Staff Writer
You hear it all the time from high school coaches, in every sport — but particularly football, because there is so much preparation time for only 10 games in a season. Coaches talk about players “buying in” to what they are selling as the vision for the program, the expectations of how much effort and time players should be putting in, and codes of conduct that will represent what the coach hopes is a strong foundation for future success.
How long does it take for players to buy in when there is a coaching change? A lot of it depends on winning — if a team is successful in that coach’s first season, it makes coaxing players to offseason conditioning sessions a whole lot easier. But there are so many factors that can play into it, from a coach’s past success to community and alumni support for the program.
“I started to feel it our second year. After we went 0-10, we got right into the weight room and you started to feel a little bit of a difference then. Then, we were able to win some games the second year, but I feel like that third year — now it’s three years in the weight room, their third year with us, the system is the same and the coaches staff hasn’t changed much,” said Chris Sacco, who took over at Pleasantville prior to the 2015 season. “I think the biggest thing is, when you start looking at attendance, and buying in, and older guys holding younger guys accountable. We haven’t had a lot of attendance issues. Guys are in the weight room in the offseason, they’re going where they need to go. And I hear from teachers that they’re doing what they need to do in the classroom, and if there is a mishap we’re on it right away to correct the situation.”

Eric Anderson is entering his third season as head coach at Oakcrest after serving as an assistant for many years, and believes the Falcons are starting to come around to his coaching style now that they have been in the system for two years. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)

“You hope Year One they buy in. I’m only in year No. 3, so I’m not exactly sure, but I’m hoping this is the year. All these guys were sophomores when I took over, so it seems to be pointing in the right direction. They are smelling what I’m selling, so far so good. These guys have taken leadership and I’ve been hammering home that, hey, seniors, this is your team, run with it, lead by example and hold everybody accountable. That’s all I can ask for as a head coach,” said Eric Anderson, who took over at Oakcrest for Chuck Smith, who moved over to Mainland, prior to the 2016 season. “I second-guess myself every minute of every day, but you learn a lot, and everything is experience, just like everything else in life. You go through it, you learn, and the punches that are thrown, you have to learn to recover from and get up quickly and hope it all pays off in the end with the experience you go through.”
“A lot of it depends on your success. At Oakcrest, we had success right away and the kids bought in. We had a couple of great seasons right away, then kind of had to rebuild and got it going again. Here, it’s been a longer process in a way. We had to come in and rebuild the program from the ground up, from the weight room to the practice sessions to everything we are doing. This year, you can see year No. 3 has really been an evolution of everything. The kids know what they are doing, where they’re going, they know all the terminology — we have that comfort level between the coaches and the kids and everybody knows what the expectations are,” said Smith, who’s entering his third year as head coach at Mainland. “Every year is unique unto itself. My first year at Oakcrest, I was fortunate to have a great group of seniors. When I walked into it, they were really hungry and that got us through a lot of things, some adverse conditions and situations. The thing that carried us when we had that lull, when Cedar Creek opened up and we got whacked, numbers-wise, was we had our system in place and everybody knew what was expected. Even though we had a couple of down years and had to play a lot of young kids, it all came around in year No. 3 because we had guys like Kendall Elliott, Terrence Smith, all those kids. We went on that two-year playoff run.
Tim Watson, who played in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks, was in a unique situation when he began coaching at Cedar Creek in 2011, as he walked into a brand new school with no history. The Pirates went 4-5 that year, but the following season posted 11 wins and made it to the South Jersey Group 2 championship game.
“Especially for me, we were fortunate to have that first group that laid down a lot of the foundation. Our second varsity season we went to our first championship. Those guys laid a solid foundation in terms of what our standards are — not only in terms of our work ethic but also what we expect to do come the postseason. After that, we had some things that were quickly established. Then it becomes a deal where the behaviors and actions that we try to instill every day become a part of the culture. Those are the things, when you talk about those process goals, that you really focus on when you are trying to keep your program up there, is what things look like every day in practice,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be successful. We knew the things we wanted to lean on were effort, attitude and tenacity, and that’s been (our motto) since the beginning of the program. We know that if that is something that’s always in our conversations, and if you put on the tape and you see our guys playing that way, then we’ll be able to say we’re doing the right thing. We always try to make sure those things are a hallmark of what we do. We have a great administration and great people in the building who support the kids, and we’ve had great groups of kids. It’s been fun for our coaching staff to take on the challenge every year.”
The coaches interviewed all agreed that the turning point came when players began to take ownership of the program and wanted to be successful not just for a coach, but for something that would carry on well after they graduated. And, you have to have patience and a belief that you are the right man for the job, and that what you are trying to build will ultimately take hold.

Chuck Smith built Oakcrest into a playoff contender during his six seasons as head coach there, and now is trying to get Mainland back to championship form. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan)

“When players start to monitor the team, that’s when you know you have something going. I think we’re on the right track, and I hope we’re getting there,” Sacco said. “You better have patience. I know I stress sometimes when I don’t need to, but when you come into a situation like this, you have to be on top of everything. Now, we’re to the point where maybe we can give some of the reins to the kids in certain areas. I like to think my stress levels are going down a little bit, but now we have higher expectations to compete for championships. But that’s a good stress, the kind you get excited for. But you definitely have to have patience. The players and staff have been phenomenal. I know I work them pretty hard, but we want to make sure we have done everything we can to make this program the best it can be.”
“(Coaches are) all in the same boat, so we’re always texting each other and bouncing things off each other, like how did you handle this situation? What do you think I should do? And we all coach other sports, so we see each other at other venues and talk,” Anderson said. “More than anything, for me, it’s just the paperwork that drives you crazy. The parents are great, and with the kids, it’s just trying to instill leadership and getting them to believe in themselves. For me, that’s my biggest thing, is just getting them to believe in themselves.”
More often than not, coaches are also teachers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning just as much as their players are each and every year.
“It evolves as you go,” Smith said. “That’s the key to having longevity in coaching, when you think you know it all, you really don’t know anything. It’s always evolving and learning as you go.”
“You never stop learning. There are going to be student-athletes who challenge you in ways you’ve never been challenged before, team dynamics will challenge you. Last year, defensively, we could step back the intensity in terms of us having to coach everything because we had a group that was so experienced and knew what they were doing. This year, it’s sort of the opposite,” Watson added. “That’s one of the most exciting things as a coach, every year is a whole new adventure and a whole new journey. Even if you have a bunch of guys back, there are a couple of things that could change the dynamic, so it’s always an adventure with the 50 or 60 young men you have and the people you have on staff. It’s always a challenge for coaches, every year, to adapt.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays