No matter the level, college or professional, football practices tend to look alike. Players drive blocking sleds. Receivers and defensive backs talk trash. Coaches yell and curse.
But Cardinals and Sun Devils practices this preseason have a different look and sound. Other than the music played during individual drills, voices aren’t raised that often. Profanity is heard even less.
For the Cardinals especially, it’s a dramatic change from the last five years under Bruce Arians, whose mantra was to coach ’em hard and hug ’em later.
A few years ago, reporters told tight end Troy Niklas that Arians had complimented him in a news conference. Niklas smiled and said that was nice because Arians often confused Niklas’ name with “dumb motherf—-r a lot.”
The style worked as the Cardinals won more games than in any other five-year period in franchise history.
But Cardinals coach Steve Wilks, ASU coach Herm Edwards and their staffs are showing there is another way to teach. Coaches don’t always have to yell and curse in order to correct. Turns out, a player making a mistake doesn’t always do so because his head is up his, well, a place where it’s hard to see daylight.
“I believe in a couple things,” Wilks said. “Number 1, teaching. When you get a bunch of coaches who know how to teach, that’s what we’re looking for.
“And I believe that we’re all men. We’re not trying degrade anybody. That’s not what it’s about. Do we coach them hard? Yeah. Do we sometimes get loud? Yeah. But I put the onus on the coaches to try to get the teaching done in the classroom.”
ASU practices are much quieter today than they were under former coach Todd Graham, several observers have said. In the one I recently attended, players usually were corrected in normal tones of voice.
ASU linebackers coach Antonio Pierce, who played in the NFL for nine seasons and coached Long Beach Poly High School for four, believes today’s young players respond better to a different style of coaching.
“I hate to say it, but you have to worry about kids being a little sensitive,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you earn the respect of an athlete, you can yell and get after him. There’s a certain level of respect you have to have for each other, a certain level of tolerance you have to have for each other.
“I come from an era where you get after kids, but you never embarrass them.”
That’s an important distinction, given the disturbing news recently revealed about the Maryland football program. According to reports, a culture of fear and intimidation existed and played a part in the death of a player last spring due to heat stroke.
Edwards and Wilks are showing there are ways to coach hard without belittling. That doesn’t mean they take it easy on players.
As an NFL assistant, Wilks had a reputation for standing up to big egos. Years ago, one of his go-to moves was to place a pair of white gloves on the desk of a player who had his feelings hurt by criticism.
The message? Don’t be so sensitive.
“What I’ve always prided myself with over the years is really learning your players,” Wilks said. “We’re going to teach everybody the same way; we’re going to coach them differently.
“Some guys can handle that (yelling). Some guys, that’s going to get them going. And another guy, you’ve got to put your arm around.”
Arians was adept at the latter. He was able to curse at a player on the field, then make him understand that it was strictly about football.
“You’re a hell of a guy,” he used to say. “It’s your football that stinks right now.”
A raised voice and critical words have their place. ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins said some players need that style of coaching. Others don’t.
“I always have a ‘coach me, Coach,’ attitude no matter what,” he said. “I think everybody needs to be coached differently.”
The trick, Pierce said, is knowing when to bring the hammer down and when to put it back in the tool chest.
“You’re never the hammer that nails the nail too far down,” he said.
Reach Somers at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kentsomers.