How We Coach: Roy Istvan, Cornell Football

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

This week we sat down with Roy Istvan, offensive coordinator for Cornell Football, and touched on multiple subjects; how you combine being an Ivy League institution with competing at the highest level, how he runs Cornell’s multiple pro-style offense, and what Roy’s alternative career could have been.

6 AM and ready to go.

How did you end up coaching football?
In 10th grade, I had a great coach on my team and one day I clearly remember he said: “We’re not having a good day, you need to get in and talk to these guys. They’ll respond to you”, and maybe that was the hook. I guess I had an affinity for it, and followed that up in college.

If not coaching, what would you have done?
My father is a contractor, homebuilder, refinisher, and remodeler. He was very clear with that if I didn’t do well in school I would end up working with him. It’s going to be Bill Istvan and Son Builders. That was a motivating force for me. He still asks me: “Still into this coaching stuff?” and I always say: “Yeah, I’m good, dad”.

A bit of background on the program at Cornell?
Cornell is one of 8 teams in the in the Ivy League. The program has a great history in college football. in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s and even the 50’s, the Ivy League teams where the prominent division 1 football teams. Today, they would have been grouped into teams like Notre Dame, Navy, Boston College, Michigan, and USC. They were like the SEC of today, and they were the most committed teams. Cornell has won the national championship 5 times.

What’s your coaching style?
I define myself as a teacher, whether its’ teaching football S&C or helping kids write a resume. Second, I’m an honest person and you have to be that as a coach. One of the hardest things is to give honest feedback, it’s easy to sugarcoat things. If you can look a guy in the eye and say: “You’re not good enough now, but this is how you could improve”, that’s what you need to do. Immediately no one likes that, but that’s important down the road. Being a teacher and give honest feedback, and provide energy for your group.

Honing in on the details

Foundation and core tenants as a team?
Our head coach, David Archer, his biggest thing is “Always be a positive influence”. If you use that sentence in different contexts it becomes a great pillar for our program to build on. For the kids we recruit, we use things like “Cornell is a 44-year scholarship instead of a 4-year scholarship” because it starts the day you graduate. One of the unique things about Cornell is, first of all, location. We’re based in upstate New York, Ithaca, in a fairly rural area, so we like to call ourselves the “blue collar Ivy”. We’re not the big city like the other ones.

Offensive philosophy?
Simple. Very simple: we want to run the football. And it’s not because I’m also the offensive line coach. You’ve got to start somewhere. If you understand that we are going to run the football and put great emphasis on that, you say to yourself: “This is going to work, until they do this”. Our answer is to keep running it until you do this and once they change defensive strategy that will trigger us to do something else. We almost doubled our rushing average in the two years that I have been here. We feel like that has created toughness and work ethic and we can be in any game control the football.

What kind of offense do you run?
We’re a pro-style offense and when you say that, it means you can be multiple, because, obviously the pros are very multiple. Nowadays, a lot of teams say they want to use no-huddle, spread, and tempo. That are the things in vogue. We use a pro-style offense, multiple personnel, multiple formations, motions, and shifts. In our offense, we constantly are changing who is in the game, the picture for the defense, and we feel like we are doing the same thing as a no-huddle to confuse the defense because the period of time for them to make a decision, a check, or roll the coverage is small. We just use more clock.

Any specifics about the running game?
As I said, it’s very multiple. We use one back, two backs, designed quarterback runs, option, gap scheme, toss, power, inside and outside zone. Very multiple.

When does a new season start?
The day after the last game. Every year, we play 10 games, and we have the same schedule every year. Last game of the year is Cornell vs. Penn. The day after the game, on Sunday, we meet as a team and our head coach addresses the team, what we are going to do now and our goals for next year.

What’s your main focus during January and February?
When we come back for semester break, the winter is allocated to X amount of in the weight room and X amount of hours in the class room. There’s a premium on getting stronger and adding muscle mass and all that stuff. We do spend a good amount together as an offense and defense; installing our schemes, watching cutups, and talking about our plan for spring practice.

Now we’re in spring practice – how does a normal week play out?
At Cornell, the education for the student is at a premium. The Ivy League is extremely challenging for the football players, so we try to accommodate them as best we can. Now in spring football, our practices are going to be on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We’ll have little to no contact with the players during the week. We might have a meeting or film review, one or two days, but most of the work will be done on the weekend.

As coaches, that enables us to make sure the practice plans are good and ready to go for the weekend. And we spend a lot of time on recruiting, which takes a lot of time. All coaches travel and we have 5-8 states we are responsible for. If we think there are Division 1 caliber players with Ivy League grades, then we have to go see him and see if he can make it here. Does he want the competitiveness academically in the same way as he wants the competitiveness on the football field? Recruiting is very extensive. We have a great product to sell, Cornell is one of the top ten schools in the world when you identify kids that want to be in business or engineering and really love football – you got the perfect match.

It pays to work hard

Goals and objectives with spring football?

We have 12 practices in the spring, 3 less than Division 1. Of those twelve, we will have three scrimmages, three non-padded practices, and that cuts it in half right about there. You want to get to scrimmages and put guys in to see how they react in situations. My belief is that in spring football, you need to prepare your players and team for fall camp. Spring football does not need to set you up to win a football camp, that’s the objective of fall camp. We work very hard to make sure our spring football practices can take us one step closer to fall camp, and there on out you try to win football games.

