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June 21, 2018

Old school vs. new school: Four Philly coaching legends on whether players today are coddled, use too much technology

Our games have changed over the last three decades. The basics are still intact. A basket inside the three-point line is still two points, a touchdown six, a goal in hockey or a run in baseball still counts as one on the scoreboard. 

But the sizes, shapes and attitudes of today’s athletes are markedly different than as recent as 10 years ago. Evolution has moved far quicker than anyone anticipated over the last 50 years, producing bigger, stronger, and faster athletes than ever before. They’re also more fragile in some respects physically, emotionally and maturity-wise.

It takes a special breed to coach in today’s high-level sports environment. They need to be coach, parent, teacher, guidance counselor and nursemaid. Today’s coaches are beginning to be confronted by the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation of athlete. They do want to be coached. They do want guidance. They don’t like to be yelled at, especially in front of their peers, sometimes skirt accountability and they’re not afraid to ask, “Why are we doing this?” 

PhillyVoice reached out to four Philadelphia icons to ask them what it was like when they first started out coaching and how that compares to what they see today.

•  Larry Bowa, 72, was a five-time all-star and one of the cornerstones to the Phillies’ 1980 World Series champions and one best teachers of the game in the Phillies’ organization. He currently serves as a senior adviser to Phils’ general manager Matt Klentak.

•  Phil Martelli, 63, is the all-time winningest coach in St. Joe’s rich basketball history (430-309) and is entering his 24th season as the head man on Hawk Hill, with two NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight (2004), in addition to being a future Big 5 Hall of Famer.

•  Dick Vermeil, 81, is a Super Bowl winning head coach who resurrected three NFL teams from the basement, including bringing the Eagles to their first Super Bowl in 1980, before winning the big game with the St. Louis Rams in 2000.

•  Paul Holmgren, 62, who became the first former Flyer to be named head coach of the Flyers, a role he filled from 1988-91. Currently, he serves as team president. Holmgren played 10 years in the NHL, including a key role on the Flyers’ 1980 team that reached the Stanley Cup finals.

The quartet spoke about what it was like when they coached, including time management, the impact of technology on coaching then and now, and whether today’s athletes are too coddled. Bowa and Martelli have a unique insight, since the pair bridge the generational gap of the last two decades. Bowa last managed in 2005 but was on the Phillies’ coaching staff during the 2017 season, while Martelli keeps moving along and will have a nice team returning this season, capable of winning the Atlantic 10.

All four have seen a metamorphosis in their respective games and how they are played, with the influx of analytics, especially in baseball, and how sports science has impacted coaching. But all four live and watch their sports with a very simple mantra: Play the right way.

Here's what they had to say about how life as a head coach has changed over the years...

* * *

Coaching today vs. yesterday

BOWA: “It depends what the organization is and who the manager is, but there are a lot of organizations that don’t allow your team to hit-and-run, steal or bunt, and they feel that the sabermetrics is strong enough and shows enough data that giving outs away isn’t the right way to manage. The percentage of something good happening after one of those things are not good, so the way the game is run today involves a lot sabermetrics. Again, I’m not saying it’s 100%. 

“When I played, and even when I managed, it was your eye test on what the ability of the player was. Can you put the ball in play? When I send a runner, can you get a good jump to steal a base; can you lay down a bunt on a squeeze play? You went with the guys strengths that you knew as a manager or knew as a player that you can do some of these things. When I was a manager, I wasn’t afraid to put those type of plays on.

“Today, the way the game is played, like I said, I don’t want to categorize everybody, but there are a lot of guys that can’t put the ball in play. It’s a strikeout, a walk, or a home run. Managers and sabermetrics people say, ‘Why hit-and-run, when the percentages of them swinging and missing are great, you run into outs.’ It’s how the kids are taught baseball today going through high school and college. The preference today is in on-base percentage, slugging percentage. It has nothing to do with batting average or guys capable of stealing 75 bases. That’s the way that the guys in charge want to run the game right now. 

