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Atlanta Silverbacks “Eliminate” Head Coach Position

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Eric Wynalda #11

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Atlanta, GA (January 8th, 2014)- On Tuesday I attended the Atlanta Silverbacks press event at the headquarters of the Georgia State Soccer Association. Initially, it was billed as the unveiling of the new head coach but media, fans, players, and employees of the team were greeted with quite the surprise. Below, I’ve broken this down into three sections: What we know, quotes, and analysis. I’m going to present what I felt were the most important facts of the presser, allow you to read the most important quotes, and then give you my feelings on all of it at the end.

What We know

-In a strange sports twist the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks have decided not to hire a new head coach for the 2014 season. Although Chairman Boris Jerkunica poignantly stated the team would “eliminate that position” they have essentially appointed technical director and former U.S. international, Eric Wynalda, the new head coach. Jerkunica and co-owner Henry Hardin expressed great admiration for the Wynalda system that turned the team around when he was first hired in 2012.

-The team declined the 2nd year option on former coach Brian Haynes’ contract at the end of the 2013 season, a season in which the Silverbacks played in the NASL’s pinnacle game despite a Fall season collapse. A collapse that saw just 4 wins and endured 4 straight losses to close.

-The team announced a new, local ownership group shortly after Haynes’ firing.

-One of the major selling points for the decision was to eliminate voices and streamline the message as it pertains to the players. Wynalda noted that, towards the end of the Fall season, there was too much miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mixed messaging during the practice week which translated to a lack of cohesiveness and unity on the field. Communicating more effectively and efficiently was the most important thing Wynalda stressed.

-The team flatly denied that any financial restrictions were not a catalyst for making this decision.

-They are very aware that they may catch increased scrutiny for the move and listed public perception as one of the main cons they discussed. That said, they are comfortable deflecting criticism and expressed great confidence in trying something new and unconventional.

-Wynalda said the team would look to be a more offensive minded team. He said the team would be more explosive and noted the lack of goal scoring last year. He said the gameplans will change based on opponents.

-Wynalda laid out a weekly schedule that would put him with the team from Thusday until Saturday after the game. With the schedule he laid out, he felt it only necessary for him to be there for those days. Sunday through Wednesday he would go back to California to take care of his familial duties and other obligations, catching a plane on Wednesday nights to Atlanta. He would do most of his scouting at home via the NASL website which archives every game as well as relying on assistant coaches to help scout opponents.

-The weekly schedule was laid out as follows: Sunday- recovery day, Monday- off day, Tuesday- lift day/light training (depending on time of year and season), Wednesday- training session, Thursday- technical/tactical install, Friday-train & travel or vice versa, Saturday- game day.

-Neither Wynalda nor ownership is worried about players who may be more accustomed to or prefer having a head coach present and available on a daily basis. They don’t feel it will affect or influence the type of players they look to sign. They feel that modern technology i.e. skype, facetime, video conferencing, texts, cell phones, will allow them to communicate as often as necessary.

Chairman-Boris Jerkunica

“The reason we’re here today, is, we were alluding to, that we’re going to announce a new coach. And actually we’re going to do a switcharoo on you, and we’re going to announce that we’re not going to hire a new coach. We’re actually going to eliminate that position.”

“We decided that we like the system that Eric put into place and we’re trying to decide how do we make sure that system goes forward?”

“What if we don’t have a coach? What if Eric just puts in the system and manages that?  We started exploring that and the next thing we knew as we were exploring that is, like, wow this makes a lot of sense.”

“Question everything.  Just because everybody’s done it for 100 years, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing.”

Owner-Henry Hardin

“The thing I like about what we’ve decided is really to keep it simple, and that’s the most important thing here, is keeping it simple, and allowing the individual that has the passion and the vision for our system here at Silverbacks to execute it and to communicate that directly with his functional coaches and with his players directly. And so, what does that really mean? It allows for more effective communication by not having intermediaries. So we’re bought into it, and I’m bought into Eric’s plan, Eric’s system.  It aligns with the values that both Boris and I have come to an agreement on how were going to take the team forward and Eric’s going to be a great addition.”