When you play during the fall, you’re worried about winning games and using personnel and formations. In the spring, we don’t worry about that at all. Here we simply go put a play in and we teach the players how to master the play. How we block a play vs a 3-4, versus a blitz, or a 4-3 front, or a Bear defense? We worry more about the plays and mastering them than the other stuff.

Specifically, how do you teach a player that play?
Every day, we do the install of the day, and our entire playbook was put together between Word and PowerPoint, so the players have access to that. We feel that PPT and visual presentation, backing that up with DVSports video is the best way to get the plays across to the players.

In-season, how does a normal week play out?
We used to have a normal schedule, but that has changed a bit. We used to have Sundays off and players would not come in at all. Monday we’d meet at 430-630 pm, do a game recap, and run an abbreviated practice. Then we have practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday between 430 to 630 pm, and then Saturday would be game day.

Now, we’ll have JV games on Sundays, which means we are going have to find an alternative day off, either Wednesday or Thursday, a very untraditional practice week. We’ve done some research and found that Oregon under Chip Kelly took Wednesday off and that’s one of the models we might follow.

Multiple ways of running it

How do you as a staff work with the gameplan?

Again, my philosophy is that if you’re a part of the offensive staff we want you to be a part of the gameplan. We had four coaches on offense last year. Me being the coordinator and O-line coach, I did the normal down situations, runs and play action, the normal gameplan body. We divided our third downs: 3rd and 3-6, 7-10, and +11. Our QB coach handled all those situations, meaning game and opponent breakdown. Our RB coach handled red zone, the fringe between 35-26, where the field is as wide as long – looking at big shot plays. Then we have the high red between 25-13 and then we have the low red between the 12-5 yard line. It’s really in the passing game when the dimensions of the field change where you’ll need to have a specialized attack for that area.

Is the gameplan a collaborative effort?
Basically, we grade film on Sunday, then meet with the head coach and talk about the previous game. Once that’s over, we break down the most recent game of our opponent played together as a staff. Just one game together, but making sure we call the game the same, same defenses, and the same blitzes. Once that’s done, we have some prep time we’re we focus on our assigned area. Then on Monday, the first thing I do is present the normal downs, and then redzone, then 3rd down on Tuesday morning. A very collaborative effort, and if there is something they feel very strong about we’re always going to put it into the gameplan, have no ego when it comes to that. If they are going to be the expert for their area.

Do you draw up new plays for a specific opponent?
You know, we are going away from that. If there is an area where there is real carry-over from spring ball to the season, it is probably redzone and third down. You can rehearse those plays. The redzone doesn’t change, and teams typically play very similar coverages so we install a lot of our redzone offense in spring practice as well as our third down passing game.

Have young players changed?
I think kids are the same, but the adults have changed. Great parents make great kids.

How do you maximize player learning?
Learning is the operative word there. You need to cover all mediums with the kids and you need to be visual. You need to make them read and be  interactive, like having workbooks in school. I have the offensive lineman draw in the blocking scheme, draw in their calls just to be interactive. Part of what makes coaching different from teaching is that tcoaches work 24/7. Because when a player has an issue, like being dumped by a girlfriend, they call you. I believe there is so much carry-over between teaching and coaching. I listen to all that are teachers, whether it’s my kid’s teachers or friends that are teachers,  college professors, and if you ask a teacher about how they get excited and you can learn a lot.

Do you have a morning routine?
Absolutely. My alarm clock rings. Two feet on the floor. Get up. Make coffee. Food. Make sure I have enough food for the day, breakfast and lunch and out the door in 30 minutes. Then at the facility, I’ll shower, have coffee, and then I’m alive and ready to roll. You have to make sure you get up at the same time every day.

Last thing on your mind?
I take thirty minutes before I go to sleep and plan my next day  and the stuff I have to get done.  

Go to play on 3rd and short?
Power. Pull the guard, fullback. We have ten or fifteen ways of running it, with one back or two back, motion etc.

You only have one play for an entire game?
I thought about this for a long time. If I ran the play every time all the defensive guys would creep up. So I choose 4 verticals, my favorite pass play. It’s a great play, so many options for the players and the quarterback who is going to read.

Run NFL program, which program and your first course of action?
I grew up in New York and was a Giants fan, and I coached Joe Andruzzi and my son is a big Patriots fans. My college coach right now works for the Eagles. I really like them; a well-run organization, great location, and engaged fan base. I would draft Laremy Tunsil, a super talent, and putting him on the same line him with Jason Peters would be awesome.

Coaching influences?
Number one is Jeff Stoutland. He is the O-line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. I worked with him for two years as a graduate assistant, and he really transcends the word football coach; he cares about people, and I can’t say enough about him.

Crystal ball? 5-10 years?
One thing I notice, in Pop Warner, for instance, is that player numbers are dwindling, but they are being replaced with flag football. More flag football for young kids, I think,  will invite more people back to the game. If your 7 years old that’s more fun. Other than that, addressing the increasing physicality of the game. What would be interesting was if the field was bigger but still 11 player, some of the physicality removed from the game.

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Michael Hoglund

One comment

  • Great article about a great coach and a great man! Roy Istvan truely cares about the men he coaches both on and off the field. I was fortunate to play and coach with Roy at our alma mater SCSU, where I learned what it takes to be a great mentor and teacher. Cornell University made an outstanding decision hiring “Coach I” on their staff. The SCSU community is extremely proud of all his accomplishments!

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