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Teaching Core Values

In 1978, 26-year-old Kevin Donley was the youngest head coach in college football when he took the reins at Anderson College. Thirty-eight years later, he has become the winningest active coach in the nation, while leading the University of Saint Francis (Ind.) to its first national title, a 38-17 victory over Baker University in the 2016 NAIA championship game.

Behind all the victories is a coach focused on teaching young people values and life lessons. In the following interview, he explains how he motivates players, develops team leaders, and handles outside criticism.

What is your coaching philosophy?

My coaching philosophy is to create a growing experience on the field that transfers to life. We want to help players learn to deal with highs and lows, successes and setbacks. We use the lows as an opportunity to bounce back and get stronger. Of course, we want to win, but coaching is more about teaching a value system. Life and football are similar. Every snap has a different result, so you have to prepare them for those peaks and valleys.

The code we ask them to follow focuses on respect, integrity, and passion. We help them build respect for self, each other, and the opposition. Having integrity includes trusting each other and me. And they need to have a passion for the game because we ask them to work hard every day.

How do you maximize players’ potential?

We have team leaders who demand accountability and stress using every day to develop to your full potential. But potential can be an overused word that loses its meaning. So I describe it as a bucket. We ask them: What did you put in your bucket today? Did you fill your bucket?

And we only accept 100-percent effort in everything our athletes do. This includes in the weightroom, on the field, and in the classroom. It starts with a positive attitude and positive body language, because the way that you carry yourself affects your teammates. You have to think in a championship manner and carry yourself as a champion.

Then we work on developing mental toughness by using adversity as opportunity for growth. Being mentally tough means not allowing anything to distract us from obtaining our objective. We don’t care whether it’s pain, fatigue, heat, cold, rain, or snow—they learn to push through. 

When players can do all that, they are filling their buckets. The more you fill those buckets, the more your team develops and builds chemistry. Our championship team had that chemistry. It had a lot of buckets overflowing. We were pretty close to being the best we could be, and that’s the goal.

What is the role of your team leaders?

After I address the team following practice every day, there are seniors who take their groups and have discussions on what is going well and what needs to improve. Sometimes it’s more valuable for players to hear from their peers than from the head coach. And our guys are not afraid to call a teammate out on their attitude or body language if it needs to change.

Have your coaching methods changed over your career?

I have a sign on my desk that says, “Don’t fear change, fear not changing.” We graduate maybe a dozen starters every year, so I have to be willing to adapt strategically. We are not at the luxury to recruit for systems, so we mold systems into what we have.

It’s also been important to adapt to how kids have changed. We are in the age of social media and technology, and while a lot of this is wonderful, it can also be a distraction. We have a rule here that when you come into the football environment, you turn your cell phones off and put them away. It can wait. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing coaches today?

Getting too many opinions from people who don’t really know much. I live in this community and I love it here, but everybody has an opinion about my job—everybody can do my job better than I can. On the one hand, that’s good because it shows they are interested in our team. But it can be frustrating. I’ve learned to listen to them, smile, say thank you, and move on.

Do you have any advice for a coach building a team?

Build it with integrity and a value system. And don’t let the pressure of victory take away from who you are. Remember that you are preparing the athletes for life. Our job is to teach kids, make them tougher, and help them grow. We have to show them how to fill their buckets. 

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