After three long decades, the SMU Mustangs have emerged from the tomb of mediocrity.
The famous “death penalty” handed down to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in 1987 has long been the standard for cautionary tales in college sports. But while SMU can’t go back and rewrite the history books, Sonny Dykes’ squad has its sights set on writing a whole new chapter.
For the first time since 1986, the team earned a spot in the AP Top-25 rankings in early October. Its impressive 6-0 start was the first time the team has started that hot since 1982.
While the national spotlight shines on players like ex-Longhorn quarterback Shane Buechele and wide receiver James Proche, there are a few names behind the scenes who are busy doing the dirty work that makes the SMU program successful. No, not the kind of dirty work that will result in NCAA sanctions – these individuals are responsible for the tough, gritty job of running the Mustangs’ Athletic Performance Program.
There’s Elias Ellefson, a military veteran with a disciplined attitude and a strong desire to do things right – the first time.
Kale Igboh was born in Nigeria, dealing with hardships from an earlier age that would be foreign to most Americans, but has risen above those hardships to seize his opportunities here in the United States.
Nolan Darby brings a wealth of experience to the SMU staff, both as a coach and former player, with an outstanding coaching tree to boot.
Ryan Jackson is the Swiss Army Knife that every staff needs. Though he happens to be the nutritionist for the program, he holds his own in all other areas, including weight-room programming.
And then there’s Assistant A.D. for Human Performance, Muadianvita Machkaz “Kaz” Kazadi. Born in Zaire, Kazadi moved to the U.S. when he was 8 years old, going on to become an NFL linebacker, and then coaching for several other college and pro teams before taking the job at SMU.
“We’re having this conversation right now, because we’re doing our job,” Kazadi says. “All we’ve done is do our job.”
The job Kazadi and company does has been exactly what the resurgent SMU team needs. But Kazadi isn’t interested in historic starts.
“Nobody remembers what you did in September,” he says.
It’s true; the ultimate goal for SMU football and for Kazadi’s staff is to still be turning heads in January. To do that, they’ll need to build on the positive trends their athletic performance program has established in Dallas.
Learning The Language
Kazadi is fluent in three different languages. It isn’t a stretch to say he’s a gifted communicator.
It’s no surprise then, that he places such a big emphasis on communication skills. Coaches often get caught up in X’s and O’s, looking at data and statistical trends, or changing up their weight room programming, and they forget about one of the primary components of what it takes to be a great coach – high quality communication with their players.
“Am I speaking in the right vernacular? Am I at the right pitch? Am I at the right tone? Is my frequency correct?” Kazadi asks. “Because all these things are crucial to communication.”
One of the most critical elements of SMU coaches’ communication skills stems from the tutelage of Andrea Lee, the program’s mindfulness coach. Lee helps coaches and players alike better understand how cognition, perception and personal biases factor into day-to-day communication and decision-making processes.
“The language I speak is universal,” Lee says. “It’s attention. Attention is the currency. When you can see where someone’s attention is it becomes easier to reflect something back to them that helps them refocus on where their attention needs to be.
“We have the skills within us to be able to master our mental life. When it comes to mindfulness coaching, sometimes what you need is a reflective surface to mirror what’s happening in the mind so you can reframe and reorient accordingly.”
Lee brings an emphasis on both intra- and inter-personal communication to the SMU staff that has paid dividends in building deeper relationships between the staff and the players. Kazadi believes mindfulness to be especially important for today’s players, at a time when they are often painted with too broad a brush.
He says coming at a player with negative assumptions about their attention span or work ethic can cripple a coach’s effectiveness. Instead, he encourages coaches to take a deeper look at what is going on in a player’s life and inside his mind and adjust or educate him as needed.
“We minimize players today by calling them millennials,” Kazadi says. “Just because I want to have fun and I want you to care about who I am, doesn’t make me a millennial. It makes me a human being.”
Speaking the language of the players hinges on understanding them as a human being. After coaches reach players on a human level, then they can begin to understand them as a player.
Kazadi divides his program accordingly, starting with individual needs and then branching into position-specific needs. This is particularly crucial for a strength and conditioning coach, as demands on each individual’s body is just as different player-to-player as the demands of his position.
