Athletic Culture: The Impact of Setting the Bar

My whole life I have been blessed with great opportunities to learn Culture from some of the best minds in education and athletics. My father, Ed Morrissey, is a hall of fame coach in the state of Iowa. I worked for a year at the University of Iowa as a recruiting assistant under Scott Southmayd. My most recent stop was at Kansas Wesleyan University under Matt Drinkall.  Everywhere I have beens, I have been exposed to a strong athletic cultural foundation where trust, respect, and commitment were expected and valued.


The most unique part about high school athletics, or high school in general, is that no two schools are the same. Each school has different strengths and weaknesses, but all have the ability to succeed as long as their culture is built on core values and a personal philosophy.

In order to effectively build culture, you have to set clear and decisive expectations. Expectations are program wide and do not only apply to the coaching staff; rather they apply to the whole school – students and educators. I refer to this as program alignment.

When I came to United Township High School, the first thing I did was send a written letter to all of the families in the immediate school district. In the letter I introduced myself and detailed my background, but more importantly I addressed our program’s beliefs and philosophy. I made it a priority to visit with families and educators to share my beliefs and promote our football program, stressing the importance of what really matters – the experience of our kids. I am a big advocate for education and the model of competition it conveys. For this reason, I believe football provides the greatest platform for what education truly stands for.

I built my philosophy around two words: “Total Effort.” I grew up surrounded by those two words, coined by my dad. He embedded it in my family and in the 40-plus football teams he coached during his career. Rarely is Total Effort used on the football field. It is the driving force behind everyday tasks, interactions, and personal development. We constantly remind the players to be Total Effort guys. Whether that is in the classroom, working on a school project, or at home being the best kid or sibling they can possibly be.  This culture is something I wear on my chest and pushed our community to buy in to. The words Total Effort can be seen throughout the building at United Township High School. I wanted the philosophy to be seen by everyone. The more people were exposed to it, the more people talked about it. This meant it promoted the positive aspects our football program and our school as a whole. The ability to relate to others and develop common beliefs through a philosophy is the catalyst for developing a high-character culture.


Something I take pride in, like most coaches, is challenging my players to focus on the small details and to become big-picture thinkers. There are plenty of analogies that give this validity, but when players know the importance of this, the culture starts to build itself. Whether it is starting each drill behind the line or having the proper grip when doing hang clean in the weight room, the goal is to get your players to police policy and to become self-regulators.

Personally speaking, the smallest thing we do that has made the biggest impact is a handshake after every football session we hold – practice or workouts. This serves three main purposes:

  1. This is a great opportunity to see each and every kid in the program. It offers one-on-one time to either give advice on a component they need to work on or to just check in on them personally.
  2. There is a confidence factor to a handshake. It exemplifies respect and forces our young students to look you in the eye and give a nice firm shake. It is amazing how many kids are uncomfortable doing this at first.
  3. As small as this task is, I genuinely feel this helps them prepare for future interactions. Whether that is an interview or meeting professionals in their field, a handshake is a small detail in the big picture.

Everything you do in your football program should have a purpose behind it and be sure to make that known from the top down.

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I believe kids need structure and accountability; they seek it. Each kid shows it differently, but there is nothing more important than structure and accountability in their lives. My first year at United Township exposed me to a diverse group of young kids, with various backgrounds and personalities. The only constant I have discovered is that, when we as coaches provide a standard or set the bar, kids respond. I have always believed that when people are challenged you get the most out of them. The same applies to high school students, but the challenges need to be calculated and must deliver a positive coaching moment to allow for growth. Oftentimes we forget the development of students, especially those at a young age. High school coaches are in a unique spot. We have the privilege to be around kids at a very influential time of their lives. There is no responsibility I value more than that.

Another aspect that I feel is extremely valuable is determining leaders and giving the players program autonomy. I constantly preach to my kids that being a leader is one of the hardest things to do. Leadership does not always result in immediate feedback, but that is what separates the good ones from the bad.

Throughout camps and workouts, I recommend that, as coaches, you provide leadership opportunities to your players. I have received great results from team-based games and drills that put my players in a position to lead and influence. What I have found from doing this is that, at each drill or practice, the bar is set higher by the players. They take ownership and responsibility to make sure there is a sense of urgency and intensity to everything that we do.


Coaching is the most rewarding profession. The platform we have, where we are able to influence and impact kids, cannot be replicated. A culture is developed and defined for every program. There is not a specific way of doing it, which is what makes football and teams so unique. I believe in challenging students and making self-leadership a priority. Promoting big-picture thinking in following through on small details gives way to countless opportunities for players to grow and develop. As coaches, it is important that we remember what we are truly working for. We have a great responsibility to provide structure and accountability, and to make football an incredible experience for our young athletes.


In 2017, Joe Morrissey was the offensive coordinator and director of football operations at Kansas Wesleyan University. Beginning in July 2014, he was a graduate assistant with the Kansas Wesleyan football program. Morrissey will be coaching the running backs and tight ends and will also serve as the director of football operations for the Coyotes. Morrissey went to Kansas Wesleyan after serving on the staff at the University of Iowa for one year. While with the Hawkeyes, he helped with recruiting and day-to-day operations of the team. He was also an assistant coach at Davenport Assumption (Iowa) High School in Davenport in 2012, where he coached wide receivers and defensive backs.  

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