How We Coach: Matthew Brophy

How We Coach is a weekly series that deconstructs how coaches run their program: we explore their unique process, habits, practices, and coaching philosophies. Find out what keeps coaches up at night, how they teach, and what they do to improve every day. #HowWeCoach

Today we are talking to Matthew Brophy, from the awesome football blog “Cripes! Get Back to Fundamentals…”

Matthew Brophy
Matthew Brophy


Could you provide a brief description of your background? Where did you grow up, go to school?
I played football growing up in the Midwest because that was something you just did (all my family members and friends played), though I played without ever understanding or enjoying the game until I reach college. I played at a JUCO and a DIII college and experienced some coaches who were able teach the game to me and develop my skill sets.  After college, I played in various clubs, on an AFL2 practice squad and realized the only continued outlet for football for me would through coaching. I coached in rec leagues, youth ball, high school, assisted with small colleges, and even a women’s team over the years.

You have a popular blog (and awesome!) – can you share how it has it influenced your coaching/thinking over the years?
I believe the practice of writing, articulating a message so others can understand, accelerates how you learn and digest football.  It requires a deeper participation in the learning process to be able to equip someone other than yourself with the perspective you have.  I feel that process forces a deeper introspection of what you do as a coach for your program, what drills you use and the results you see on the field. The quest for more content spawns a hunger for learning and understand more and more material.

Oh, and the name “Cripes! Get Back to Fundamentals” – how did that come about?
Prior to moving to Louisiana, I had the pleasure of coaching for my alma matter. Our program put an emphasis on working Freshmen, Sophomores, Junior Varsity and Varsity programs together.  One of the coaches on our staff was Tom Hoeskema. He is a very animated character who had a habit of using this exclamation after any type of football error.  Blown assignment in practice? You’d get a, “Cripes! We can’t complete a pass. It’s time to get back to fundamentals, people” with his signature gesticulations. This became a comedic punchline amongst the staff that would be used on any subject matter.

How did you end up coaching football?

I got started in coaching primarily because I eventually recognized my athletic ceiling had been reached to continue playing.  Football had been a big part of my life, shaping my identity for so long, and it was after I stopped playing that I realized how much I enjoyed the unique experiences the game provides. I wanted to help young players to experience these same joys.

I work in the private sector (IT) and have been fortunate to be able to join over a half dozen programs in various capacities (head coach/coordinator/position coach).

Can you give a bit of background on your program?
Currently, I’m not coaching a team, so I’ll use a composite of my previous stops to answer the remaining questions. All the high school programs I joined were the result of being a member of an all new staff after years of losing. That experience gives me a unique perspective of coming in and rebuilding a program.

As a team, what are your core tenants/pillars?
Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve always made it a focus to teach the kids about self-efficacy and earning the respect of your teammates through your effort. It’s all about execution and competition, doing your 1/11th to reach the team’s potential. We stress, “do it right, then do it better than everyone else”.

Platooning is also a tenant I’ve been a big believer in for a while and I feel it is the key to building a competent high school program.

What’s your defensive philosophy as a coach?
The 42 (40 front out of 2-high) is what I’m about defensively. I’ve coached 3-3, 3-4, 5-3, 4-3, and 42 defenses and the nickel provides the framework accomplish everything I’m looking to do defensively. The personnel is what makes the difference, particularly on the Dline.  The Miami, FSU, and late Nebraska defenses of the 90s shaped how I look at defense. Particularly at the high school level, speed over size is what will give offenses fits. We really don’t get hung up on prototype athletes, it’s about putting the best 11 defenders on the field. The goal is to prevent explosive plays (+15 yds) and create negative yardage plays; the goal is to be disruptive on defense.  I feel the true mark of a defense is the absence of loafs and missed tackles. You can run whatever scheme you want, but if you have guys playing consistently with great effort and don’t have tackles broken, you will win.

Offensive philosophy?
Again, coached in a lot of different systems (wing-t, double wing, 2-back veer, pro I, and air raid) and have always believed 1-back zone offers the most versatility to move the ball.  Over the years, that has been double tight under center zone and stretch and more recently we’ve been lots of gun with zone read and an H-back serving as an additional blocker.

Special teams philosophy?
We treat special teams as an extension of offense and defense. Punt return becomes the offensive play for the defense, an opportunity to score. I enjoy coaching the technique with kickers and punt team.  Special teams plays provide so many opportunities to change a ball game and we stress to our players that all it takes is one play to win the game.