“I don’t think we lost teaching in the game. I think the people that are in charge want a happy clubhouse 100% of the time, and sometimes along the maturation process, you have to get your point across. I’m not saying you berate players. I’m saying you get them aside and let them know, ‘What you’re doing right now, it’s not working. This is how we should approach this; this is how I want you to backhand a groundball; this is how I want you to cover the bag.’ It’s not about being critical. To me, I call it constructive criticism. As a coach, I’m trying to get you to be a real, good, solid baseball player. Some of the things that you’re doing need to be corrected. The generation and the people running the game, like I said, I’m not throwing a blanket over everyone, but the majority of people that I watched, they want everybody to be happy and make sure that they get their rest.

“To me, the only way you get better is to practice. You don’t have optional hitting. You may have it on a day game after a night game, but for the most part, you go out and hit. You go through your routine on groundballs. You do all of the things that prep you for a baseball game. If you give a young team optional stuff, they’re going to do what you tell them. That’s my own opinion.

“For example, if I come up to you and say, ‘We’ll work on groundballs tomorrow, come and get me and I’ll hit them to you.’ As opposed to, ‘There are a couple of plays that I think you should have made, let’s meet at 3:30 at second and work on things for 15 to 20 minutes. Players today will do what you want them to do, but if it’s optional, these kids are now, ‘I’m not breaking any rules, and I don’t feel like going out today.’ You practice the way you play. If you don’t try to improve every day, this game can humble you really quick.

Now they may bitch and moan about how hard you’re working them. ... Stan Walters, Bill Bergey, Harold Carmichael — they talk about how football practice looks like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ today.

“I love teaching. It’s why I was up at Reading [last week]. The young players today are very receptive. They’ll do what you ask them to do. If you don’t require them to come out early and work, there’s not too many that are going to. There’s not too many that will say, ‘Hey Bow, I need some groundballs today, will you come out and help me.’ Today, for the most part, you have to be assertive toward them: ‘Hey guys, we’re going to work on double plays for 15-20 minutes. We haven’t been executing the way we should, so let’s go practice some of the exchanges and flips.’ That’s how you do it.” 

MARTELLI: “I think you could be much harsher then, in terms of being verbally harsh. Coaches would do this, fans would do it, sportswriters would do this, and they would refer to a player as being ‘a dog.’ That was to signify a guy who didn’t work hard enough. Through time, you come over to today, we’re talking about a human being. It’s somebody’s child, somebody’s grandchild. Earlier in my career, I could attempt sarcastic humor with a kid, but I’ve stopped that, because they don’t get it with the age difference. Kids today I do believe want to be coached. That hasn’t changed. They want to be good players. The modern coach recognizes the fact that one size does not fit all anymore. I’ve never been one on this, but I also think in today’s world, fewer rules are better. The old-school guys had a lot of rules, and therefore, they became judge, jury and score keeper.  

“We have one team rule — be on time. We treat that as the ultimate sign of respect. I think there are a lot more conversations that take place with players today. There is more talking with, instead of talking at, between player and coach. You even see that goes on in the classroom. I think in today’s world, activity beats talk. I’ve always been big on practice being action packed, and I still feel strongly about that today. Old-school used to be, say for example old-school Eagles, we’re going to be on the field for three hours a day. When you factor in student-athlete, player well-being, that doesn’t make any sense. The respect for each other’s time is important.

“There is a greater appreciation for rest today. I applaud the NCAA for that. They mandate two days a week during the offseason and one day a week during the season that the student-athlete has to be off. I give a lot of credit to other coaches that I emulate, like what Jay Wright does with the amount of time he gives for his rest days. Our strength and conditioning coach advises me on what makes the most sense for days off. There is a lot to that. Knowing how to rest is important, too. Years ago, when I was a high school coach, I used to be fearful another team was working harder than us. You find out that less can be more.

