The pregame locker room possesses an almost mythological place in our sports culture. The fiery emotional and motivational speech that precedes an important game, in fact, is a long-established artistic trope, perhaps beginning with Shakespeare's Henry V telling his outnumbered troops at Agincourt to foreswear a desire for more manpower so "we happy few, we band of brothers" can earn more glory.
You've surely felt the adrenaline pump watching more than a few motivational speeches on video, right?
"Win one for the Gipper" ...
"On this team, we fight for that inch" ...
"We've got 30 minutes for the rest of our lives" ...
"Clear eyes, full hearts" ...
As with most mythologized things, however, the reality is more nuanced. If you talk with a variety of college football coaches, each owning an obsessive concern for sending his team to the field primed for a focused, intense performance, more than a few will outright reject the idea that the pregame speech plays a substantial role in how their team plays.
"I've heard a coach speak pregame and it's been unbelievable," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "And the team goes out there and the ball is kicked off and they still don't perform. I've been in locker rooms when the coach has said two words and that team goes out there and it beats the crap out of whoever they are playing."
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino pooh-poohed the idea.
"The speech before you take the field means very little," he said.
For those of us who want to infuse football with a little poetry, that's a bummer. We want to romanticize the power of that roar emerging from the stadium tunnel, of the words that made one team want it just a little more, of the speech that plumbed the depths of a player's athletic potential and made him and his teammates something more than even a collection of their individual bests.
Fear not, though. As noted, the reality is more nuanced, and that in itself is interesting.
It's more than a moment
On Jan. 6, 2014, Jimbo Fisher gave what many might term the most important pregame speech of his life. With his Florida State program poised to recover its position atop college football in the national title game against Auburn, he wanted to deliver a clear and concise message, one that set his players' minds right for the biggest game of their lives.
So it's not unfair to conclude his pregame speech flopped, as the seemingly outmanned Tigers led 21-10 at halftime, and the Seminoles looked nothing like the poised, dominating team they had been all season. Fisher concluded that his message hadn't resonated. He had told his team to focus on the game, not winning; to focus on playing, not the scoreboard. Instead, they played with a distracted air. They looked like a favorite that was too worried about being the villain in Auburn's fairy-tale season.
Fisher gathered his team at halftime and reiterated his message. It was a simple, stern challenge with the added urgency of playing from behind. And this time it crystallized.
"That's what I told them. 'It's hard. This is what you're going to remember. You expect it to be tough. But this is how we're going to do it,'" he said. "I saw the look in their eyes and I knew we were ready to compete and we did."
Yet when Fisher recalls what he told his team before the game and at halftime, what he most wants to impart is not the isolated importance of either speech. Instead, it was about reconnecting his players to a season-long process that fostered the culture that gave them the potential to become a championship team.
"I think coaches can inspire," Fisher said. "[But] I think motivation comes from within. I think you can inspire people quickly, but I think that wears off. I think the motivations is in your habits."
While most coaches don't completely dismiss the importance of a pregame speech, what they finger as more critical is the consistency of the message delivered all week.
"I give my pregame speech Sunday through Friday," Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Friday night in the team hotel, in fact, is more important to many coaches than just before the game Saturday in the stadium. If a coach wants to reach back for a motivational angle with more depth, if he wants to show film clips or a movie or expand on an idea, he'd actually prefer for his team to sleep on it.
"The pregame speech is really the culmination of the week," Miami coach Al Golden said. "You plant seeds throughout the week and then you tie it together on Friday. Maybe I'm wrong but I'd say the majority of the coaches would say Friday night in the hotel would be way more important than on Saturday when you're talking to them right before they're trying to run through the smoke before the game."
Golden was a tight end and team captain at Penn State under Joe Paterno. He fondly recalled Paterno's best motivational work happening on Friday nights, most notably his talks before road wins over Alabama and then-No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990. His memory of the message, however, isn't fire and brimstone or singular, pithy quotes. It's about Paterno "really taking us through the whole series with Notre Dame" and showing the Nittany Lions "the difference between how we do things and how they do things" with Alabama.
