Professional football coaches often follow a natural progression. They start as a position coach, move into a coordinator’s role, then become a head coach.
Each step brings added responsibilities and more challenges. Most believe the experience and confidence they gain on the journey prepares them for when they are hired for their first head coaching job.
Instead, reality can bare its teeth.
“You dream of being a head coach, and you want to have those shoes, but you really don’t know what you’re getting into until you get into it,” said Ottawa REDBLACKS defensive coordinator Mike Benevides, who spent three seasons as the BC Lions head coach.
“It’s like being a parent. People tell you about it, you think you’re ready, but you’re really not ready. It’s not exactly what you thought. It’s a new challenge.”
Current Lions’ head coach Rick Campbell said managing people, whether it’s players or other coaches, is a big part of the job.
“The more people that you are in charge of managing, the more things have to be balanced from responsibilities to people’s emotions,” said Campbell, who was an assistant coach in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary before landing his first head coaching job in Ottawa. “You want to just make it so that everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
Ottawa, BC, Edmonton and Toronto all began 2020 with new head coaches. The Argonauts’ Ryan Dinwiddie is the only one coming into the job with no previous head coaching experience.
Before being hired by Toronto, Dinwiddie worked as Montreal’s offensive quality control coach and in Calgary, as quarterback’s’ coach. With the Stampeders he played a role in Bo Levi Mitchell winning two Most Outstanding Player awards.
Benevides said moving to a new organization has its advantages for a first-time head coach.
“If you go to a new place, there’s no baggage, there’s no expectations,” he said. “You have a clean slate when you go to a different place. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Campbell said a new head coach must learn to give his coordinators space to do their job, but also know when to step in with advice or suggestions.
“I think the skill set of the head coach would be to know what’s going on without micromanaging people,” he said.
“It’s hard to have success if you’re a control freak and want to control everybody all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. But there’s a balance where you can make sure people are heading in the right direction, then let them use their skill set and handle the details.”
Benevides began his coaching career in Calgary under Wally Buono. He followed Buono to BC in 2003 as linebacker and special teams coach, then eventually was promoted to defensive coordinator before being named head coach in 2012.
A promotion may change a coach’s responsibilities but shouldn’t change their personality. Benevides said this is especially true for someone climbing the ladder in the same organization.
“It’s a very delectate thing,” he said. “They (players, other coaches) know who you are. You’ve been successful being who you are. So, don’t change who you are.”
Even in a loss, assistants and coordinators can take private pride in how their specific unit performed. A head coach doesn’t have that luxury.
“As a head coach, responsibly ends with you,” said Benevides.
A head coach is the face of the franchise. Their actions – whether it’s decisions made during a game or how individuals are treated in practice – are watched and judged by players, the rest of the coaching staff, fans, media and management.
“Everybody is looking at you and you better make sure that the process that you put in place, and what you believe in, you’re sticking to,” said Benevides. “Even in the heat of battle or on a bad day, you don’t make a mistake because you can’t change it.
“I’ve always told people, as a football coach, you’re always on. As a head coach, it’s even more so. It’s like having 40 cameras on you all day, every day. Every minute reaction, your phrasing, your wording, your body language is saying something. You’ve got to make sure you do what you believe in.”
During a game, a head coach has to be thinking three or four plays ahead. An offensive coordinator may be making the play calls, but it’s the coach’s decision when to fake a punt or ignore a stadium of fans demanding you gamble on a third-down play.
“You have to have answers coming out quickly,” said Campbell. “Other people need to rely on the head coach to make those decisions, otherwise it could be confusing in the heat of battle. You have to be comfortable with what you know. You have to have enough conviction in the moment to stick to your guns.”
A new head coach also quickly learns about the demands on their time. There are media requests, getting doctor reports, and dealing with players’ personal issues.
“I think that’s one of the biggest challenges,” said Benevides. “You don’t know everything going on behind the scenes as a (position) coach or a coordinator.”
Considering all the demands and pressures, not everyone is designed to be a head coach.
“There’s definitely been guys that have become head coaches and then wanted to go back to being a coordinator or position coach because they just want to focus on the schemes and the game part of it,” said Campbell.
“And I think there’s nothing wrong with that.”
While it’s important to build a coaching staff that respects each other and can work together, that doesn’t mean everyone has to be best friends.
“I have worked with some excellent coaches that I’ve had the upmost respect for,” said Campbell. “But are we going to hang out and drink beers? No.
“Hire the best people for the job, not your best friends.”
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