“I will say this, I’ve gotten less tongue-in-cheek with the players. What I think is funny they don’t think is funny. I’ve become a much better listener. I’ve always prided myself on studying people. I’ll study body language or where they’ll sit in a film room or a session. I’ve always watched that. I’ve become much more acutely aware that this is about relationships. What I know about zone offense doesn’t really matter, unless that player really knows, and I really know that player. The early me was always interested in building relationships. The early me was interested in communicating, and now I’ve added to that. I want a real relationship. What I mean by that is I want to know how many brothers and sisters my players have; I want to know if their grandparents will be at the game. I make it priority to know what their dreams and aspirations are. Meaningful communication is important. It’s not just, ‘Hey guys, practice tomorrow at 3:30.’” 

VERMEIL: “I don’t think there is much of a difference in the player, but there is a great difference in the regulations. In the old days — and I’m talking about the 1970s and 1980s — we weren’t restricted on how many days we could wear pads; how long we could be on the field and how many double-days we could have. The collective-bargaining agreement changed everything. 

“But in terms of the players, I really think if they trust you, they will do whatever you want them to do. Sometimes it takes some time to establish that credibility with the players. Once they believe in your plan, regardless of how you coach them, they’re going to buy in. Now, they may bitch and moan about how hard you’re working them. I just recently had my charity golf tournament and lot of the old-timers were there. They talked about how hard they worked and all of that, but you know something, they take great pride in it. Stan Walters, Bill Bergey, Harold Carmichael, they talk about how football practice looks like ‘Dancing with the Stars’ today.

“Today, it’s different, because it’s all controlled by the collective bargaining agreement. So, it’s imperative that you do a great job within the restrictions placed on you as a head coach. It’s why I can’t say enough good things about the job Doug Pederson did last year. It is limiting in terms of how much time you get to develop the individual player. You used to spend a lot of time making the football player better, rather than fitting him into the scheme. Now they spent far more time percentage wise on the scheme.

HOLMGREN: “In my era what was done, which I know we could not do anymore are ‘bag skates’ when I was a player. A coach would skate you for an hour. The next day you could hardly move. It was a way of punishment. You had to get better to win games. I don’t think any team today uses bag skates, or what you saw from [1980 U.S. Olympic coach] Herb Brooks, which we called ‘Herbies.’ Teams realize today that rest is one of the more important aspects of playing the game. You need recovery time from the energy spent in a game.

“I played for Herbie. He used to bag skate us once a week, even when we were winning. I had days like that when I was coaching the Flyers. I remember when I was assistant under Mike Keenan. He would call it, ‘We need a shot of fitness today.’”

* * *

The impact of technology  

BOWA: “That’s where the game has completely changed. We rely too much on technology, no question. You go through three stages when you get up here: I hope I can play, I think I can play, I know I can play. Sometimes you have to keep it a little simple until they get their feet on the ground. When I was with Pete [Mackanin] last year, I was in charge of our defenses, which played pretty well. Each day I would go up to the starting pitcher and tell them, ‘This is what I came up with. I got a shift on this guy, and this guy, I got this guy as a little pull, this guy straight away.’ A guy like Aaron Nola, for example, I would ask, ‘Do you want any changes?’ Nola might make a change here and there, because he knows. The pitcher has the ball. He knows. He’s faced these guys and this team before. I gave the pitcher the benefit of the doubt.

“Pitchers today, they want them to go five innings, or 100 pitches. Well, why? Because the people upstairs feel that’s the formula. Give me five innings, or 100 pitches, and we’ll go to the bullpen. I’ll guarantee you, if you ask any of these young pitchers today, they’ll tell you they want to pitch a complete game; they want to throw 115, 125 pitches. They’re programmed now. Well, this guy wants out after 100 pitches, because they’re programmed that way. I think these kids are very talented, but they have to be pushed a little bit. Don’t set innings, or you can’t go through a lineup three times. That’s ridiculous. But if a guy is throwing well, and he still has pretty good stuff and getting guys out, the eye test plays to me to keep him in. I agree that there are certain sabermetrics that are helpful, but these guys today are being overloaded. It’s hard enough to play up here. If you start inundating these guys with all of these numbers, sometimes guys are thinking too much. You have to trust your abilities.

