Planning and Preparation
Tyrone Willingham
Head Coach - University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Ind.
• Proceedings • 79th AFCA Convention • 2002 •

Planning and Preparation
First of all, I’m delighted to be here, because I do have some experience coaching in the state of Texas. I coached at Rice for a few years. I know this room is not comprised only of Texas coaches, but there is nothing like Texas football.

We had a quarterfinal championship game going on at Rice Stadium one year while I was there. I think it was Yates and  Willowridge. And, of course, there was a double-header. One game was played at the Astrodome, and one game was played atRice Stadium. The Astrodome game fin-ished first and there were, roughly, 20 to 30,000 people in Rice Stadium and another 10,000 in the parking lot, trying to get into the stadium. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I’m delighted to be here and delighted to share just a little bit with you this evening. Now, I realize that I don’t know all there  is to know. And that’s important, because I think, for a football coach, once you realize that you don’t have all the answers, then you can really start to bring a lot of other people into the process. And that is what’s important to me.

Now, I was fortunate enough when I started playing college football at Michigan State that I had one of the legendary  coaches in Duffy Daugherty. Duffy said something that I think is important. “It’s bad luck not to have good players.” I think all of us can appreciate that.

Everyone talks about the X’s and O’s, but there is no question that, if you’ve got great players, you enhance your chances.  But I took it just a little bit further than Duffy took it. Because I am a big believer in teams; and I said, “It’s bad luck not to have good coaches.” And, especially, in the job that I have as head coach, you can’t do it all. You can’t slow the team down by hav-ing everyone wait on you. So, in our sys-tem, we have got to have good coaches.

I thought I would share something that our program relies on every week. We call it our “checklist.” It’s something that I think we need and, maybe, you even need, to use every week as part of your preparation.

I guess the first thing to ask myself is, “what is a checklist?” And, for me, that gets kind of easy, because I’ve been fortunate to be married now going on 22 years. The way I describe a checklist is, it’s called “honey-do’s!”

Now, some of you are familiar with honey-do’s. It’s getting to the point now where even single guys get honey-do’s. That didn’t used to be the case, you know, only married guys got honey-do’s. But, when I come home, my wife says, “honey, do this.” And she’s kind of adamant about it and kind of routine in the list that she gives me.

Well, I think, for us, our checklist is really just honey-do’s, things that we want to check off every week to make sure we’re  prepared and make sure we’re doing all the things, in terms of proper preparation for our football team.

Why is the checklist important? I believe in our system, that it’s important because it gives us consistency, so that, every week we don’t let anything slip through the cracks, that all of the situations that you talk about, all of the things that you know might happen in the ballgame, you’re pre-pared for. So, it’s important, in terms of us having the consistency that we need each week, in terms of our preparation. What I’m going to start with is just our basic offensive checklist that we use each week.

The first thing is that we try to make sure that we create a theme. Now, you can have multiple things. You can have total-team things, or you can have defensive/offensive special teams.

But we went back to a period of time that was pretty good for us in our 1999 run for the Rose Bowl. We gave our team a thought process that we thought would carry us through the week.

I think we were sitting 3-0 in the Pac-10, at one point and everything became more focused. We only had five games left to go in the conference, and if we could win five games, there was no question we would be the conference champion and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl.

So we came away with little things. We said, “the ring is the thing.” Because, if our guys could focus on accomplishing that championship ring and envision that, internalize it, then we would have a better chance.

So each and every week, one of the major things that we like to do with our foot-ball team is try to create a theme, try to get something that we could focus on.

We always like to sit down each week and make sure that we are working toward our strengths. I’m fortunate enough that, of my 24 years in football, I spent three years of that with the Minnesota Vikings and Denny Green and Brian Billick.

One of the things that was big there was knowing what you do well. So, we focused a great deal of our energies on making sure, every week, that we clearly under-stood what we were good at and that we never took that out of our game plan.

Identify and Attack Personnel: For us this is huge. Because, just like we identify that we have a strength, so does your opponent have a weakness. There is something that they don’t do well.

