‘Extreme desire, mental toughness’: Coach Mike Maynard on the art of building character

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Och Tamale invited University of Redlands President Ralph W. Kuncl to interview his friend and colleague, longtime Bulldog Football Coach Mike Maynard, whose accomplishments were recognized recently with a Town & Gown Award of Distinction and induction into the Inland Valley Sports Hall of Fame. The conversation ranged from leadership to education, and from athletics to life.

Ralph Kuncl: Soon after my arrival at the University, Mike invited me to give some comments to the young men on the football team as they were beginning the season. After I spoke, Mike talked to the team, and it was very moving. I thought, “That’s an example of leadership, not just coaching.” Later, I invited Mike to be a keynote speaker at a retreat for my cabinet members. Mike was with us for maybe an hour. Throughout the retreat and long afterwards, my cabinet members kept repeating what they had heard from Mike, because it was so true, authentic, and accessible. That was about the time Mike and I became friends, not just colleagues. Now we also regularly work out at the gym together.

A lot of people probably get their idea of what coaches do from watching NFL games on TV. What does a college football coach actually do?

Mike Maynard: In the big picture, as [former U of R President]Jim Appleton made clear to me in March 1988 when I arrived, my job is to be an asset to the University of Redlands and its student-athletes; I was supposed to contribute to their overall educational experience, and football should be part of that experience. So I’m responsible for creating an atmosphere conducive to learning to be successful, and that’s where leadership, communication, and inspiration come in.

Kuncl: What are you doing to achieve that goal?

Maynard: We make sure that we never ask too little of any of the players. We demand their full attention. They are not getting paid to do football, but it is not a hobby or a “sometimes thing.” It is about excellence, about working hard, and proving themselves successful. We try to create something that is demanding, yet sensitive to their academic program. We want to make certain the sport is important to the young men; when they invest a lot, it becomes important.

Character counts

Linebacker Nick Castro ’19 (front) prepares to lift 545 pounds, spotted by Strength and Conditioning Coach and Fitness Center Director Joe Buckley (right), as President Ralph Kuncl (left) and Coach Mike Maynard look on. (Photo by Carlos Puma)

Linebacker Nick Castro ’19 (front) prepares to lift 545 pounds, spotted by Strength and Conditioning Coach and Fitness Center Director Joe Buckley (right), as President Ralph Kuncl (left) and Coach Mike Maynard look on. (Photo by Carlos Puma)

Kuncl: It’s like watching these guys lift [weights], as we did on the way to your office just now. Sure, they could easily lift half the amount, but what if they tried for their personal best?

Maynard: Those qualities that make individuals great—attitude, character, effort—are transferrable and go far beyond the football field. There’s not much application in life for going out and tackling people. But there are skills that can be learned through football and training for football that can make a difference well beyond students’ time here; that’s the investment that really matters to us.

Kuncl: You’re in the business of building character that lasts a lifetime—building men, transforming men into the persons they will become. Is that what you like best about coaching?

Maynard: Yes, the best part is impacting lives. Football puts young men in stressful environments. Today, we saw a young man stand under a bar with 545 pounds on it and sit down and stand up with it. That’s a pretty significant challenge. A unique aspect of coaching is that it exposes character. Had the lifter failed, it would have produced some sort of emotional response, and that’s where there is an opportunity to teach. Now I happen to know that young man, so I knew, successful or unsuccessful, he would handle the results with a strong character. Not everybody is like that. People say football builds character. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but it does expose it and gives a coach an opportunity to educate.

Offensive lineman Joey Caffaro ’19 (center) and tight end Blake Roy ’20 (left) block so quarterback Levi Plante ’19 can move the ball. (Photo by William Vasta)

Offensive lineman Joey Caffaro ’19 (center) and tight end Blake Roy ’20 (left) block so quarterback Levi Plante ’19 can move the ball. (Photo by William Vasta)

Kuncl: Can you take someone who has fundamentally no great character and build something?

Maynard: Fortunately, I haven’t had many challenges like that. Paul “Bear” Bryant, the great coach from Alabama, said, “It’s impossible to change in four years what took 18 years to create.” There may be some truth to that. For the young men who come to Redlands, we work hard at evaluating all of that on the front end. We select them, and they select us.

Kuncl: You’ve met them many times through the recruiting process before they come to Redlands. Does it ever happen that you just got it wrong, that there is a surprise that shows up on day one?

