Coaching Management, 13.10, December 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1310/qathomas.htm
Most small high schools would be thrilled to have just one player reach the NFL. Yet in Iowa, Aplington-Parkersburg High School enrolls just 280 students and is the alma mater of four current NFL players—Casey Wiegmann of the Kansas City Chiefs, Jared DeVries of the Detroit Lions, Brad Meester of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Aaron Kampman of the Green Bay Packers. All four are linemen who played for Head Coach Ed Thomas.
Thomas entered the 2005 season with a record of 257-80 in 33 years, including two state titles (1993, 2001) and four state runner-up finishes. He began his career in 1972 at Northeast Hamilton High School in Blairsburg, Iowa, and moved to Parkersburg High School in 1975. When Parkersburg’s school system merged with neighboring Aplington’s in 1992, he was named head coach of the joint football program.
Thomas has twice been named Iowa Class 1A Coach of the Year and was a finalist for the 2003 NFL High School Coach of the Year award. In 2004, he was honored as Coach of the Year for Leadership by the Iowa High School Athletic Directors Association. He has been on the Board of Directors of the Iowa Football Coaches Association (IFCA) for 26 years and served as its president in 1991.
In this interview, Thomas talks about his program’s pro football alumni, developing leadership, and what he looks for in assistant coaches.
CM: What is it like to see four of your players reach the NFL?
Thomas: Coming from a small high school in rural Iowa, it’s a great feeling to watch television on Sundays and see our players out there. In a close-knit, small community, everybody knows what’s going on, and it has created a real sense of pride in our school and our football program.
I have one friend in town who has five TV sets in his living room and subscribes to NFL Sunday Ticket, so he can watch all four kids at once. During the football season, there are people over at his house all the time to watch them play.
All four NFL players are linemen—what makes that such a strong position in your program?
I’ve always thought football games start up front, both offensively and defensively, so we place a huge emphasis on line play at our school, and our kids take a lot of pride in that. In fact, I would say that three-quarters of our All-State players have been linemen.
We stress fundamentals from day one to the last game of the year. We run the same drills in the first week of practice as in the last week. We want our kids to get a lot of reps in, so by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’ve gotten pretty good at the various techniques we ask them to use.
When those future pros were in your program, what did you notice that set them apart?
They had athletic ability, of course—those kids were all great multi-sport athletes at our school—but they also had an inner drive and a tremendous work ethic. We’ve had other kids with tremendous work ethics, but those four combined it with a special ability to elevate their game every day. They consistently made themselves better, and even in practice, you could see them progressing to another level.
What do you hope your athletes will take away from playing in your program?
I’ve always said my job is not to prepare our kids to be college athletes. My job is to make football a learning experience, and there are so many things they can learn from being a part of our team that will help them be successful later in life as a father, member of a church, or member of the community. There are so many intangibles we can teach that they can take with them.
How do you instill character and leadership skills in your players?
I don’t have captains anymore—I went to a system of senior leaders. Around the end of February, I go over our senior leadership program with all of the next year’s senior football players and ask if they want to be involved. For seven weeks, I teach a morning leadership class to those who do. They are then responsible for the other players—whether it’s behavior, succeeding in the classroom, or working in the weightroom, they provide leadership for our program. I decided to teach leadership because I think it’s something that isn’t present in kids as often as it used to be. We have to show kids how to be leaders today.
What specific lessons do athletes learn in the leadership class?
I talk about leaders setting an example, the responsibility of being a leader, and the idea of being a servant and a giver. I talk about standing up to do what is right when nobody else will, and letting other players know when they’re doing something wrong. I also explain the importance of being a role model—that leaders have to set the tone for other players to follow. I talk about the respect that they have to gain with other young people. I tell them that everyone might not always like you, but you should act in such a way that they respect you.
You’re a member of the IFCA ethics committee. How do you define ethics as it relates to coaching?
Ethics is doing what’s right. It’s following the rules, and teaching football the way it ought to be played. Ethics is teaching young people about sportsmanship and how to conduct themselves in a first-class fashion regardless of whether they win or lose. I tell our kids that we’re going to go out and play hard, and we want to win as much as anybody. But when the game is over, we’re going to line up, shake hands, and be gentlemen, knowing that we did the very best we could. To me, that’s all part of ethics.
What are some ethical problems you see among coaches today?
I think sportsmanship is definitely one problem area. Young people should know how to conduct themselves on the field, in the community, and at school, and coaches need to set a consistent example. I think there are some programs that win but don’t know how to win in a first-class way. Some schools try to cheat during the off-season, ignoring what is not allowed by the state association to try to get an edge. Usually when people cheat, it’s going to catch up to them. And what kind of message are we sending to our young people if we bend the rules?
Do coaches have a responsibility to act if they see other programs being unethical, or should each coach focus on his own program?
First, you’d better make sure your own house is clean. But I think when you see things not being done ethically, you need to report that. On my football team, if we have kids doing what’s not right, that’s a reflection on our whole program. And if we have coaches doing what’s not right, that reflects on the coaching profession. I also think athletic directors don’t always take the time to go over ethical guidelines with their coaches—especially young coaches coming out of college who might not fully understand the difference between the collegiate and high school levels.
What do you look for in assistant coaches?
I want people who are enthusiastic, positive, and good teachers. To me, coaching is teaching. I want people who care about kids and want to help them be the very best they can, not only as football players but also as young men. I don’t really care how much football knowledge they have—I can teach them what I want them to teach the players, so I want positive role models and great motivators.
Is it a bad thing that athletes are specializing in one sport at a younger age?
Without question it’s a problem in high school athletics today, and it really does a disservice to young people. Parents and AAU people tell kids they’ve got to specialize if they’re going to get scholarships. But it’s not my job as a head coach to turn out scholarship athletes. If they’re good enough, that opportunity will come, but every program in a high school needs the good athletes to play. Maybe basketball is a kid’s first love, and if that’s the case, of course he’s going to spend a little more time in that program, but he can still play football or run track.
I want our football players to be three- or four-sport athletes, and our most successful players have been multi-sport athletes. I think sometimes young coaches can be kind of selfish, wanting the best athletes to themselves. I’ve learned over the years that it’s more important to get the kids into other programs, because competing is more important than anything else.
What do you wish you had known when you started out as a coach?
When I started coaching, I didn’t know anything. I have grown as a coach in the teaching aspect and understanding the importance of having a sequence to what you teach. We have a progression for things, like how we teach our offensive linemen to block, and how our defensive players should play their positions. When I started, I didn’t have a concept of that like I do today.
Another area is learning. I read books to find new ways to inject motivation into our program. If I were just starting out now, I would go look at successful coaches around the state. I would talk to those people and pick their brains about what they’re doing. Of all the things we do here, I don’t think there’s much that’s original. I’ve taken and borrowed from other programs and places. Young coaches should be out there observing and talking to winning coaches and learning why they’re successful.