We try to make sure that, as a coaching staff, every week, we find that one point or two or three, some weeks, if we’re lucky. We try to make sure that we focus and attack those points.

We try to make sure, like everyone does, that we study, study, study our ten-dencies. We self-scout. But, if you notice there, I added not just “self-scout” but “self-scout through the eyes of your opponent.” And that is drastically different than how you see yourself.

It is really how someone else views you.

How does your opponent look at it?
What does he believe are your strengths?
What does he consider your weaknesses?
Make sure you understand yourself through his eyes and not just yourself, alone.

Right now, everyone has changed again, but there is a big push, and still very much so, for blitzing, pressure defense, zone blitz, the combination of the two.

We like to make sure that, in our game plan, as we prepare for the week, that we have blitz-breakers in there, that we under-stand the zone-blitz concept and we have things in place to defeat those. So, every week, those things are looked at.

Develop a Plan to Defeat 8- and 9-man fronts: Right now, that is, for us, a big deal: Where is the drop-down safety?
Where do they have him?

You can imagine, most of us who run the zone scheme, get used to sending that full-back, backing the backside out of your I-for-mation. But, yet, that’s not where the drop-down safety is. Maybe he’s on the front side.

How does your scheme handle taking care of that guy? How can we get your extra guy to where you need to be?

So, in our plan, we try to make sure that we have guys that will position themselves, in terms of our preparation, to handle eight-and nine-man fronts.

Develop a Plan for Things You Can’t Practice: Now, I heard coach Paterno talk earlier, and I think, somewhere in there he said, “make sure you don’t do things that you don’t practice.” I think that’s important, and I really agree with him.

But, at the same time, under the present rules that we live with in college, we’ve got, roughly, 20 hours that we can practice. So it is difficult to cover everything that you need to cover.

So, we try to make sure that, in our plan, we have a plan for things that we can’t practice. Case in point would be, as we went through the season this year, it had always been a part of our program, to practice backed up. You’re down on the three-yard line, and you go through your offensive style of coming out of that area.

Well, as we went through the season, we didn’t have a lot of back-up situations. So, what we did was take back-ups out of practice, which meant now we’re not practicing it, because we had very few opportunities to use it in a football game. But you still have to have a plan for your it.

So, we wanted to make sure that things of that nature that we don’t have the opportunity to practice all the time, that we didn’t forget them during the course of the week, that, during our mental preparation, we prepared ourselves for that.

Develop an Opening Game Script: That is out of the Bill Walsh school and the West Coast Offense and the teaching progression that he had, most people now go to a 12-to-20 play script to start the ball game.

This would be very similar to what he we used for one of our ballgames. I listed nine plays and that was one of our latter ball-games of the year.

And you can notice that the mode is probably top-heavy for us, even, with the run. Because part of our theme, and
against this particular team, was to establish the physicality of our football team in early this ballgame.

So, we had a huge focus in the ball-game on our run portion. And off that, we had a huge portion developed to our play-action passes coming out of that.

So, for us, it was critical to have that progression, 12-play script, match our theme for the week.

The next situation that we wanted to make sure that we had prepared for was our second and short. I list second and  short as a waste down. That’s the down, that second and one, maybe second and two, that you feel like you can afford to take a risk or take a chance.

Well, I say it depends on the game. Second and shorts are not always a risk situation for us. It depends on who we play, the conditions of the game, field position, and on how we respond to it.

But, as we went through our practice sessions, we like to have that situation some weeks classified as a waste down.

Now, the other part of that is important, because Coach Paterno really hit on some things that I think really fit with what I’m hoping on giving to you today. He said, or he might have even said “Bear” Bryant said it, “keep your game plan small.”

For us, in the course of a game, we will rarely see more than three, maybe four, at the max, second and short situations. So, the question then becomes, “how many calls do you need in your game plan for that situation?”

So I said, “limit the number of calls.” And I put “four” here, because we’ll probably have on our game plan only two runs and, maybe, two passes in that situation, other than a special, where we might want to go, in looking at it from a waste-down situation.

The next situation we want to make sure is on our checklist is third and long. That was a very difficult situation for us, simply because it is very easy in that situation to always be locked in to the pass.

