Coaches cautious of the enemy within

Team chemistry can lift a team to great heights, or the lack of it can derail any talented team. Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports

USC's Steve Sarkisian calls them the woe-is-me crowd. Alabama's Nick Saban labels them little groups of naysayers.

The greatest obstacle college football coaches encounter isn't always the talented opponent across the field, the engorged expectations of fans or the unyielding scrutiny from the media. It's the enemy within.

Just ask Charlie Strong. Speaking in March at the start of his second spring practice as Texas' coach, Strong began by spotlighting the team's inability to stay united last season, which led to shaky results.

"Within a team there's different cliques, and you've got this clique here and they've got a clique," said Strong, who added that a player's loyalty to his clique can hinder his individual development. "In order to come together as a team, trust has to be built and a team has to come together. That's what we never did, and we still had these cliques we were dealing with."

Coaches who oversee rosters that typically exceed 100 must constantly look out for small groups of malcontents who can have a big influence on teams and results. They must be especially attuned during the long offseason.

If crippling cliques aren't identified and addressed before it's too late, the team's chemistry -- and ultimately its performance -- becomes compromised.

"We've had some teams through the years where you have these little groups of naysayers," Saban told ESPN.com. "They always want to evaluate, and I call it judge, everything and try to make it an issue, whether it was how long you practice, why are we doing conditioning today, why do we have to do this or that. They're not really fully committed, and it affects other people.

"When you have those circumstances, it's really hard to have the kind of team chemistry you need to really get the best out of everybody."

"You have to monitor everything, and you have to understand no matter how ideal you think it is, there's going to be discontent at times. You just have to recognize it before it festers to a point where it becomes a real negative."
UCLA coach Jim Mora

Most large organizations have disgruntled or distracted members, and college football teams are no exception. Whether the issue is playing time or personality clashes, some players grow unhappy or apathetic yet remain on the squad.

Coaches are always aware of these players but take different approaches to managing them. UCLA's Jim Mora emphasizes character evaluation during recruiting, then education immediately after players arrive on campus.

"Are we creating the right personalities?" Mora said. "The best teams aren't always the teams comprised of the best players. Remember when the [Washington] Redskins went out and signed all those big-money guys, the Deions? And they sucked. It starts with the culture you create. You bring the right guys in, and the guys that are there educate them on how it's supposed to work, and then they just mesh together.

"You have to monitor everything, and you have to understand no matter how ideal you think it is, there's going to be discontent at times. You just have to recognize it before it festers to a point where it becomes a real negative."

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema acted boldly in the summer of 2009 while coaching at Wisconsin. The Badgers' win total had slipped from 12 in 2006 to nine in '07 and seven in '08.

Bielema identified a group of seniors "who felt they were bigger than the program," showing up late to meetings and "setting bad examples" for younger teammates with their conduct. Weeks before the 2009 season, Bielema indefinitely suspended senior safeties Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter, who had 34 combined starts. They were soon kicked off the team.

Bielema didn't inform his assistants of his decision, instead calling a team meeting to relay the news.

"Everybody's looking around, they couldn’t believe it," Bielema recalled. "I remember to this day our coaches [saying], 'You just kicked off two of our best players on the same side of the ball at the same position.' But I never looked back, and our team didn’t either."

Wisconsin went on to win 10 games that fall before claiming three consecutive Big Ten championships. Bielema calls the dismissals "one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made as a coach."

There are less extreme measures to handling problematic roster pockets. LSU coach Les Miles fills the walls of the Tigers' team room with reminders about chemistry and leadership.

"Our room," Miles said, "is a descriptive place that speaks to a team relationship."

LSU never goes longer than six weeks without an established unity council. Saban relies on Alabama's peer intervention leadership group, which he meets with twice per month. Saban saw how Alabama's leaders reacted to a series of off-field issues this spring, including the dismissal of defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor.

"They’re really pissed that some of the things have happened, so it creates a heightened awareness that people want to do things to affect it," Saban said. "Where sometimes, when everything’s going good, everybody just assumes it's going to stay that way."

Others agree that team leaders, rather than coaches, can best manage troublesome cliques. Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads thinks player-driven accountability is "the strongest force" to prevent roster splintering, especially when losses pile up.

Sarkisian monitors not only potentially troublesome cliques on USC's roster, but also the time devoted to managing them.

"They can monopolize your time, and that's not fair to the other players on your roster, that negativity," Sarkisian said. "There's a fine line in how you address them. There's a fine line in how you try to incorporate them back into the team and lean on your team leaders. Cliques are going to occur. You have 105 guys; they're going to hang out with somebody.

"It's just a matter of making sure that we know who’s hanging out with who, what that group is like and that we’re pushing the right buttons."

Chemistry on college teams changes each year because of roster turnover. As Saban notes, "Nothing ever stays in a straight line." It makes the spring and summer critical for players to connect with one another -- and with their coaches.

"I make guys from different walks of life, complete opposites, sit down and share. We always say, 'Break bread with somebody new.'"
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema

Three times during preseason camp, Bielema pairs up players and asks each to research his partner. They ask a series of questions -- What's the significance of your name? What's the most important thing you ever bought with your own money? What was your most memorable high school date? -- before presenting to the team. He'll intentionally pair older players with younger players, players from different places and, at the end, players with similar backgrounds.

When Arkansas has bowling night during camp, four-man teams cannot include players from the same state or position group.

"I make guys from different walks of life, complete opposites, sit down and share," Bielema said. "We always say, 'Break bread with somebody new.'"

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham takes pride in the Utes' being "the most diverse football team in the country." Utah's roster is about one-third Polynesian, one-third black and one-third white. Like Bielema, Whittingham stresses team building in camp, testing players about their peers in front of the whole team.

"We make sure that we guard against any type of cliques or separation," Whittingham said. "Every once in a while, teams have some guys on the fringe, but very few and far between. Guys on the fringe, they don’t last long."

Penn State's team togetherness wasn't the issue when coach James Franklin arrived in January 2014. Nittany Lions players had endured unprecedented turbulence, from coaching change to historic NCAA sanctions.

It brought them closer and they kept winning, but if they hadn't connected with the new coaches, things could have gone south quickly.

"The players here were unbelievably tight and supportive of one another, but I was just another head coach," Franklin said. "They were like, 'Look, I’ve heard about buying into another vision and plan five times now.' That was tough to kind of work through."

Saban thinks coaches can identify good chemistry and negativity on their teams before a season begins. But the real reveal usually comes in the fall.

Mora saw his 2013 team come together after the death of freshman wide receiver Nick Pasquale in September. Wearing Pasquale's No. 36 on their jerseys and helmets six days after the tragedy, the Bruins rallied from 18 points down at Nebraska to win.

Iowa State faced different hardships in its season opener last year, losing star wide receiver Quenton Bundrage to an ACL tear on the fourth play and starting center Tom Farniok to a knee injury on the next offensive series. The team finished 2-10.

Every coach faces a ticking clock to get the chemistry right and to nullify the negativity. If the clock runs out, they're rendered helpless.

"As a coach, a guy who's used to making adjustments and putting a plan together," Rhoads said, "helpless is not a place where you want to be."

It's a place Strong refuses to be in his second year at Texas.

"I think we have enough talent," Strong told FoxSports.com this spring. "It's all about when guys start believing and trusting one another. I've been on teams that were ungodly talented but we didn't go win.

"It's all about chemistry."