Maynard: Every year. We get it wrong in both ways. Sometimes we’ll think a young man might be a challenge, and he turns out to be strong in every capacity. Other times, I’m surprised in a negative way.

A week in the life

“It’s our job as coaches to teach,” says Coach Mike Maynard. (Photo by William Vasta)

“It’s our job as coaches to teach,” says Coach Mike Maynard. (Photo by William Vasta)

Kuncl: Going back to what coaches do, what do you do every day in a typical week, say leading up to game night?

Maynard: There is a lot to do. Technology has grown in every sport, but especially in football. Now all the variables need to go into a computer, so we can get out the data we need. On Sunday, the coaches grade the recording from our previous day’s game, which usually takes about four hours. After that, we start entering data on our upcoming opponent: plays, downs, distances, and so on from all the film we have, sometimes seven or eight games both from current and previous seasons. We don’t go home until we get that done, so Monday we can begin to form a game plan. As for the players, on Sunday night they weight train, then meet as a team and review film grades by position group. Mondays are days off for the players; coaches construct the game plan with the information we have, including injury situations. On Tuesdays, players meet to work on their kicking game, then practice from 7 to 9:30 p.m. The rest of the week we practice each day from 4 to 6 p.m. and coaches make recruiting contacts in the evenings. I almost forgot, on Wednesdays the young men weight train prior to classes.

Kuncl: This is 7 a.m.?

Maynard: 6 a.m.

Kuncl: It sounds like you are building up to a 70- or 80-hour work week?

Maynard: It’s best not to count, but for coaches, usually 80. Every night after practice we watch the practice film; you would be amazed how much you don’t see at practice.

Friday is a lighter day for the players, but it’s a heavy recruitment day for the coaches, who often go see high school games. If we’re going to Orange County, it becomes a late night. On Saturday, if it’s a home game, we start at noon, or earlier for away games. Hopefully, we win and celebrate in the end zone. Then the players leave, and the coaches stay to put the data into the computer.

Kuncl: What is the focus for the team on Friday?

Maynard: They’ll do a light activity, mostly practice. Our number-one players, about the top 50 of 120 on the team, have gotten a lot of work all week, and now I want to ensure the number threes and fours are ready to go so our roster is deeper.

Kuncl: There are 70 threes and fours—that many?

Maynard: Yes, sir. I like to be four deep in every position, six deep at quarterback, two deep at punting and kicking. In football, there are injuries and things happen, so you want to make certain you are deep enough to withstand negative situations. In Division III, we don’t have scholarships as leverage, but coaches do have the decision about who plays, and these guys are passionate about playing. The depth chart is a great motivator. If you don’t have a deep and competitive roster, it’s easy for young men to get complacent.

On in the off season

Kuncl: Contingency planning is a good business strategy for any organization. Tell me about the off-season. Maybe some people imagine you are sipping iced tea at the beach?

Maynard: I haven’t been to the beach in 10 years. Recruiting is as competitive as the game itself and requires as much time, attention, and commitment. The guys who come to Redlands—people who are bright, thoughtful, and academically and athletically excellent—can go anywhere. They don’t all come perfect, but these guys are among the best of the best so the demand is really strong. We don’t stop recruiting. We recruit in season; we recruit out of season; we recruit Christmas Day. With today’s technology, it’s 24/365.

Kuncl: What is the trick of the trade? If I’m a potential recruit considering Redlands as well as other schools and you don’t give athletic scholarships, what are your biggest arguments to choose Redlands?

Maynard: It’s different for each person. That’s why it’s important to build relationships with prospective students. We have to find out what their needs are, what it is they want. Almost everyone wants a great academic experience that is going to blend with football. We can do that. They want a great return on their investment. If they work hard, where will they be at the end? How will this create an advantage for them beyond their college years? Redlands can certainly promote its return on investment. Fortunately, most prospects (and their parents) are looking for what Redlands does better than anyone—that is, high-value academics for relative affordability, engagement with excellent faculty, and high likelihood of graduation in four years.

While Bulldogs hone their strength and stamina during the season (above), they also apply these qualities off the field. Over the summer, the team provided more than 750 hours of heavy labor at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times in the San Bernardino Mountains—digging 1,200 feet of trench; clearing areas for fire safety; and building and fixing various facilities. (Photo by William Vasta)

While Bulldogs hone their strength and stamina during the season (above), they also apply these qualities off the field. Over the summer, the team provided more than 750 hours of heavy labor at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times in the San Bernardino Mountains—digging 1,200 feet of trench; clearing areas for fire safety; and building and fixing various facilities. (Photo by William Vasta)

Kuncl: What else do you do in the off-season?