How many is on your coaching staff?
I have been on staffs where it was just me and another guy and other places where we had 12 coaches on staff. So long as you have a coordinator on both sides of the all that is organized, you can be effective. The best programs I’ve been involved with have the head coach acting as the chief officer, allowing each coordinator to do their jobs independently.

When does a new season start?
While off-season activities certainly begin 2 weeks after the season concludes, the focus for the next season doesn’t begin until after Mardi Gras. February is when we plot out the coaching clinics the staff will participate in, which serve as the defacto rally point for the staff to get together and begin meeting regularly to prep for the season.

How do you kick off your planning and preparation?
This will be a weekend afternoon in March, usually a crawfish boil and beer, where we all get together, catch up with each other, go over the players that have been participating in off-season conditioning, and layout the framework for what we will be running in the fall. The big takeaways here will be to be as open-minded and optimistic with personnel, including all possible contributors to the field. We pool the entire roster of the program and vote on the best offensive and defensive position of that player. This session will outline everything we’ll be installing in the Spring practices in May.

Specifically, how do your coaching staff do your planning?
This takes discipline. By the time the season ends, it has taken its toll and you’re not exactly primed for creative thinking.  If you’ve done your job during the season, you should have all the stats and grades on your players to have enough data to evaluate.

The head coach should also be conducting exit interviews with all the staff after the position coaches have done the same with their players.  The head coach will outline a schedule of off-season commitments and responsibilities for each coach. The best thing you can do is take a step back to objectively assess the season.  Getting the staff together to watch the state championships has been a good exercise for this.

This session will outline everything we’ll be installing in the Spring practices in May.

What is your main focus areas during the off-season?
The main focus is people and including all possible players for the program. We want all the coaches involved in the off-season, particularly making appearances at basketball, wrestling and other sports the school participates in. This is also a good time for the head coach to visit the feeder school’s PE teachers and set a time to meet with those players after school.

Could you provide a short summary of the different phases and priorities?
Post-season – season analysis, regroup staff, re-assess impact on program. Set recruiting strategy for students and incoming classes.
New year – set clinic schedule, staff schedule and off-season team activities.
S&C –
Fundamentals (January – February): core lifts focusing on technique and reps.
Development (March – April): focus on intensity and tempo for gains.
Advanced (May – June): incorporating more isometric lifts and speed work
Peak (July – August): work on core and stability lifts
Spring Ball – 10 practices to install our core plays and evaluate roster
Summer lifting – set times and core lifts for players
Summer 7&7 – practice and competitions and tournament schedules

How does a normal week play out off-season? What are the key “milestones”?
A normal week is just the drudgery of getting everyone attending athletic period / workouts. Hard work isn’t exciting or sexy, but our main thrust is keeping the kids engaged with their workout session. This is the time we want to foster relationships with all players, particularly those outside of our coaching position group. Workout cards are used to track lifts and gains for the players.IN-SEASON

Compared to in-season, how does a normal week play out? What are the key “milestones”?
In-season, we compile the game film Friday night, get the scout film by Saturday and review it.  Game planning is done with the staff on Sunday night, outlining what we’re going to do for the upcoming opponent. After each practice, we have all the assistants outline their individual periods for the next practice and what equipment they will be using so this all can be set at their station in the next practice.

Monday will start with a brief overview of the last game, then a quick synopsis of the opponent’s best plays. We will go over the game plan on a whiteboard with the players, then take them to the field for a walk-through.  This is followed by opponent formation/coverage recognition before going straight to team period.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays are heavy work with pre-practice, indy, group and team.  All group and team periods are scripted.  Thursday is just a quick 45 minute run through of the game plan calls (offense vs defense).

Do you use analytics as a tool when game planning or self-scouting? Do you see this as something that is coming to the HS level anytime soon?
We used HUDL canned scouting reports. So long as everyone does their job on the weekend, this is incredibly efficient.  We don’t hand out reports anymore, but do a pre-practice film review of the opponent.

Previously, we used Excel for these types of breakdowns. This is where I spent my time starting out; tracking in Excel then eventually just creating databases for scout reference.

I’m pretty sure everyone does this now. Where I could see this improving is if you put your playbook with assignments into a database and incorporated it as the grading metric for players (ex. Enter your playbook with each position assignment with the technique detailed, then grade against each play using this same information).

How do you run your scout team?
Scout team is run off of PowerPoint templates. We use our team terminology for all the scout calls. Scout is geared for group and team time. These reps are scripted for starters and the scout team

How do you work with in-game adjustments?
We always go into the game with a backup plan so that is ready to go as a changeup. Calls are tracked in the box to keep a running tally of play results/distribution. This would be the large reason for any adjustment.

