How do you take sixty to seventy high school guys with widely differing degrees of athletic ability and mold them into a winning football team? That’s what Coach Doug Wilkins of Denville, New Jersey did for forty-four years, winning twenty-five consecutive seasons from 1985 through 2009, along with eight state championships.
Coach Wilkins didn’t start out that way, though. With a losing first season, he knew something needed to change. This is the first of three newsletters that reveal what Coach Wilkins discovered over the course of his career as a football coach, strategies for winning that can be applied to every area of our lives.
To begin, Coach Wilkins realized he needed a vision. Did he want to build a winning team, or a lasting program? To Coach, a lasting program was permanent, while a winning team was merely temporary. He determined that he needed a plan to build a structure that would last, and so he set out to build the foundation for a program that would make, in his words, “the Brian Klemmers of this world.”
The foundation of Coach’s program was commitment. While it would seem natural to look for talent, Coach took a different approach. It didn’t matter how talented a player was, whether he was fast or slow, big or small, coordinated or not. Instead, what Wilkins looked for was how badly the student wanted to play. “Does he want it?” Coach Wilkins asked when he considered players. Wilkins set a 12 and 0 goal for each season, a standard so high that he knew he had to have kids who were willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be the best. They needed mental toughness combined with a relentless work ethic that applied not only to football, but their schoolwork, as well. When Coach raised the bar and the player was pushed beyond his comfort zone, he had to be able to reach inside and find the next gear. During games when Coach considered who he would play, he looked for kids whose attitudes and actions forced him to play them.
This type of commitment wasn’t for the short-term, either. Wilkins sold a four-year program to 9th graders. They had to be willing to work hard for four years as part of the team, even though it wasn’t until they were seniors that they would be considered to start. Not only that, but each year, every player was reevaluated to see if he was still committed to a relentless work ethic.
This is the kind of commitment that Coach Wilkins fondly remembers about Brian Klemmer. On one broiling September day, Brian showed up for practice in high-top shoes and developed severe blisters on his feet. Coach suggested that Brian take a couple of days off, but Brian surprised everyone the next day when he showed up wearing socks — and no shoes. That is how Brian practiced until his feet healed. It’s no wonder commitment is the 1st trait Brian discusses in his bestselling book, The Compassionate Samurai.
As Coach Wilkins developed this football program, parents recognized that he presented life lessons that could reach far beyond their kids’ high school years, into the rest of their lives, and they lined up to get their kids on his team. All of us can have winning lives, too. It doesn’t begin with talent, but an attitude. Ask yourself how badly you want to achieve your goals, and consider commitment as the cornerstone for all you desire to achieve.