Q&A with Dan Hawkins

Boise State University

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.4, April 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1304/qahawkins.htm

As Head Coach at a school known as much for developing coaching talent as for its blue turf, Dan Hawkins is carving his own niche. In his four years directing the Boise State University football program, he's led the Broncos to a 44-7 record and three Western Athletic Conference championships. Despite losing 12 starters from the 2003 team that went 13-1, Boise State finished the 2004 regular season with a perfect 11-0 record and ranked in the top 10 in both major polls.

The 2004 team continued the school's tradition of potent offense, setting a school record with an average of 49 points per game, second among NCAA Division I-A schools. No one-trick ponies, the Broncos also cracked the top 10 in rushing defense. Boise State was invited to a bowl game for the third straight season, and Hawkins was chosen as a finalist for the 2004 Paul "Bear" Bryant College Football Coach of the Year Award.

Before being promoted to Head Coach in 2000, Hawkins was an Assistant Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator, overseeing the tight ends and special teams. Before coming to Boise State, Hawkins served as Head Coach at Willamette University, an NAIA school; was an offensive and defensive coordinator at the junior college level; and a high school head coach. In this interview, Hawkins talks about his high-powered offense, his approach to the game, and tips for climbing the coaching ladder.

CM: What is your offensive philosophy?

Hawkins: We start with a good, sound, fundamental running game and then build from there. Despite the fact that we're noted for passing and scoring, we've had 1,000-yard rushers in each of the past three seasons. After that, it revolves around trying to get our players in the right positions so they can do the things they excel at. And we're not afraid to try some wild things. We use a lot of shifting, motion, and formations.

How much of the offensive game plan are you involved with, and how much do you leave up to your assistant coaches?

I'm heavily involved with certain phases of the offensive game plan throughout the week, but then on game day, for the most part, Offensive Coordinator Chris Peterson handles the play calling. He does a great job of making sure we're all working together. He'll say, "What are you thinking, Hawk?" or "Do you guys think we should run the ball here?" There are times when he gets into a flow and doesn't need any help, and there are other times when he'll solicit more input. But I don't believe in making somebody the coordinator and then, as head coach, yanking the reins away during critical situations.

Your offense receives a lot of attention, but people may not realize that your run defense was ranked 10th in the country. How do you maintain a balance between these two phases of the game?

It's difficult because I'm very involved with the offense and special teams, so I try to maintain a balance by attending defensive unit and position meetings. I want to know what's going on with the defense, but I leave a lot of the planning up to our Defensive Coordinator, Ron Collins. I'll also watch some tape on the team we're playing so I can get a feel for them, then see what the defensive coaches are thinking.

How important are walk-ons to your program?

We've had an unbelievable history here with walk-ons. I just finished my seventh year at Boise State, and we have put 36 walk-ons on scholarship since I've been here. Last season, seven of our starters were former walk-ons. A number of our former walk-ons are even playing in the NFL.

Our walk-ons know that number one, they'll get an opportunity to play. And number two, if they get the job done, we'll give them a scholarship. I think it makes a difference that most of the coaches on our staff were either walk-ons or non-scholarship players. We know these guys are important. They get the same attention, coaching, discipline, and rewards as everybody else.

What do you tell your athletes about dealing with success?

When you're called the favorite, that's determined by somebody else. And that's something we have to battle extremely hard because we have a whole lot of media attention hovering over our guys.

The opponent should always be you. Our preparation should always be the same, and our mental approach should always be the same. We try to look at it as a continuum. It's not about winning a game or a championship, it's about becoming this vehicle of excellence and trying to understand what that's all about on a daily basis.

What's it like making the jump from coaching at the NAIA level to NCAA Division I-A?

It is different. I know that sometimes people say, "Football is football." Well, it's not. The details, the intensity, and the pace are all very different. There are certain things that every coach knows about football and handling people, and those things transcend across levels. But the pace, schedule, and nuances are dramatically different in Division I versus a smaller college.

How has your experience working at smaller schools helped as you've evolved into a successful Division I coach?

You learn to do it all when you work at those other levels. In going from high school to junior college to NAIA to Division I, I've learned to do everything from taping ankles and washing jerseys, to cutting and lining a field. So when I got to this level, I had an appreciation and knowledge of what everyone in the program is doing. Also, I was used to juggling a lot of balls, because coaching at other levels usually means you have to be a teacher or hold another job at the school. And when you coach at those levels you're not always going to get the better athletes, so you had better be a good teacher and know how to make those guys fundamentally sound.

Plus, by coaching at those levels, I've gained an appreciation for balance as well as a perspective on how this whole thing is supposed to be put together. I certainly understand it is a business at this level, and that you have to win to keep your job, but at the same time, I think I have developed an appreciation for kids going to school and having interests outside of football.

What is your advice for young coaches looking to climb the coaching ladder?

Coaches should be less resume-driven and more relationship-driven. I get a ton of letters from guys, and their standard message is, "I work hard, I'm loyal and dedicated, and I have attention to detail." But I think what a coach needs to realize is that it's important to find the program and coaches that are the right fit for him and his family. I have a saying, "Bigger isn't better, better is better." You need to find what's better for you. If that's a better living situation or family situation, then you make that work. It's not just working with the best football coach, it's also how the situation works for your wife and your kids.

I'm also big on chemistry within a staff. How will you get along with the other coaches? What kind of music do you listen to? What do you laugh at? A lot of those things go into having great chemistry on a coaching staff.

What do you look for when hiring assistant coaches?

It's tough to describe it exactly, but I'm trying to see if they are the right fit. We have a great situation here with our staff in that they are all low-ego, high-output guys. They care about our players both on and off the field. They're dedicated fathers and husbands. They understand the importance of having a balance between football and their personal lives. It's all about having guys who understand each other, coexist well together, and who are able to check their egos at the door.

What do you think separates a good coach and a bad coach?

The difference between average and good is pretty small. The difference between good and great is huge. A lot of coaches will say, "We're close," but it's not about being close.

A certain amount of humility is necessary. We all have egos, but there should be an understanding that you don't know it all and that you should always be willing to learn. The ability to blame yourself instead of blaming your players is also important.

To be a great coach, you genuinely have to care about people-to the degree that you might be willing to lose a game or even forfeit your career if it meant bettering some kid's life. I believe that ultimate leadership is servitude. I know you have to direct and lead, but ultimately you're a servant to your players and your staff. And if you're not willing to do that, I don't think you'll ever develop the kind of chemistry that's necessary to succeed.