Technical Director-Eric Wynalda

“When we started to talk about this situation that we were in and we got to the end of the season and we lost our coach we felt that it was necessary to try and figure out what’s best moving forward. Now I know, on the surface, that it may sound as if this is a little bit less conventional way of doing things and we’re not suggesting that this be a model that everyone take.”

“It’s not something that we’re going to say everybody should do it, but it certainly works for us. We evaluated everything ad nauseum, trying to figure out how we were going to, on a logistical side, figure out how we were going to manage this team and under the circumstances this is the way that things are going to go. So my job right now is basically to explain to you why that works because a lot of people, a lot of coaches, would put a lot of weight into being there every day. What you realize in some of these situations, especially with us, is sometimes when you’re actually there you miss more.”

“This certainly will be a situation that, when we get through the first part of the week, I won’t be there. But, we are going to have several assistants, whatever we’re going to call them, people that will be assisting with a work week.”

“When we talk about this scenario, we don’t have an actual coach, but is there certain functions that I will be doing throughout a week that would appear to be coaching? Yes. But, we’ve just eliminated the word, or the term, “head coach.””

“On Wednesday night I’m probably going to get on a plane and come to Atlanta to be with my team on Thursday. Thursday we’ll probably do the technical/tactical stuff that is necessary for preparation. Friday we’ll train once, we’ll train and then travel, or travel and train, play the game and then I’ll return to California probably on a Sunday afternoon.”

“It’s going to make me a busy person. I know it sounds like I’m trying to get out of work, but this actually makes things more complicated in the sense that I have to travel a little bit, but I’m fully dedicated to the cause.”

“There is a ton of talent in this state and one of my big things is you can’t over look it and you’ve got to tap into it. And when you finally do you’ve got to know what you’re doing and I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities.”

“I know this sounds a little bit less conventional than what we’re used to. We’re used to having a head coach and that’s maybe something that we’ve just accepted as the norm.”

“This is a little different, but, we’re committed to it and we think it’s going to work. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think this was the best way for us to go.”

“It’s more about communication than about a set philosophy.”

“We address each game differently in the sense that we are prepared for the opponent and we do have an element of surprise to our game.”

“The first part of the week is about recovery and strengthening. The second part of the week is about preparation.”

Analysis

The Atlanta Silverbacks announcement that they would not hire a new head coach was shocking mostly because it challenges all of our customs as sports fans, athletes, or employees. For all intents and purposes, Eric Wynalda is the Head Coach, although he will retain the title of Technical Director. The team is selling it pretty hard, but you wouldn’t expect anything less. Believe it or not, I’m not entirely opposed to the idea based on the weekly schedule that Eric has laid out for the team. But, after looking at the timeline of events, reading between the lines and getting a sense of the mood in the room, here are some of the thoughts that are running through my head. Remember, I’m merely speculating based on the information given.

The main feeling I get is this is more a move of necessity than the team wanted to admit. I do think they are interested in doing things a different way and I do think they legitimately believe this can be successful. I’m just saying there was a logistical aspect to this, as Eric mentioned in the second quote above. I’m sure talks about a new ownership group were happening before they fired Brian Haynes. When they knew the ownership group was going to be more localized, they knew they weren’t going to have as much money to spend, as most smaller businesses begin. It’s not a bad thing as it allows more customization to your business but it means you have to squeeze everything you can out of your resources. After a terribly sub-par Fall season, I think it made firing Haynes easier.

