Locker-room oratory is usually overdone, often backfires and is seldom memorable.
Still, the NFL cannot live without it. Every game, every team meeting, requires a speech of some kind from the coach. Each coach applies his own concept of motivation. The best use an economy of words. The worst wade into hyperbole.
Though the day of the rah-rah speech is largely gone from the league, the need for communication with the players will never disappear.
“I think it will always be a part of leadership,” said James Harris, director of pro personnel for the Ravens and one-time NFL quarterback. “But I think it starts with people respecting you. You’re wasting your time if there’s no respect.”
The ability to motivate players has been a keynote in football since Knute Rockne delivered his famous “Win one for the Gipper” speech for Notre Dame in 1928. Every coach since then, from Vince Lombardi to Bill Parcells to Jimmy Johnson, has tried to strike the same chord.
After all these years and all those pep talks, Ozzie Newsome said, the coach’s speech is still as important, still as relevant as it was in the early days.
“Because it’s a tone-setter,” said Newsome, Ravens’ senior vice president for football operations and a Hall of Fame tight end. “You’re the leader, and the players are looking for you to lead. So when you give that talk, you get the opportunity to set the tone for that game and set the tone after the game.”
Speeches never win games, but they do provide a blueprint. Delivered at the right time, with the right message, they can have a lasting effect on a team.
Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants, said inspirational speeches can be delivered at the wrong time, too.
“I’ve never been a big believer in the speech before the game,” he said. “How long can it last? When players come out and jump all over the place, sooner or later their feet have to hit the ground. Preparation is the key.
“The game is so complicated now, there are so many substitutions, so many calls, formations, players on and off the field. You have to think all the time. The old adage was, ‘Prepare them so they don’t have to think on Sunday and play with emotion.’ [But] if you don’t think on Sunday, you’re in trouble.”
A more effective time to motivate is during the practice week and in the team meeting Saturday night before the game. Bill Kuharich, director of pro personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, said it is important for players to have confidence in the leadership of the team.
“I think the dialogue has to come during the week,” he said. “It has to be built up during the week so they understand when they’re struggling that the person in command has a plan, has a way to execute the plan and they believe in what the process is.
“I don’t think you can flip a switch Saturday night or at halftime. I’ve never been in a locker room where something was said at halftime and turned the game around in the second half.”
Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy was superb at providing perspective during his 12-year tenure with the Buffalo Bills. A graduate of Harvard, the professorial Levy rarely said much to the Bills in the locker room before a game.
“To me, it’s just noise if you start to give pep talks in the locker room,” he said. “I do not think pep talks are very meaningful. You can give instruction, though.”
One of Levy’s best moments addressing the team came a day after a wrenching, 20-19 Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 1991. On the flight home, Levy thought of a poem he read in a book of English poetry given him by his mother. The next day, he read “The Ballad of Sir Andrew Barton.” It said:
Fight on my men, Sir Andrews said
A little I’m hurt, but not yet slain
I’ll just lie down and bleed a while
And then I’ll rise and fight again
At the end of that meeting, some 10 players were moved enough to ask Levy for a copy.
Parcells, who coached that Giants team to another Super Bowl victory, is considered the king of mind games. Johnson, who coached the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins, was equally deft at manipulating situations and circumstances.
Knowing intuitively what to say and when to say it is vital.
Raven Coach Brian Billick has the knack. His routine is to present a theme early in the week and reinforce it daily. He has shown clips from movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Wise Guys” and called players out. He tries to avoid leaning on an emotional angle too often.
“In the pro level, if you’re having to manufacture too much of that as a coach, then you’ve got other problems,” he said.
“All you’re trying to do is elicit a certain intellectual and emotional and physical response, to heighten their senses about whatever it is you’re doing -- the teaching sequence, the moment, the veracity of the game. And you have to be careful. When I use these clips and such, you can overdo it. It can become trite.”
Billick was anything but trite before the Super Bowl two seasons ago. As he had been throughout the 2000 season, he was masterful setting the stage for the Ravens’ 34-7 rout of the Giants. “Appreciate the moment” was his theme.
“Don’t let a moment of this escape you,” he told them, “and for God’s sake, don’t let yourself for a second escape the point. You don’t want to look back and go, ‘Damn, I didn’t give everything I had. I didn’t have the focus I needed.’ ”
Veteran players appreciate Billick’s approach. Defensive end Michael McCrary has had four coaches in 10 seasons, from Tom Flores and Dennis Erickson in Seattle to Ted Marchibroda and Billick in Baltimore.
“Ted was more of a rah-rah coach,” McCrary said. “He was like, ‘C’mon guys, let’s go get it.’ He was more old-school. Billick has more of a business approach. He makes his points and he doesn’t scream at you; he’s just very direct and passionate.”
A critical part of leading, Newsome said, is knowing the makeup of your team.
“I think you have to understand the pulse of the team, where the team is,” he said. “If you’ve got a veteran team, ranting and raving probably is not going to get it done; it’s not going to move those guys.”
Asked which coach was the best speaker they ever heard, Newsome and Harris named their college coaches -- Bear Bryant at Alabama and Eddie Robinson at Grambling.
It was left to Harris to draw the bottom line on locker-room oratory.
“If you’re in the room with a group of players and they need this speech to be successful,” he said, “then you’re going to lose.”