To aide in this process, the SMU athletic performance staff watches game film to see how their training applies to what the players are doing on the field. They give special consideration to players who are dealing with injuries or going through some off-the-field situation, and look for specific movements that need improvement based on the player’s role on the field.
“Players sign on to schools to play their sport, and so my approach is to sell them strength and conditioning,” says Kazadi. “When a coach says, ‘We can’t sell to this guy,’ he means that we have to find a way to communicate with him.”
There is a tendency for coaches to make sure everyone’s role is clearly defined. Bill Belichik’s “Do Your Job” mantra comes to mind. It seems Kazadi does not subscribe to this philosophy.
On the SMU athletic performance staff, Kazadi empowers each of his coaches to act as though they have ownership of the program, because in many ways, that’s exactly what they have.
“In a sense, we have five directors,” Kazadi says. “I can’t coach a guy to be a really good assistant. I’m terrible at that. But I can coach a guy to be a really great director.”
“If I’m not in the room, one of these five directors is directing. They’re running the meeting. They’re making sure everything is being done. If two of us are gone, then the other three got it.”
The benefits of this approach are many, and one of the most pronounced is the way in which innovation happens. As new ideas come to life, they all come from a big-picture perspective, as coaches look at what’s best for the entire program in a holistic sense.
“We all think alike, situationally and philosophically,” Igboh says. “At the end of the day, we all have the same goal – to make the student-athlete experience here the best in the nation.”
“One person just can’t be the expert in all the different areas of the program,” Jackson adds. ”There’s so much out there that it’s hard to be an expert in everything. It’s our job as directors to have a firm grasp of the basic principles of each area.”
Having a unified approach, and confidence in the basic mastery of all aspects of the program significantly elevates the level of flexibility and adaptability. It also allows for coaches to focus on their specific areas of expertise, trusting that the other members of the staff will be able to pick up slack as necessary.
The players all hear the same principles and reasoning from every member of the staff, and don’t have to worry about choosing the right coach to deal with their problems. The messaging is the same, and ego is removed to allow for a better fit between coach and player.
“It’s good from the players’ perspective as well,” Darby explains. “They know they can come to any one of us on the staff, no matter what the issue is.”
Ultimately, the greatest benefit of this “five directors” approach is the buy-in and passion it fosters. At SMU, coaches don’t feel like they are punching the clock every day, and it’s hard to overstate how important that is.
“It’s being a part of something as opposed to working for someone,” Ellefson says. “This program is ours.”
Leaning On Strengths
Having an organizational structure that empowers coaches to take ownership and provide a better experience for student-athletes doesn’t quite tell the whole story about how the SMU staff has found success. While each coach strives to be well-rounded and adaptable, they are also acutely aware of where their individual strengths lie, and work to maximize those strengths.
For Kazadi, aside from his adaptability, which he views as his greatest asset, his strengths aren’t hard to identify. Drafted by the Rams in 1997, Kazadi has personal experience as an elite player, arming him with knowledge that helps his message resonate with his NFL-hopeful players.
Kazadi’s attitude about his strengths isn’t based on vanity. Rather, it’s telling of a deeper approach at the SMU program – one that relies heavily on the strengths of each member of the coaching staff.
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“If I’m working with you, I don’t care what your weakness is. I really don’t,” Kazadi says. “I don’t want you to improve your weakness on my time, I want you to focus on your strength and I want your strength to be there whenever we need to draw on it, whenever we need to lean on it. If we’re leaning on you, we’re leaning on your strength.”
The SMU staff, like any good staff, does their best work when everyone is operating within the tasks and roles where they bring the most value. To be clear, they do not ignore their weaknesses, but they refuse to make them the focus of what they do.
In the hyper-competitive world of football, coaches are not afforded the luxury of working on their weaknesses while at the same time giving their absolute best in the pursuit of greatness. In Kazadi’s opinion, those two things simply can’t exist in the same space.
This philosophy pervades every aspect of the SMU athletic performance program, from the interview process to the way players perform on Saturdays. And with any luck, their current strengths will serve as the catalyst for a snowball effect of strengths that will lead to increasing returns for student-athletes, both on and off the field, for years to come.
This article was written by Adam Reed, AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider editor. Follow him on Twitter at Football Coach Daily.