The Tennessean – October 18, 2010 – Jim Wyatt – Sports psychology feature – Coach has used several methods over the years.Â The night before their game in New York last month, the Titans got an emotional lift. They heard a speech by Will Jimeno, a Port Authority Police officer who survived being buried under World Trade Center rubble for 13 hours on 9/11.
A couple of days before their game against the Cowboys last week, the Titans got a kick in the pants. They heard an expletive-filled tirade by their usually mild mannered head coach, who questioned their readiness to play.
Over the years — 17, for those counting — Jeff Fisher has used a variety of methods to motivate the grown men who call him coach. He’s inspired them, challenged them, insulted them, and made them laugh.
Judging from his longevity, it’s working. Fisher has lasted longer in his job than any other active NFL head coach, and he ranks third among active coaches in career wins (144), trailing only Bill Belichick (166) and Mike Shanahan (157).
While X’s and O’s and developing players have a lot to do with a coach’s success, Fisher has shown an uncanny ability to keep other things fresh, from his teaching methods to his handling of players and what’s needed to stimulate their collective psyche.Â And he knows how to pick his spots.
“Until you’ve sat in that head coach’s chair in the National Football League you really don’t understand what all it entails and how all encompassing it is,’’ said Titans linebackers coach Dave McGinnis, a 37-year coaching veteran who was Cardinals head coach from 2000-03. “All of the different things you have to be able to juggle, from the mental aspect of the game and the temperament of your football team and when to press a hot button and when to press a cold button, when to pull them together.
“That is the biggest thing that separates head coaches from guys who have head coachingpositions. To be honest, there are guys right now that have head coaching positions in this league that have no business being head coaches. But a real head coach gets it, and Jeff Fisher is at the top of that list.’’
The Titans head into tonight’s game against the Jaguars with a 3-2 record. A year ago they were 0-5, on the verge of crumbling as talk about Fisher’s job security rose well above a whisper. Then the Titans won eight of their last 11 games.
Fisher’s personality never changed during the trying start or the strong finish, his players said. Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio once put an axe and a big block of wood in the locker room to enhance a “keep chopping woodâ€? theme, only to have his punter hurt himself with the axe.
Fisher’s motivational methods have been equally creative — no word if he’s placed calls to any Chilean miners recently — but from every indication he really hasn’t had one backfire.
“Jeff always had something new up his sleeve,’’ former Titans punter Craig Hentrich said. “And there’s a method to his madness every time he does something.’’ The night before the Sept. 26 game against the Giants, the Titans watched a clip from the 2006 film World Trade Center. Seconds later, Jimeno walked in and shared his story of perseverance.
Before a 2003 playoff game against the Steelers, the Titans watched a clip from Remember The Titans. Then the high school coach who was the inspiration for the film, Herman Boone, made a surprise appearance.
Fisher also likes week- and season-long themes. One was “212 Degrees, The Extra Degree,â€? that included posters tacked up around Baptist Sports Park and a movie. “At 211, water is just hot water,’’ safety Donnie Nickey said. “But that extra degree gets it boiling and changes the physics of it. The message was to get that extra degree, and see what we get. It was a challenge to us. It was unique.’’
Fisher once had all 53 players place a small stone into a pile in the LP Field locker room. The message: Here’s how big you can grow working together. Once he sensed that players needed a laugh the night before a game. He stunned them by having “Office Linebacker Terry Tateâ€? of TV commercial fame come out of nowhere to tackle strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson, whose cell phone had “accidentallyâ€? gone off during a team meeting — one of Fisher’s pet peeves. It broke the tension in a hurry.
In 2008, Fisher risked life and limb for the sake of motivation, jumping from a helicopter with the 101st Airborne Parachute team and landing on the practice field as astonished players looked on. “We were 10-0 and the pressure was mounting and we were getting tight, not wanting to lose,â€? linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “That was his way of loosening things up.’’
The Titans lost the following Sunday, “but Coach Fisher is very clever with what he does and that is a credit to him and how long he has been around,â€? Tulloch said. “And players have a lot of respect for him.’’
Fisher, 52, is a big practical joker, but during last Friday’s practice he unleashed a darker side. The Titans looked lackadaisical. Two players began chirping at each other, which escalated into pushing and shoving as others joined the jawing. Fisher charged in with a rare show of anger and harsh language. “It was necessary,’’ defensive back Vincent Fuller said. “He knew that we couldn’t get what we got done in Dallas done if we weren’t together, if we weren’t as a team.’’ Immediately after practice, Fisher apologized to a female reporter who witnessed the tirade.
The flash of fury was not planned, Fisher said. TheÂ Titans entered the game as a seven-point underdog, but won 34-27. “There is no manual, that is probably the best answer,’’ Fisher said of his methods. “I reacted (that day) to an accumulation of things. But I am not one to circle a date and say, ‘This is the date you’re going to do it.’
“Every game is different and no game we play over the course of however so many years is similar. It’s a different set of circumstances each week and you adjust. What I try to do is get a sense from the players, from their preparation habits, commitment, and what is required going into a game.’’
John F. Murray, a sports psychologist from Palm Beach, Fla., said a coach has to keep his messages from getting stale if he’s going to survive with one team as long as Fisher has. Of course, Fisher also benefits from an ever-changing roster, a new batch of players to motivate each year. “By varying the presentation, no matter how you do it, people will pay attention,â€? Murray said.
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