“I was watching a game on TV the other day. The hitter I saw a million times. I knew he loved hitting breaking ball. But the pitcher was throwing 98 to 99 to him. I noticed the shortstop playing the hitter to pull. Why in the world would the shortstop play this hitter to pull when the pitcher was hitting 98, 99? The eye test told me the pitcher was throwing exceptionally hard. The book on the hitter was you rely on a good fastball to get him out. Yet the defense played him way around. The hitter tickled a ball through the middle, which led to a big inning. The fact is, it could have very easily been a 1-2-3 inning. Just little things like that. Despite what the chart says, my eyes told me the hitter wasn’t going to catch up to the pitcher’s fastball. We get too enamored with numbers and forget to look at the actual swing. Maybe it was a day game after a night game, and his bat speed isn’t where it was the night before. There are so many more variables that come into play besides just throwing numbers in a guy’s face.”

MARTELLI: “It’s made [coaching] much more difficult, because young people think that if you’re behind a machine and you text or you do this, or do that, that’s communication. And it’s not. Unless you are eye-to-eye with people, that’s not really communicating. They also can find on those machines, someone that will back them. Coaching has become more difficult, because after you correct someone during a practice, they take it as criticism and not coaching. Coaches are as guilty, too, because it’s used in excess and that’s a true waste of time. Productivity is lost because of these machines. Sure, game film and preparation technology are certainly good, better than it’s ever been. You can get things instantly. There was a Time Magazine article that said this was the smartest generation of young people in the history of mankind. Yeah, because the information is at their fingertips, but so is the hate; so are the anonymous message boards; or the false narratives that waste a lot of time chasing.

“As far as the young people that I coach, they’re enveloped by it. They’re coming from a world where they’re enveloped by accolades. Growing up, we knew this was the best swimmer in Delaware County. Now you go on the internet to find out where this kid is ranked, or where that kid is ranked in terms of recruiting. We knew by word of mouth who the best kid was, not by ranking them. Information that’s out there has made kids today brighter, but maybe less sensitized."

I can remember flying to Edmonton, and when I played, and when I coached, if you were a young player, you got stuck in the middle seat in the smoking section. That’s a five-and-a-half-hour flight.

VERMEIL: “There is no question that there is an advancement here. We used to walk off the practice field and not get our film until 10 that night or get our game film from our opponent 10 p.m. Monday from a couple of teams that would delay sending it as long as they could. Your practice cutouts for sideline and end zone wouldn’t come until Tuesday. Now you get them when you walk off the field. The way things are today it is like stepping out of a cave compared to when I coached.”

HOLMGREN: “It was used, though not to the degree it’s used today. We would come in and access film between periods. Today, with more time from an analytic standpoint, we’re seeing where scoring chances are coming from. Most teams today have video coaches, who are not only watching the game, but letting the coaches know what’s going on. There are so many things technologically that have made the game better not only for the players, but the coaches, because coaching is a tough job. I do think today that coaching is the toughest job you can have, not just in hockey, but in all sports.

“In two or three more years, it will evolve more. The world is changing technologically, and that will also impact sports. Players today ask a lot of questions, and you need to explain to them why you’re doing it. It didn’t happen when I was playing, and it didn’t happen when I was coaching. You have sports science guys and analytics guys today. When I was coaching, the coach was in charge and you had maybe one or two assistant coaches. You had a video guy who was on your team, but he wasn’t a part of your coaching staff like they are now. Everything is going so fast.”

* * *

Are athletes more coddled today? 

BOWA: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘coddled.’ I would say players today are more sensitive. I think you have to be careful when you correct someone on something, it has to be one-on-one, and not in front of his peers. That’s the way players are today. 

