J.D. Brookhart made his pitch. From his perch in the coaches' booth, he noticed that whenever Pittsburgh ran a sweep play, the Eagles' safeties charged to the line, hoping to provide as much run support as possible. Brookhart had an idea. Why not try the halfback pass?
Head Coach Walt Harris agreed with Brookhart's suggestion. Next came finding the right time for the play since Brookhart didn't want to call it too soon. He waited until the fourth quarter, after the Panthers had taken a 17-13 lead, and had a chance to put the game away.
On first-and-10 at the BC 35-yard-line, halfback Jawan Walker started around the end for what appeared to be a typical first-down run. Sure enough, the safeties came up, leaving Fitzgerald all alone behind them. Walker stopped and threw a strike to Fitzgerald, who caught the ball and literally walked into the end zone with 8:13 remaining for the final points of the game. Fitzgerald had the record, and Pitt had the win.
Following the Panthers' eight-win season, Brookhart accepted the head coaching position at the University of Akron. He joins the Zips as someone who understands the value of having a solid, well-constructed halftime philosophy. Coaches have a limited amount of time to make adjustments that had been planned as early as the first quarter, check the status of injured players, and perhaps apply a motivational foot to the players' collective posterior. That's why each coach needs to have a good plan for the 15 (or 12 or 20) minutes between the first and second halves.
"I think having an organized plan at the half can make a big difference," says Billy Kramer, Head Coach at Naples (Fla.) High School. "There are so many things you can't control in this game. Halftime is one thing you can."
"A lot of what you do at halftime depends on the game itself," says Virginia Tech Head Coach Frank Beamer. "If you need to make adjustments, you can certainly do some things that will affect the second half. Sometimes, things are going well enough that you just tell the players to give you more of the same. But I think it's important to have a set way of getting things done, so that you can look ahead to what you're going to do in the second half."
One of the first things Kramer does upon arriving at an opposing team's stadium is to check out the distance from the field to the visitors' locker room-twice. Kramer will walk from the Naples bench to the dressing room two times, just to be completely sure he knows how long it will take his team to cover the ground at halftime. That way, he can tailor his intermission schedule to the last second.
"The only way to be sure is to walk to and from the locker room," Kramer says. "If it's a long walk, I'll alert the officials, and usually they won't start the halftime clock until we get to the locker room."
Kramer's pre-game ritual may seem a little over the top to some, but it works for him. "I don't want any surprises," he says. "It's all about preparation and execution."
Although other coaches may not devote that much energy to determining the distance to the locker room, many are aware that certain steps need to be taken before the game, in order to make halftime move smoothly and yield the desired results. Typically, very little prep work is needed for home games. Coaches generally have a full plan in place that doesn't vary from week to week. Everyone knows where the players will meet, where the athletic trainers can work, and where the coaches will address the team. How couldn't they? It's their home. Everything they need is right there in the same place each game.
On the road, it's a different story. That's why Michigan State Head Coach John L. Smith prefers to travel a full day ahead, the better to allow his staff to anticipate any needs the team might have.
"We want to map everything out," says Smith, who in 2003 brought the Spartans from below .500 to a bowl game in his first year leading the team. "We'll decide that the offense will meet here, and the defense will meet there. We'll see if we need a board to write on. Then, our equipment people will know what to do.
"You have to make sure the situation is workable," he continues. "Sometimes, we'll meet in the showers, with a chalkboard, just because that's the largest area available to us."
In the Division I-A ranks, visiting teams can count on a fairly sizeable locker facility-even if the shower area is the largest part of it. They're indoors, with plenty of access to most everything they'll need. In other situations, particularly at the high school level, a little more improvisation is necessary.
Some teams will meet outside, because the locker rooms are too far away or too small. While the great outdoors allow for plenty of room to spread out, there are some drawbacks. Doug Ramsey, Head Coach at Elder High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, has even bivouacked hard by the stands, though that meant opposing fans were able to hear the halftime instructions he and his staff gave to the players.
With the site properly scouted, the equipment staff and student managers can take the time to set it up properly before the game starts. Similarly, making the adjustments necessary to keep winning or turn things around also begins well before the players head into the locker room.
At Michigan State, Smith directs his assistants to spend the first two quarters paying close attention to how well the Spartans game plan is shaping up. That gives graduate assistant coaches or position instructors a chance to leave the coaching booth a little early to head to the locker room. Their job is to put information on the offensive and defensive boards that coordinators can impart directly and swiftly to the players. That way, no time is wasted writing on the boards while the players are in the locker room. Of course, some other items might be added after the coaches meet, but the main message is available immediately.
With few exceptions, coaching staffs spend some time meeting upon entering the locker room. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows all voices and opinions to be heard, so that a complete message can be given to the players. Second, it allows the team members to begin hydration and also be evaluated-if necessary-by athletic trainers and physicians.
As important as mid-stream adjustments are, so too is it vital that head coaches know who will be available to play in the second half and what substitutions must be made. "If there's a problem, I want to get a report from the doctor as soon as I walk into the locker room," says University of Delaware Head Coach K.C. Keeler.
Coaches can sometimes get so wrapped up in making adjustments that they forget the importance of giving the players a chance to recuperate after two quarters of action. Having refreshed and re-hydrated players is often as important, or even more important, than making the right switch in strategy, even if that means a player may miss the halftime sessions. "Sometimes, if a player is receiving fluids and getting hydrated, we may even give him the halftime adjustments on the way out to the field or even on the field," Smith says.