So one of the reminders that we give ourselves is to not always pass. You try to reduce that percentage down to where you force the team to defend some phase of your running game, not just know that they can bring in a nickel-and-dime and not have to worry about any aspects of the run game.

Third and Medium: We want to make sure that we have those plays, those formations that we think are appropriate to that situation, hoping to give us an advantage on third and medium.

Sudden Changes: From an offensive standpoint, what we try to prepare for in Sudden Changes is more than just the situation, itself. It’s really the attitude, because, really, there are two opposing attitudes that we feel like we’ve got to deal with.

One is the defense. Up or down? How do they come on the field? What is their tendency? What is their mode of operation? Will they come after you? Will they wait till the second down and come after you? Will they play soft? Will they be cautious? How do they play?

So we try to make sure that, in our thought process of sudden change, we try to account for all those situations, in terms of attitude and mind-set.

Backed Up: As I mentioned before, we took that out of our game plan, in terms of practice, but we never leave that situation unprepared and not have a written plan for it in our paper trail in preparing for the football game.

Short Yardage: If you notice there, I put back in “Second Down” simply because you don’t want to get it as a waste down, earlier. But there are times that we will look at it only, depending on the game, the team we’re playing, the situation, to get the first down and keep the chains moving, and not use it as a waste down.

But we want to make sure that we’ve got our short yardage offense in place and that we’re well-drilled on it, and that our guys understand exactly what we’re doing in that situation.

Goal Line: I listened to Les Steckel talk a little bit at this convention a couple of years ago. And I picked up something from him I think he had applied to red zone as well. He gave himself a situation when there was no time on the clock, or what I call must-win, must-make-a-play situation. One of the things that we’ve done in our goal-line package throughout the season at some point is add one play with no time on the clock. This lets your guys know that the play has to get to the end zone, and not just running your normal goal-line offense or goal-line mentality.

Four-Minute Offense: This is another one of those situations for us that we don’t practice a great deal. We’ve kind of taken it out because of time allotment. But we always stress to our young men all of the intangibles that have to be executed there. Protect the football if you’re on offense. Stay in bounds. Get the ball out-side the hash so we can burn up as much clock as possible with the placement of the ball by the officials. Little things of that nature that give you a chance to take as much time off the clock as possible and put yourself in that win-win situation.

Two-Minute Offense: The execution and the mechanics of it. This is something in our system that, for us, is bigger than just two-minute executions. We have always used the two-minute as a tempo-setter for our practice. On days that we’re struggling, our guys are not working very well, aren’t moving around very well, I will often change the practice schedule right then and there and go into two-minute. First of all, your defensive linemen, as soon as they hear “two-minute,” what do they think? “Rush the passer! Get up the field! Get going!” Your receivers, what do they think as soon as they hear two-minute? “Okay. Boom! Let’s go. Let’s get off the ball. We’ve got to make plays down the field and step out of bounds, etc.”

So, for us, we love practicing two-minute, because, one, you need it to win football games but also because it gives us an increase in our tempo and can change our whole practice process.

Red Zone Offense: Whatever yard mark you decide, the 20, 25, etc., we want to make sure that we’ve got a great plan for our Red Zone offense. In looking at the stats from the NFL a couple of years ago, I think they took the top five teams that year that were going to the playoffs. They took the bottom five teams that didn’t make the playoffs, and they compared their Red Zones.

It was amazing that the number of opportunities in the Red Zone were basically the same. What was the difference? The difference was, when in the Red Zone, the teams in the upper playoff category scored a touchdown. The teams in the lower division that did not make the playoffs did not score touchdowns.

So, when I say what’s “important,” it’s important not just to get in the Red Zone, but to score touchdowns. And we want to make sure that we’re doing everything, in terms of our planning, to put us in that position.

Fourth Down Calls: In our system, our coordinators have become accustomed to not having fourth and short calls. How many times have you been in, say, the plus-30 area and it’s a little too far up for your field goal. Yet, you don’t want to punt, because you know your punter probably puts it in the end zone, and you’re right back to the 20?