Maynard: We work really hard on building relationships with current players. We’re constantly checking in with the players, communicating, seeing if they need counseling, support, help with academic needs. They lift and they train five days a week, so we see them consistently and have the opportunity to be part of their experience.

Kuncl: It sounds like, at any one time, you could have 120 players who consider you their advisor/counselor and who could come to you for any difficulty in their life, no matter what?

Maynard: Yes, sir. That’s the part that Redlands coaches do best. We have a great staff and not just for football. Our entire department, including our athletic director, Jeff Martinez, really cares about the young people and knows it is really important to have that connection where you can be helpful.

31 years of change

Kuncl: How many years have you been at U of R?

Maynard: The 2018-19 academic year is my 31st season.

Kuncl: Over that time, what has changed at U of R and what hasn’t?

Maynard: The game has changed dramatically. When I first came, blocking with your hands [previously against the rules]was just becoming part of the game; that was a dramatic change. As I mentioned, the technology has changed a lot from the days that we used to record with 16mm film. We had to drive to Whittier to get it developed, and it was a race to get our film there before the other colleges.

Kuncl: Then you would have to project the film on an old-fashioned projector, where it would jam.

Maynard: Yes. What’s exciting now is the game is much safer than it used to be. First of all, our athletes are trained better. We’re taking the head out of the game and teaching to avoid head-to-head contact. That is the biggest change over the last three or four years. We’re being smart about protecting our young people. That’s going to continue, and our equipment will see even greater change, I predict.

Kuncl: What has withstood the test of time?

Maynard: The quality of the young people has stood the test of time. They are still awesome young men. They love to work hard. They love to win and be successful. They have a drive and a passion, and they persevere. People are worried about this generation. I’m not worried at all. People say, “Why have you stayed at Redlands for 30 years?” Most coaches are gypsies in a sense; before I got to Redlands, I moved seven times in one year. When I got to Redlands and saw the quality of the young people, I knew this is where I wanted to be.

Athletics Director Jeff Martinez (left), who has been at the U of R for 35 years, is one of many longtime staff members devoted to U of R student-athletes. (Photo by William Vasta)

Athletics Director Jeff Martinez (left), who has been at the U of R for 35 years,
is one of many longtime staff members devoted to U of R student-athletes. (Photo by William Vasta)

Kuncl: Is there a memorable player who stands out, a story of transformation?

Maynard: I’m really proud of every guy who has come and put a uniform on, practiced, and played here. The demands are great. There is never an easy day. I could tell you stories about guys who were cut from the team for various issues, then came back and became team captains. I could tell you about people who, for the good of the team, made personal sacrifices to play positions they weren’t best suited for. I can tell you about guys who gutted it out through injuries, and others who weren’t great players but who were great leaders, more interested in being leaders than being popular—an important quality.

I will mention Danny Ragsdale. Danny came to Redlands from a small high school in Los Angeles. When he got to Redlands, he was 145 pounds. When I saw him, I thought, “Oh my.” I had hoped he would get bigger over the summer. During his freshman year, somebody stepped on his foot and broke it, so that year he didn’t play. But Danny trained, worked out, and did everything right. By his senior year, he was our starting quarterback and went on to win the Gagliardi Trophy for best player in Division III, set school and Division III records, and led our team to a championship. By his extreme desire and mental toughness, he became an amazing football player. He went on to play professional football. After a knee injury, he enrolled at Stanford University for a graduate business degree—he had been an “A” student at U of R and graduated with honors—and now owns a business in Agoura Hills. I think about how far he came and what he was able to do at the University of Redlands, where he could be a great student and could commit the time and attention needed to become a really good football player.

Focus on fundamentals

Kuncl: In that story, you used a phrase I’ve heard you say many times that is also printed in the Athletic Center hallways: “extreme desire and mental toughness.” Why does that keep coming up?

Maynard: When I first came to Redlands, I knew I had to have a foundation, something I could rally the team around at the center of what I wanted to teach. I wanted a team that was mentally tough, with the passion and perseverance to see the job through, to reach their goals regardless of circumstances. To me, that is mental toughness.