Coaches' meetings are the heart of halftime, because they give the staff its only opportunity to exchange ideas and evaluate the game plan's success up to that point. Although head coaches speak to their coordinators during the game, they rarely have the time to discuss anything in depth. The few minutes (usually no more than five) at halftime allow for a quick assessment and then a few solutions.
The emphasis should be on problem solving, finding adjustments that can be implemented in minutes rather than undertaking a complete overhaul of the offense or defense. While coaches may feel tempted to make a 180-degree shift following a woeful first half, teams rarely abandon a game plan completely after halftime. First, it's hard to make such a quick switch. Second, it renders a week of practice meaningless.
"When I was at Pittsburgh, Walt would get together with the coaches and ask what we wanted to run in the second half," Brookhart says. "He'd ask, 'What's working in the running game and in the passing game? What plays did you save for the second half?' We'd shorten the game plan and then take it to the players.
"The defense does the same thing," he continues. "They look at what formations they're having trouble with and make adjustments accordingly."
The adjustments can address just about anything. Offensive coaches may talk about protection schemes or third-down efficiency, anything that they may have had problems with in the first half. But there can also be some preparation for a counterattack. Delaware's Keeler recalls a playoff game when he threw a formation into the second-half plan that the Blue Hens hadn't used all year, since the opponent would have not seen it and would have no time to adjust to it.
The few minutes that position coaches spend with their charges are vital. Not only can they relay any changes or points of emphasis, but they can also get feedback from the players about what they think is working. Keeler says that he'll often talk to his quarterback at halftime, the better to get a battlefield view of what's going on. "I'll ask him what he is seeing out there and what plays he likes or dislikes against a particular defense," he says.
There are rare occasions when minor adjustments and fixes won't be enough. If the feedback is all bad and it's obvious that the game plan needs scrapping, major surgery may be necessary. Now, a team that is used to throwing the ball 40 times a game isn't going to install the wishbone, but it's possible that the collection of plays selected for the game aren't working, so another set can be chosen.
"We've all been in situations, particularly when we've played against a team that is a considerable favorite, when everything we've practiced all week is not going according to plan," says University of Pennsylvania Head Coach Al Bagnoli. "Then you have to make major changes. Every head coach has done that."
What To Say?
Even the most brilliant adjustments are worthless unless they're properly communicated to the players. It often falls to the position coaches to explain exactly what adjustments his players will need to make in the second half. Then the head coach will often follow by taking a minute or two to tie it all together.
In movies, this is where the "Knute Rockne" speech takes place. Rarely does that happen in real life. Few halftime speeches are scripted. They are a direct result of what has happened in the first half. Yes, there will be occasional blackboard-punchings or raised voices, but most coaches agree that the final message to a team before the second half should be a positive one that is consistent with the tone set all week during practice.
Through their words and actions, coaches can set the tone as the second half is ready to begin. At Wheaton (Ill.) College, Head Coach Mike Swider and his staff come up with a theme for each game. If the squad has been hurt by injuries, it might be "Rally the Troops." After a loss, the motto might be "Bounce Back." Those messages are pounded into the players' heads at every practice and meeting for a week. So when Swider steps up to talk at halftime, he wants to bring it all back on point.
"When I go into the locker room at halftime, my purpose is two-fold," he says. "I want to stay with the emotional plan we have devised, and I don't want to present panic. At the same time, if the kids have not responded to the theme, then I use that time to get them back."
Swider is right when he says that creating panic is the worst thing a coach can do. If he and his staff have just spent 10 minutes assessing problems and making adjustments, he doesn't want to ruin things by sapping players' confidence. There are still two quarters of football left, and it's important for the players to perform properly.
Keeler takes a similar approach with the Blue Hens. "I'm trying to get the players to head in the right direction in the second half," he says. "If we're ahead, I might tell them 'There's blood in the water. Don't let the other team breathe.' If we're pressing, I tell them to relax. I try to counteract what ever is going on and tell them, 'Here's what we're trying to do and how we're going to do it.'"
While head coaches usually save their speeches until just before the halftime break ends, sometimes it's necessary to speak up right away. This is most often done when a team is not playing well. The thinking is that if the players didn't perform well in the first two quarters, it's better to address that right away as the halftime break begins. This can better change mindsets and encourage the players to concentrate on the messages the coaching staff will be providing. "If I'm going to give them a browbeating, it's usually to address something like turnovers or poor tackling," Smith says.
Most every coach has read his team the riot act at halftime, even the soft-spoken types, although some have had more success with that approach than others. Ramsey remembers a game against northeast Ohio power Warren Harding High School, then ranked number one in the state. Harding was winning at the half, and Ramsey was angry. Veering from his usual halftime routine, he decided to kick a Gatorade cooler to prove his point. Bad idea. He thought the bucket was empty. Instead, it was full.
Those kinds of eruptions are rare and can have a negative effect beyond a second-half limp; they can also waste precious minutes. "Anybody who has coached for a while has done some kind of theatrics at halftime," Bagnoli says. "It's always done for effect."
Sometimes, a lighter touch is more effective. When Delaware was trailing Maine by 21 points during a 2003 game, Keeler could have stormed into the locker room ready to shed blood. Instead, he reminded his team-which would eventually win the NCAA Division I-AA national championship-that it had the ability and potential to win the game. The vote of confidence worked. Delaware stormed back to force a tie in regulation and eventually won the game 24-21 with an overtime field goal.
"Ripping them at that time wouldn't have been good," Keeler says. "I just told them they would get back on track if they showed poise and made the right effort. It was just an instinctive feeling I had of what was right to do."