In our system we make sure that, throughout the week, we have some fourth and six, fourth and seven, fourth and eight calls that we practice. We do that so when we get in those situations in a game, we have a plan.

So we try to make sure, in our system, that we’ve got fourth down calls that are outside of that fourth and short area that you normally give a call.

Again, kind of borrowing from Les Steckel, we make sure that, in our plans and in our preparation that we prepare for what we call “must-win plays.” These are plays where you’ve got one play in the game and you’ve got to score from that position. We try to make sure that we’ve got, from the plus-40, plus-30, plus-20, plus-10, etc., plays that we are prepared to score with. And our players have the mind-set that is exactly the play that is called for in that situation.

Two-Point Plays: I think everybody has a few of these. There is nothing new there, but it’s something that you have to have to make sure you execute and your kids are on the same page with you.

Our “Specials”: I think some people call them trick plays. I learned something, when I went to Stanford, with Denny Green in 1989 about creating the right call process and creating the right mentality.

He never called a gadget play, a trick play; he never put that title on ‘em. He said, “Any play we run in our system is designed to gain four yards. That’s it.” Now, what was so important about that to me was that it created a mind-set on our players’part, that, if the play didn’t gain four yards or it had a loss, nothing was lost. How many times do you see teams that, when they try a special play, it doesn’t go right and, all of a sudden, there’s an emotional fall?

But, if you tell your team that we’re inter-ested in gaining four yards from every play in your system, then, to them, when you haven’t made a play in that area, nothing is lost; it’s just another play. They stay on the same emotional level that they play with all the time.

So, we try to make sure that we have that play in there, but we also talk to them along the lines of: ‘This is just a play in our system.’

Base Running Plays: Nothing new there but the things that we put in every week to counter the normal, average fronts, under, over, bare, etc. We always like to make sure that we’ve got a few draws in our system. And, then, we like to make sure that we list what we call our best runs. And, to us, that’s important, because, sometimes, during the course of a ballgame, there comes a time when you have to get back to what you do best.

Sometimes, as coaches, we can try a lot of things; you can get off in a lot of areas; and you can get away from what is really important. So, we like to make sure that, in our game plan, we list somewhere “our best runs.”

Base Passing Plays: Our quick passes; what we call our “action passes.” For us, the action pass is play action, but it’s play-action with a focus being on our backs. These are the ones that we’ll probably use in a short-yardage situation, where we fake it to one back and there’s another back in the flat, or do something to get the ball to the back.

Play-Action Passes: We try to make sure that we’re coming off the run action and we try to feature the wide receivers.

Movement Passes: Dashes are popular, sprint-outs are popular, boots are popular in this area. So we try to make sure that we have that category included in our game plan.

Pass Specials: Fake reverses, throw the pass, halfback pass, things of that nature. Each week, we’ve got those included in our game plan and we’re prepared to use them.

I’ve always heard some coaches use the theory that, if we can get our special play up first, that we want to do that. We want to make sure that we show our spe-cial play, our reverse, our halfback pass, first.

Well, what we try to think of is not “first,” but “what is the right time?” What gives it the best chance to be successful?

Screens: These are our blitz-breakers. We were fortunate, I think, in the years at Stanford, that we used what you’d call the “jailhouse screen,” or the “wide-receiver screen,” and we used those in many cases to eliminate the blitz pressure. When you get the pressure, the receiver comes down, finds the blocker, you kick out the guards and center to meet up on the safeties, and you have success. In a span of about three or four years, we had about five touchdowns off that play in blitz situations.

Best Pass: Know that pass, one that your quarterback throws well and your receiver runs best. This year we were blessed that one of our best passes was just a simple lob pass. We had a young man from Seattle who was 6’7”, depending on who you talked to, 235-240 pounds and ran pretty well. He played on the Stanford basketball team. What we would do when we got in trouble: We lob the ball to him. The quarterback could throw it, he could catch it, and you’ve got a chance to win and be successful.

So, we wanted to make sure that we always had somewhere in our package our “best pass.”

That coincides with your best player: Make sure that you get the ball in your best player’s hands.