I read an article about the Houston Texans and how they work on the gameplan. They said it was a collaborative process – how do you run it in your program? Is it also a collaborative process for your team?
Definitely a collaboration, meeting on Sunday night after stats and scout film has been watched. What are we going to do and how are we going to do it.  Plot the practice for the week. Plan gets set by Monday afternoon

Which tools and process do you use when preparing for an opponent?
For the last 8 years, we have used HUDL and draw up opponent formations in PowerPoint. This allows us to call up any opponent and just print out the scout cards. We draw up top plays with their likely D&D.

What’s your process for post-game follow-up?
Each position coach grades his unit and looks for the areas needing improvement.

How do young players differ today from 10 years ago?
Certainly have more competing interests and can handle more information. Kids today know the game better than before. Coaches have to really look at fostering deeper relationships with their players because there isn’t much inspiring players to give effort simply because you’re “the coach”.

What’s your process for getting players into the playbook?
The best way I’ve seen is showing film of what you’re teaching being successful to give them a visualization of what you’re talking about. Then accentuate what your kids do well and continue to reinforce it by showing them doing those same things on film. Allow players to make their own calls at times.

What’s your morning routine?
On a good day, in-season, it would involve a quick cardio session immediately on wakeup because, by the end of the day/practice, there just won’t be enough time for it later.

The last thing on your mind before you sleep?
If it’s during the season, I’m usually hopped up on caffeine and my mind is cycling through all the potential calls and how they would be handled. I don’t think that is healthy or the way to operate, so I’m looking to adapt and find a better method.

Do you have any beliefs about football strategy that is contrarian?
I don’t believe I do. The older I get, the more I recognize that the game is really all about the fundamentals of 1) effort and 2) blocking and tackling. The real challenge is having the balls to stay aggressive when things are going your way. When things go your way (offense, defense, schedule) can you stick to your formula and keep pushing the limits when the risk-averse thing to do would tell you to lay off the throttle.

What’s your go to play on 3rd and short?
On 3rd and short, it depends on what our personnel looks like, but over the years we’ve always had some type of wedge (“sucker”) play that used our quarterback or direct snap to fullback to apex block on the ball, leaving ends unblocked and just looking to gain 2-3 yards. Other than that, we would likely use the 3-step stick to the Y as our go-to play.

If you could only one play for an entire game- what would it be?
I would say either stick or inside zone on offense and 2 Read on defense (which easily adjusted based on offensive formation). I don’t believe the quick game gets enough respect or folks are patient enough to work the horizontal stretch of the defense.

If you could run an NFL or Division 1 program, and what would you do first?
This may be boring, but my first task would be to make it a point to meet with state’s high school coaches. Fostering these relationships will not only ensure my future roster’s are stocked, but also allow me a peer group I can tap into. In addition, it’s also important to continue to provide coaches a positive reinforcement for what they do.

What are your coaching influences?
I have had a lot of coaches in my life, but few that I really felt got me to understand what I was doing or inspired me to recognize my development outside of the game. I had a middle school coach, Jeff Hayek, and college coach, Jon Vrieze, who took the time to develop a personal relationship with me.  I felt a genuine interest from them to see me do better on the field and off.  Those two made me feel I was making a difference each practice and consequently influenced my work ethic to challenge my effort and performance.

Who inspires you as a leader/coach?
From a coaching standpoint, I would say Nick Saban / Pete Carroll schools of positive self-efficacy preached to the players that personal performance is the goal and the opponent is just the tool to measure your performance by. Coaching is really about nurturing the talent that already exists in a player. The reward is watching them mature and take ownership of their performance and future.

How do you envision football will change over the next 5-10 years? Any difference in HS/college/NFL?
In the immediate future, I don’t see much changing from a schematic standpoint. Successful concepts will remain and we won’t be seeing tempo or RPOs dying as a “fad”. I believe the next phase of the game will not necessarily be personnel groups, but how NCAA and NFL teams can get full use of their roster. Tempo has stressed the depth charts of many teams, so how competent will your backups are and what type of athletes you can use will be the true test of a program.

NFL will continue to dilute itself to protect itself as a business entity. There will be more passing, less contact. NFL is only concerned with the big knockouts, not subconcussive hits, so I think you’ll eventually get around to a 7 on 7 type feel, because at the end of the day, that is what sells as an entertainment product.

NCAA will struggle with the labor issue. If they ever get around to paying athletes stipends, you’ll probably start seeing more club agencies or what amounts to an NFL-subsidized farm system. Targeting and helmet rules will help improve the game.

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Michael Hoglund

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