“When we played, no one ever got on us about making physical mistakes, which I agree with, or on striking out. They got on us for making mental mistakes. They wanted to embarrass you for making a mental mistake, because you would remember it, and not do it again. If I have guys making mental mistakes today, you still have to get them one-on-one and tell them that it’s unacceptable at this level. That’s the way you have to approach it. You get your point across. Players today are more sensitive. It’s easy to do. You realize that it’s a different generation. 

“Dallas Green was going to rip into somebody, it didn’t matter who you were or how long you played. Even in a run-down play, where you threw the ball too many times and got the out, Dallas would say, ‘That isn’t how you run this. It should be one throw, get the guy going and tag him.’ Dallas would rip into you in front of the whole team. I didn’t care, with my personality. With someone like Garry Maddox, for example, he had a different personality. He preferred you tell him in the office. Back then, if you did something mentally wrong, coaches would let you know in front of everyone. I remember I ripped into Mickey Morandini when he first came up for not covering first base on a bunt play. You hope someone else is listening so they could learn. I pulled Mickey aside and said, ‘What are you doing? That should never happen up here.’ Mickey tells that story, because it never happened again.

You know what bothers me a little bit is when you get called ‘old-school.’ I’m a baseball guy. Maybe when I played the atmosphere was different. I love baseball. I love it to be played the right way. 

MARTELLI: “To me, it’s two parts. Part of me says there’s no question today’s athletes are coddled. I ask all parents to love their children, allow me to coach them. I wish that would be the case. But there are an awful lot of summer coaches that run interference. They coddle these kids. One clear way to grow as a person and a player is to get knocked on your ass, scrape your knees, scrape your elbows and pick yourself up. 

“[On a broader scale outside of sports] in some ways, with today’s kids, we do need to coddle them. When you were 15 years old, did you ever turn on the TV and see a high school being shot up? Did you ever go to a playground in your life and think that it wasn’t a safe place? Or a team doctor assaulting a gymnast? That’s what the last few generations have had to endure. How many days in your life were you alone with a coach? And they drove you everywhere, and you never thought anything of it. It doesn’t happen anymore.”

VERMEIL: “That depends on the philosophy of the coaching when you use the term ‘coddled,’ and how much they trust you and your approach. First off, if they don’t believe in you, they won’t believe in the plan. You need today to spend more time investing in players that believe in you. I also think there are far more influences on a player today than what I had to deal with, with agents and everything else surrounding players today. There is so much money invested in players today that I think coaches tend to be, not because they’re required to be, at least when I was coaching, a little more protective of the players.

“You’re paying someone $16-, $18-, $20-million to play a position, you’re a little more protective of that investment. I did not have to coach under the new restrictions. For example, when I took over the St. Louis Rams, what we did there the first two years of training camp there is no way you could do today. And, there is no way we could have won a world championship in three years, after taking over a losing team for six years. We had time to develop players, which they don’t have the chance to do today. On that [1999-2000] Rams team, the left guard and right guard were free agents, originally; the all-Pro defensive tackle [Michael Carter] was a free agent. The starting outside linebacker [London Fletcher], was a college free agent. But you had more time for the kids to catch up, and you can’t do that today. It’s why people focus far more on the scheme and less time on the individual development, because they’re restricted with how much time they have on the practice field.

HOLMGREN: “I don’t know if ‘coddled’ is a good word to use. We try to give our players all of the things they need to do their job the best they can, whether it’s traveling first class or basic skill training. I can remember flying to Edmonton, and when I played, and when I coached, if you were a young player, you got stuck in the middle seat in the smoking section [laughs]. That’s a five-and-a-half-hour flight. You’re a fit athlete in between two people smoking on a plane for five-and-a-half hours. That’s the way it was. It may not be a very good example, but we’ve evolved. The people running the game realize that the athletes are the most important assets we have and we have to do the best we can to make them better. 

“These guys today are incredible. It’s a fulltime job, 365 days a year. The NHL has always had great players, don’t get me wrong. But the overall skill level in the game has never been this high. The speed of the game has never been this fast. That comes from hard work and commitment. You don’t last too long in the NHL if you don’t do those two things. The guys today have it better, but they’ve also earned the right to be here. I don’t think [coddling] is the reason.”