We had a difficult start in this year’s Seattle Bowl. The team didn’t have a lot of energy, they weren’t moving very well. Our opponent was doing a great job against us. We stopped just for a second and thought to ourselves, “one of our better players had not had his hands on the ball, and we’re going into the mid-point of the second quarter.”

What we did immediately to start getting the energy and get our team moving was find that player’s best pass and get him the ball. It seemed to be just an easy, simple throw. We threw just a three-quick-step hitch to one of our wide receivers. He takes it, boom, scoots for 15 yards. Now he’s in the game, and we start getting some energy and come back with just a little one-step, quick screen to him, one-man screen. Boom, he takes off, another 12 yards!

Make sure you don’t forget in your game plan to have plays for your best player.

Defensively : We’ve done the same thing. So, you can almost take the chart that we’ve given you and just flip it as we go through it.

Create a Theme for the Week: Work to your strength, identify, defend and attack personnel. If they have a guard that’s weak, how you can get your best player on them and attack their personnel.

Study Yourself-Scout Through the Eyes of the Opponent: The same thing that we talked about on offense, we want to know how their offense views our defense. What is it that they see that we don’t see?

Develop a Plan to Defeat Their Favorite Runs and Passes: A case in point is, most teams, at times, have had problems defending the counter.

Try to Define, Try to Defend, Try to Identify: What is the best way to play the counter? Do you have your defensive player take it on, inside shoulder, have the play continue downhill, and you have him cross-facing, force it to bubble.

But one of the things that we like to make sure of, when we’re preparing for those favorite plays, is that we understand the nature of the play. What does the back like to do best? What’s the team like? Do they like for this particular runner to be a downhill runner? If he wants to be a downhill runner, then you want to force him to bubble. Maybe he doesn’t bubble well. Force him to do some-thing that he doesn’t do. If he likes to bubble and bounce, then we’ll take it straight on, make him a downhill runner, keep him inside where we can defend him. But we want to make sure that we develop a plan to defeat their favorite runs and favorite passes.

Have Adjustments vs. Unique Formation and Personnel Groups: So much of that falls on the shoulders of your secondary coach. He’s got to make sure he’s got all the adjustments in place that don’t leave any open gaps or a man running free. The defense has to adjust to formations, to make sure we have all our gap responsibilities taken care of. Awareness to the Style of Offense: Do we need special things in because this team is different?

What do they bring to the table a little bit different?

Suppose we’re playing the option team. How does that affect us? How does it affect our practice plan? In the past we’ve had an extra period of practice where we can work on the option. Take in the first offense, let them run the option. But make sure that we’ve got a plan in the works on the style of offense that we’re going to face.

Defend Their Best Players: I think that goes without saying. Who is it that you have to take away? Whether it’s in the passing game or the running game, how do you do it? Defend their best players.

Second and Short: What is their philosophy? Will this offense waste this down anytime they have second and short? Will they be conservative? How do we play it? Have a plan for it.

Third Down and Long: What do they like to go to? What are their personnel substitutions? How do we match up? What gives us the best chance?

Third Down and Medium and Third Down and Short: How do we want to play it? What is our plan?

Sudden Change: On defense, we say, “It’s all attitude.” How Do We Walk on the Field? Be Aggressive. Stop and Take Away a Great Momentum for Them.

Backed Up: Have a plan for that.

Short Yardage again.

Goal-line Defense.

Four-minute Defense: Get your guys to understand that we need the ball back. Let’s strip it. But, at the same time, don’t give ‘em a score. We were playing Washington this year, up in Seattle. They go up, we come down. Time’s running out on the clock. We need to take it away. Unfortunately, in our aggressiveness, we gave them a final score, which now eliminated any chance we could of winning the football game. So you want to make sure your players understand that situation, you have to take away from, the offense.

Two-Minute Defense: I put “Prevent” there because, usually, the rule of thumb is that the prevent defense can prevent you from winning.

What is your plan there? Will you be aggressive? Will you be more like your base defense? How much time is on the clock? What can you take away?

