The Houston Christian High School football team plays for a championship this week, but two years ago the team won only a single game. In 1998, the Buffalo Bills won 10 games and made the playoffs, despite a losing record the year before. In 1980, the Boston College football team posted a winning record and beat national powerhouse Stanford, despite going winless only two seasons prior.
What these teams share in common is that Max Bowman was part of all three coaching staffs.
In only his second season, the Houston Christian head coach is not your average football coach. He has coached successful teams at all levels of the game, from high school all the way to the National Football League. In a coaching career that spans over four decades, Bowman's teams have consistently improved their records after his arrival. Yet he remains humble and praises the efforts of his players and fellow coaches throughout the years.
Coach Bowman was kind enough to share insight into how he's repeatedly helped turn programs around.
Q. Of the programs you've helped rebuild, have there been any glaring commonalities?
A. You're almost always entering a situation where players lack confidence and possess a losing mindset. In some places, my players were ashamed to wear their jerseys to school on game days. What's needed most is a shift in mentality and that starts with you as the coach. I tell my players that when you change your mindset from losing to winning, you'll become champions. But only you can determine the time needed for that transformation to happen. No one can do it for you.
I've also found that players of all levels face immense peer pressure. This can be in the form of money and notoriety or even drugs and gangs, depending on the team's environment. Peer pressure is a serious threat because it can lead to players making excuses to protect their image. In reality, excuses are a lack of commitment and effort.
Q. Do you have a standard turnaround formula or process? If so, please you describe it.
A. I try to focus on two key elements. First is the combination of trust, care, and a commitment to excellence and it has to go both ways. Do the players and I trust each other? Do we sincerely care about each other? Are we all committed to excellence? In order to achieve this combination, you have to be open, honest and authentic with one another. You have to set a standard and earn respect.
The second is the acronym W.I.N., which stands for "What's Important Now?" I ask this question every morning. A coach has to remember what's important to his players, not just to him. This is key to motivating players and where peer pressure must be addressed properly. If players want to enjoy the accolades that accompany winning, they must be firmly committed to being the best they can be. And in all of my years in and away from football, I've never met a person who doesn't want to be the best he can be; he just needs to be shown how.
Q. Before you accept the job, do you assess or evaluate the programs at all? If so, how?
A. What's most important is to assess your own abilities and be honest with yourself. Before I took the job at Boston College, I had to take a hard look in the mirror. At the time, I wasn't sure that I was ready to become an offensive line coach at that level. I turned down the job initially and became the head coach at Lees McCrae College so that I could fully devote myself to developing the necessary skills. As soon as I felt ready and I took the Boston College job.
Q. How does the rest of the coaching staff play a factor?
A. As a head coach, my job is to teach coaches to coach. Their job is to teach players to play. The key is to not try to do it all yourself. Especially if your coaches can only work part-time or lack experience, you have to leverage your staff's strengths and always stay positive. If your coaches (or even your players) suggest a good idea, leap at the opportunity to run with it. You want everyone to know that his opinion is respected.
Q. How do you balance the need to make your existing players better while also recruiting new ones?
A. It's critical for your existing players to know that they're the foundation of the program, which is why our seniors addressed the team before our semi-final playoff game. A successful football team is a family, and there should be synergy between new and existing players. Especially when a team has endured losing seasons, existing players need to embrace new players like brothers, and they must work hard to earn their respect. But the team as a whole is in a race to improve and this is where it's essential to be open and honest.
When I took over at Houston Christian, we had only 30 returning players, and we brought in 43 new ones. Even today, everyone has a chance to earn playing time, and players work hard to be the best they can be individually with the mission to make the whole team better. We regularly measure our athletes' power rankings across 14 categories so that each player has a measuring stick for who is putting in the work and improving. Committed players understand that the work doesn't start in August; it begins in the spring and continues all through the summer.
Q. What advice would you give other football coaches trying to turn a team around?
A. Know who you are and where you are. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. While the outside world will probably only judge your performance by how many games you win, focus on incremental improvements in your team's attitude, work ethic, and commitment to excellence. Our jobs are to teach people about life not just football and the key to affecting change in others is by earning their trust.