Kuncl: That’s an amazing teaching. Tell me about “extreme desire.”

Maynard: I also wanted a team that would never quit. Somebody who won’t quit is almost impossible to overcome. When I first arrived, we had 18 guys show up to the first team meeting, and not one was an offensive lineman. I thought, “I’m about to put them through a really demanding experience, and if they quit, I don’t have enough for a team.” I wanted extreme desire.

Kuncl: Over a season, you’ll learn just how extreme a player’s desire is and how tough they are mentally. But how do you assess that in recruitment where you only get two or three meetings? You maybe see them on paper; if you are lucky you have a video clip. What story does a recruit have to tell to prove to you, Mike Maynard, that they are desirous?

Maynard: I actually assume they do not have those qualities coming in. If they have them, even a little, then it’s easy. If they don’t, our job is to put them in. It’s our job as coaches to teach.

Kuncl: Tell me about the highest of your high points and the lowest of your low points over 30 years.

Maynard: It’s a difficult question because the lows are really low and the highs are just a flash. If you have a win and you are successful, you’ve got to get onto the next game, so you don’t have any time for that. Losses drag on through the week. Remember in football you work 12 months, nine months off-season, for only nine or 10 games. The lows are painful in coaching. If a guy fumbles and we lose the game, we should have worked harder on possessing the ball. If we make a mistake—say we don’t tackle, the guy runs into the end zone, and we lose the game—we should have worked harder on tackling.

Kuncl: It strikes me that you don’t spend much time taking credit for the wins, but you experience the lows quite personally. How can you have it both ways?

Maynard: We’re coaching players, but we’re not the ones making or executing the plays. So the players have earned the right to be successful, and they’ve earned the right to win the game. But if we haven’t taught them well enough then it’s our responsibility. I’ve never won a game. I’ve lost some. I think that sentiment is universal through our department. I’m still working hard at the art of acquiescence and recognizing I can’t do everything.

Kuncl: When you meet up with players years later and they say, “Coach, I remember that thing that you told me or taught me, and that advice you gave me,” what are they most likely to remember?

Maynard: It’s always “mental toughness, extreme desire.” I meet former players and they tell me personal stories relating to their family, job conditions, or hundreds of other personal experiences, most of them difficult challenges because life is tough. Sometimes they tell me how, in professional situations where companies were on the edge, they were able to shine and rise above the average and how much those teachings meant to them. Those are gratifying experiences for a coach.

Kuncl: I’ve quoted your success in many ways—I’ve quoted your words, and I’ve quoted some of your success statistics. Is it true that everyone who has played intercollegiate football for you for four years has graduated?

Maynard: Yes, sir. That’s not anything I do; that’s what the University does.

Kuncl: That’s very generous to give others the credit, but it’s a statistic they are never going to attribute to me. It’s incredible that we can say 100 percent about anything, and it is true about playing for you. We met some of the players this morning. The freshmen are guys who want to play for you for four years because they want to grow into their mental toughness. The seniors have become tough and are proud that they display extreme desire. I believe it plays out in their academic success as well.

Maynard: I think it’s transferrable, and it’s something I’m passionate about. By the time guys grow and graduate, they are passionate about it, too.

Full circle

Kuncl: To go back to where we started, “extreme desire and mental toughness” was one of the phrases my cabinet kept repeating when we were talking about the budget. It was not just a bunch of numbers but an opportunity to show we had an extreme desire to make this university succeed financially and the mental toughness to make difficult, even unpopular, decisions. You are going to be remembered for that, the 100 percent statistic, and, of course, having a long career. So what’s the soft side people are going to remember about Mike?

Maynard: I’ve always tried to coach with Biblical principles, passed on by my dad and mom. Having love and concern, treating people with respect are principles that guide me every day. I mess up all the time, but I come back to what I am centered on. My dad was a mid-Western high school football coach, and I always wanted to be just like him. I thought I would be somewhere in Central Illinois coaching high school football and I would be perfectly happy. But my path led to Redlands, and this is where I wanted to stay.

Kuncl: I am glad to be here together, and I’m glad you’re not in Central Illinois.

Maynard: I am glad to be here, too. This is an especially great time to be at the University of Redlands with your leadership and the optimism and excitement of the Forever Yours campaign. Growing up, who could have thought? I’d never seen a palm tree until I came to California. This has been an amazing run, an amazing ride, and it has been a real privilege.

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