Red Zone Defense: Do we get aggressive when we get in the Red Zone? How will we change. What do we do? Give it plenty of thought to make sure you’re prepared.

Fourth Down Defense: We added that one. We think fourth and five, fourth and six, fourth and 10. An offense will try to take advantage of that situation because they don’t want to do different things. Or it could be they exhausted all their chances and they’re trying to make that last-ditch effort.

Identifying Must-Win Plays: Again, going back to what I picked up from Les Steckel, make sure the defense is thinking like the offense does. The plays they need to win the game, and the plays we have to defend.

Two-Point Play.

Special Plays: With some teams there are certain plays you know they have in their game plan every week. They may change the personnel and how they do it. They may run the reverse with a different guy. But it’s going to be there. How do you play it? Have your guys prepare:
• Base Runs.
• Draws.
• Best Run or Runs.
• Base Passes.
• Quick Passes.
• Action Passes.
• Play-Action Movement.
•Special Screens.

Protection-Breakers: A couple of key points that we like to make sure every week that we think about, in terrms of special teams.

Kickoff : We were watching a high school all-star game played here, I think it was last weekend, and they used a semi-pooch kick, I think. It was kicked along the right side, and would’ve been caught by what we would identify as our four, where the kicker just pooched it right over the front line about 15, 20 yards back. The player runs down the field, catches it. Great play!

We want to make sure that we have a lot of kicks in and things that we think we can execute.

Alignment: We want to make sure that we understand the alignment of the return team. That allows us to determine what those kicks might be. Where do we want to place it?

Blocking Scheme: How would they block it in a zone-blocking scheme, in a man-blocking scheme? Do they like to wedge?

We need to know those things and make sure we understand them, for our special teams kickoff coverage to be effective. That brings us to our coverage. What will we do? Will we loop a guy? Will we take a guy out? Will we work to our quick side? Work to our strong side?

Specials On Return Coverage: What type of coverage? What blocking scheme will we need for that coverage? Is there a special guy who we have to defend? Is there someone we have to put two guys on?

What Type of Kick: I’ve got a lot of bad memories in Seattle, but I can remember being there. We were winning the game, they scored to tie the game. They had a tremendous kicker. We practiced all week, because we knew one of the kicks that they love was a high pooch back to our fullback. Our fullback calls for a fair-catch and drops it!

All the practice that we’ve done preparing for the different types of kicks we would get still didn’t help us in that situation. But you still have to prepare for them. You have to have them in place. Make sure your special is based on what they give you. Is this a team that we could run a reverse on? Is this a team that we can run a special scheme on, something different that allows us to have the advantage?


Their Rush: Where do they come from? Are they a rush team? Do they like to hold up?

Our Protection: Are there special things we can do? Can we take our up-back and have him block to a special guy, release him, different things.

Coverage: Specials that we can run. Can we run the trap? Can we have our kicker keep it? Can we go to pass on it?

Punt Return: Very much the same. Their protection: How can we attack it?

The rush.

Our returns.

Any specials we can use.

Field Goal/Extra Point: Very much the same.

Protection: Their Rush, Specials.

In closing, I think Coach Paterno, in all his years of coaching has done something I can at least try to continue to do, and that is to be very thankful for the opportunity to be a coach.

I really look at the time that we’re coaching here as the greatest opportunity to coach. I am a little bit different than a lot of people because I think I can see opportunity in everything.

And I kind of reflect back to the events of September 11th, which was a very tragic day in this country. But I looked at it just a little bit different. I thought that day was a great opportunity for this country to assume a better and bigger role in world leadership.

As a football coach, I look at it as an opportunity to create the young men that will be the kind of leaders that we need to lead us through the very difficult situation, the very difficult times of that kind of crisis.

I think there is nothing like the game of football. Absolutely nothing like it. I think nothing else can capture the American imagination, the American heart.

Nothing does it better. So, I am honored to be a coach.

Even though, for many of you, this checklist may be redundant, but isn’t it the repetition of doing things over and over and over that makes a great player and makes a great team?

So, I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I hope my checklist, the checklist that we use every week, will help all of you as it helps us. Thank you.