"The great speeches," he said, "occurred on Friday nights."
What is said
While plenty of coaches are naysayers about the power of pregame speeches, there's certainly not unanimity. Ladies and gentlemen, we'd like to introduce your adrenal glands to Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who delivered the following response when asked if pregame speeches are overrated.
"When you're the leader, you've got to set the rate for the pack," he said before gathering steam. "They will take your lead. My lead is not laid back. It's not cool. My lead is high-octane, rallying the troops. It's all about Boston College. It's all about us. It's about team. It's about being accountable to each other. It's about not letting anybody down, the guy on your right, on your left. Who's got the pride and energy left to finish this fight? It's like that nonstop at our place. Before the game, it's rocking and roll. Halftime? It's rocking and roll. And in that locker room afterwards, it is a great celebration ... You're going to get the extreme of me now."
Not surprisingly, you can view some of Addazio's pregame highlights on YouTube.
"Motivation is overrated? Motivation is what it's all about," he said. "Motivating is the ability to lead people. To get people to do things they didn't think they were capable of. It's happened throughout our entire history."
Anyone who knows Addazio is smiling. This is who he is. For him to be mellow and businesslike before a game would be an act. That falls in line with what every coach said about pregame talks. You can't fool your players. You can't be contrived. You have to be yourself. And if you reach back one too many times for a "Win one for the Gipper," you'll eventually inspire only smirks.
"I don't know what I'm going to say until I actually say it," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "I try not to make any preconceived notions about what I want to say because, for me, it's organic, it's about the week of practice, how I feel about our opponent and how I feel about our team that day."
Many head coaches also are willing to defer to assistant coaches or team leaders to deliver the most emotional message. Shaw has leaned on linebacker Shayne Skov the previous two seasons, a role Shaw said might not be filled this year because of Skov's atypically articulate passion. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron often fueled USC's fire under Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson hands off to team chaplain Derrick Moore.
On Jan. 1 of this year, Michigan State played in its first Rose Bowl since 1988. Just getting to the game was a big deal in East Lansing. Coach Mark Dantonio said he acknowledged that in his pregame talk -- "We've accomplished a dream. Live the dream" -- but it's also not a part of his makeup or the blossoming team culture he cultivated to bounce off the walls before an important contest.
"I'm more of a 'get settled in yourself' kind of guy," he said. "Take the time to get with yourself and do everything you can do to be successful. I'm not a big rah-rah speech guy. I'm just not. I think that stays with you a short period of time. We're looking for the duration. What it takes to go the duration."
That last bit matters. Does the message, however or whenever it is delivered, resonate in the fourth quarter, when the difference between winning and losing can be microscopic, a let-up here, a mental lapse there?
Sometimes an effective message is unexpected. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was Hawkeyes legend Hayden Fry's offensive line coach for nine seasons, and he was in the locker room before Iowa played Texas in the 1984 Freedom Bowl. As a Texas native, Fry, Ferentz noted, really wanted to beat the Longhorns, and everyone on the team and coaching staff knew it.
"So before the game, he told a corny joke that caught everybody off-guard because everybody was so keyed up," Ferentz said. "It was the perfect thing. It was a joke about a Texas belt buckle. I'll leave it there. It was the perfect thing to say."
The joke isn't suitable for a family audience, but the Hawkeyes did win 55-17.
Be yourself. Be concise. Connect the message to the week of preparation. Know your team. Don't overplay the drama. But, on occasion, maybe you reach back for an emotional hook.
Ultimately, the measure of any pregame message is the final score, and that's typically going to have more to do with scheme, preparation and talent than a few well-formed phrases.
Said first-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson: "My first year at Fordham, you could have brought back [Vince] Lombardi and I don't know if it would have helped us that much."