I don't have much experience coaching, but I have spent a lot of time being coached. If there is one thing I learned while playing for eight different head coaches, it is the idea of keeping a 'consistent coaching environment' is a complete fallacy.
While at a speaking event Friday in Brandon, I was asked, of all the head coaches I worked for, who was my favourite and why? I immediately knew the answer would be Dave Ritchie, but it took me longer to figure out the reasons.
The easy explanation is that Ritchie was the coach that I won the most games with, so I naturally had the most positive experiences with him. Yet the underlying reason was I respected the way and style he coached.
Most coaches I've worked with feel that an even-keeled workplace, one that never got too loose after a win, or never got too morbid after a loss, was the way to go, and I could not disagree more.
While I understand the thought process of a stable and uniform schedule and learning forum, I never liked the message it sent. Whether you win by 50 or lose by 50, your schedule, your practice, your meetings with your coaches -- for the most part -- are exactly the same from one week to another.
Under Ritchie, team performance dictated the environment. When we won, we could exhale a bit. We could joke a little more with him, have a little more fun at practice, or at least until he started getting uptight and fretting whether we were taking our next opponent seriously enough.
Yet as jovial as the weeks could be when we were in the middle of a four-, five-, or 12-game winning streak, when we did lose, and especially when we lost big, our world was turned upside down and inside out. It was as abrupt as being doused from behind by a Gatorade shower.
It would start in the locker-room immediately after the game. He would threaten that he better not see anybody laughing, or with a smile on their face, or hear about us going out drinking until the wee hours, during the days after a loss.
His mood was so sullied by defeat, that on a bus ride back to Winnipeg after a Labour Day loss -- which thankfully, back then, didn't happen too often -- the players would almost riot trying to get on the bus he wasn't on. Or in the airport, we would speak in hushed whispers, careful not to be overheard, wincing about what lay in store when we got back to Winnipeg.
He could be so irate after a loss, we would head straight to practice once the plane touched down, union rules, fatigue and injuries be damned. The practice script would change: Every mistake would result in a run around the goal posts, and for whatever reason he decided had cost us the game, the remedy would be drilled into us like a dentist with an itchy trigger finger.
These days, bye-week schedules are handed out to players months in advance. With Ritchie, you would be lucky to get it the week before, because he didn't want you thinking about it. And, if you were losing going into the bye week, he would schedule practice in the middle of it, because, "you need to get better."
Losing was unpleasant, it was inconvenient, and it could be exceedingly harsh. But all you had to do to make it stop was win.
In the Ritchie world of pro football, you were the author of your environment. We were conditioned to hate losing not only for the obvious consequences in pro sports, but because we didn't know or want to know what hell would be in store for us that week.
The only time he ever granted us a reprieve for losing, and I remember this vividly, was when we lost in Toronto by two points, after we had won 12 consecutive. He stood in front of us at our team meeting, and told us how proud he was of what we had accomplished. The funny thing was, until he said that, we all expected to be punished even though we had tied an all-time, now 100-year-old, CFL record. His leniency on this singular occasion blew us away.
Losing a game would ruin your football experience under Dave Ritchie's command. It wasn't fun to go through it, but it drove the point home, and it would be the one lesson I would want to leave with a head coach entering his second season of command.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.