Therefore, what do you do? You can hire somebody else, but based on finances, that person would likely be around the same caliber as Haynes, even though a new voice is sometimes all it takes. Or, you look in your organization to a guy who has played, very very successfully, at the highest levels of the game, who has had success coaching the team already, and for the sake of this argument, is already on payroll. Wynalda is already heavily involved in choosing the players so it makes sense that he gets to buy the groceries that will fit his system. I know the team denied financial restrictions as a reason for the decision, but let’s be honest, it’s a business, money is always involved. To be fair, Wynalda noted the team has a set budget that they will spread among more assistants instead of a head coach and say, a top assistant. Either way, that doesn’t mean they’ve decided to allocate all of a head coaching budget to the assistants and they’ve effectively got a guy doing two jobs.  Somehow, they’re saving money here.

Furthermore, the quotes suggest, on a couple occasions, that “this is what’s best for us.” Translation: given our situation we need to do it this way. That suggests that it’s not solely an effort to be innovative, but the best way to utilize the tools and resources that they have available at the moment. It’s the way they have to do it for now.

The other thing that made me feel like this was a necessity was Wynalda’s mention of the crazy life he lives and the amount of travel he was going to have to do. He has 4 children, all in different schools, living in Southern California. Not to mention his media duties with Fox. We’re talking about regular cross country trips. Eric is an active dude and his life was crazy before, but this has become more of a day to day job for him with considerable stress attached to it.  Before, he could fly in and fly out virtually at will and take care of his job remotely.  Just my feeling, but, I got the sense he knew this was going to be a tremendous challenge and under normal circumstances he wouldn’t agree to do this. I also got the feeling that he needed convincing. I wouldn’t say he sounded reluctant, in fact, at this point he seems to have accepted it and made the commitment. At first, however, it may have taken some selling on the part of the ownership. Credit him for his dedication to the team and making the necessary sacrifices.

Most players at this level are going to jump at any pro contract but I do think it will affect the type of players that you are able to bring in. The team made it clear that they are not running a U-16 team and are solely interested in adults who are able to be independent and self motivated. Unfortunately, in many cases you’re talking about players who are taking their first dive into pro sports, are moving across the country or to a new country for the first time. You’re talking about 18, 19, 20 year olds, in some cases, who are out of their comfort zone for the first time.  Sure, I went to college, but I was two hours from home and surrounded with resources to help me when I needed it. In any group, there will be a few who require more attention than others. The fact is, there are people who are more independent than others. It’s not a knock, it’s just a fact. Some players need to know they can walk into the coach’s office at any time and talk about their game just like those of a former generation need to physically pick up a newspaper to read it rather than go online. For a team that is stressing communication, there’s nothing like human interaction.

All that said, I will still re-iterate my belief that I think it can be successful model. The schedule Eric has laid out is not unlike an NFL schedule if you think about it. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday include recovery, treatment, off-day, and light practice. Thursday and Friday are practice/install days, and Saturday is walk-through. I know we’re talking about a different sport, the point is Eric doesn’t need to be there for the off day. He doesn’t need to be there for therapy and recovery, after all, he’s not a doctor. He doesn’t need to be there for weight training. He’s not a strength and conditioning coach. He can effectively, watch film, scout teams, and game plan from his office in his house. Then, on Thursday, he’ll swoop in and shove a gameplan down in a period of time short enough that players will have to focus very hard on it and long enough to fully comprehend it. If he were here at the beginning of the week he’d likely be locked in an office somewhere doing the same thing. You wouldn’t see him that often any way. If he needs to talk with a player, he can skype, or FaceTime, or call, as he would here. The only real downfall is that he’s not available in an emergency and there’s going to be a comfortability curve.

Lastly, remember that Eric was a player himself and understands the needs and complaints of players. He’s spent a lifetime in the game in many different capacities. He can articulate the game, he values communication, he’s energetic, and his resume provides him with enough clout to get the players to buy. I’ll be curious to see what kind of success it has, if it can prove sustainable, and how it helps this organization build. This seems like a group who is interested in re-booting from an ownership, philosophy, and player standpoint, and has the long-term future in mind.

Alec Campbell, Sports Radio 92.9 The game

Follow Alec on Twitter @AlecCampbell5

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