* * *

What would you like to bring back from the old-school days?

BOWA: “Personally, I would like to see players police themselves more, and they don’t. When I played, if you didn’t run out a groundball, you would hear it from Pete [Rose], or me, or Booney [Bob Boone], or Bull [Greg Luzinski]. We would say, ‘What are you doing? Play the game the right way.’ That doesn’t happen now. I’m sure there are a few guys out there that do it, but with guys coming up together, they played together, they don’t think that it’s their place to do it. But I think it helps a whole clubhouse, a coaching staff and a manager when players police themselves. That helps a lot when a guy nods to another guy, ‘Why didn’t you run out that ball? It was a bloop hit, you should have been on second. You have to run out the ball; play the game the right way.’ That helps a lot when guys can police guys. It’s close to being non-existent right now. 

I love what Coach Pederson has done. I don’t think anyone has done a better job than Doug. He does have that old-school mentality, but he knows how to deal with today’s more sophisticated player.

“You know what bothers me a little bit is when you get called ‘old-school.’ I’m a baseball guy. Maybe when I played the atmosphere was different. I love baseball. I love it to be played the right way. It means playing it with your head, playing it with your heart, and it bothers me when I don’t see it played the right way. Again, this has nothing to do with hitting, it has something to do with how you approach the game, the professionalism during the game, and your hustle, no matter what the score is. To me, that’s very important. If it’s old-school, then I guess I am old-school. I want to think of it and people to think of me as a ‘baseball guy.’ I love the game of baseball and I don’t like to watch the game being disrespected in any way. That’s basically my philosophy.”

VERMEIL: “Time. Today, they have a 20-man coaching staff that they’re paying a lot of money. What I would like to see more of today from my time is giving coaches more time to coach. I’ve told this to people in the NFL Players Association. They’re restricting the development of young quarterbacks, because of time limits. They’re restricting the development of the fourth-, fifth, sixth-, seventh-round draft choice. There’s no correlation between working less and getting better. And there are a lot of kids if they had more time to improve, they would improve. When I came to Philadelphia, we didn’t have a first, second or third-round pick my first two years and didn’t have a first- or second-round pick the third year. In my third year, we were in the playoffs. How we did that was develop the fundamentals of our marginal players in the late draft rounds and help our good players get better. That takes time.

“I miss it, but I don’t miss the bad days. I miss the relationships, the competition, I miss the game. I would do it tomorrow again if I wasn’t 81 years old. I love what Coach Pederson has done. I don’t think anyone has done a better job than Doug. He does have that old-school mentality, but he knows how to deal with today’s more sophisticated player.”

HOLMGREN: “What’s missing is the comradery of being together; being a team. The attitude that if you hang together, you’re going to have more success because of the attitude a group that sticks together wins together. That attitude that pack mentality brings this idea that you could do anything if you stick together and have each other’s back. Everyone tries to do that, no matter what sport they coach. But with everything going on in the world today, social media, and all of the things that players have going on, sometimes I wonder if that bond can be done to the level that we were used to doing it when I coached and played. There’s too many things going on today.”

MARTELLI: “What I would like to see, if I could go back, I would like to see less organization and drive by one park and see guys playing pick-up basketball. The socialization that comes along with basketball; that comes along with being on a baseball diamond, without coaches, without uniforms, without referees or without umpires, and without trophies being the end result. I think we’ve set socialization back on kids.

“We’ve really advanced with the well-being of student-athletes, both on and off the field, physically and mentally. Today in coaching, despite it being an egotistical business whatever the sport, whatever the level, we’re less egotistical, because we’re more aware and willing to admit that we don’t know what we don’t know. I think that’s a healthy thing. I can acknowledge what I don’t know. I would say that if I can go a day around players without these damned phones that would be a good day [laughs]. That’s what I would bring back. Let’s go back to landlines.”

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