Earnest Byner on transition to coaching: 'Make sure it is something you're going to love'

By Eric Moreno | Posted 3/13/2017

“You know, a football coach is nothing more than a teacher. You teach them the same subject, and you have a group of new guys every year.” – Darrell Royal

Long before Earnest Byner was achieving superstardom as an NFL player, being named to two Pro Bowls and winning two Super Bowls, he dreamed of being a football coach.

Before he was 10-years-old, Byner knew his destiny in football would find him on the sidelines.

After 14 years in pro football, Byner followed up his career by joining the Washington Redskins as a running backs coach in 2004 and has been coaching ever since.

Making the transition from stellar athlete into coaching is not always the easiest task. Byner recently took some time from his schedule to offer advice to help players make the tricky switch from students of the game to teachers of it.

EM: Being involved in football for as long as you have been, you've had the chance to play for numerous coaches along the way. I'm assuming you've been able to pull from most of them some lessons or techniques that you've been able to apply (to coaching). If you had to pinpoint one coach who taught you the most, whose lessons you still use, who would that be and what did you learn from them?

EB: I would say the coach that influenced me the most over my career is probably Marty Schottenheimer. I think from him, I learned how to communicate and really how to be a coach. He was a teacher and that's how I would describe myself as a coach.

I try to get the players to take ownership of what they have to do. It's almost like I want them to coach themselves, if that makes sense. If I can teach them in a way that they figure it out, then it lasts longer.

EM: Obviously, you had an outstanding career playing the game. Are the skills that you were able to use that made you successful things that you are able to teach to your players now?

EB: Absolutely. It was easy for me to be able to do that because the experiences that I went through. Those are the experiences I want to share with my guys. The things that I learned, the ways that I learned them, I have been able to translate that to them.

Playing the game, I think, gives you some empirical knowledge and you can use that in ways that can help anybody in many ways. Playing at a high level and now being able to look at that from a coach's perspective, that has helped me to break things down to guys I coach now in an easier manner.

EM: Again being a former player, you've been around a lot of coaches and I'm sure you thought about a lot of them before you got into coaching yourself. What was something that was surprising to you – either in a good way or a bad way – when you first got into coaching?

EB: I think what surprised me the most, honestly, was seeing how a lot of the stuff, the skills, the techniques, a lot of what I was teaching guys was stuff that really showed up in games. For example, the drills we do in practices, those things show up in games. Watching and breaking down films and correcting things, those show up. I always knew, as a player, that those things were important but to see that stuff get applied from the other side of things, from a coach's perspective, it really did surprise me.

EM: In past interviews and knowing the era that you played in, I think it would be fair to say you come from that “old school” way of football. A lot has been made about the younger generation and how coaches have had to adjust to their way of thinking. Coming from that old school, how have you been able to adjust to today's players?

EB: I tell them right off the bat that I'm old school. I have that old school mentality, but I also tell them I'm going to help them be a better player. If you can show a guy that you can help them be a better football player then the relationship is one that is pretty easily built. To me, if you show them you care about them enough that you're trying to show them and teach them the correct way to do things, they tend to be more open to receiving the information.

I've learned that one of the best ways to do things is to ask them questions rather than tell them directly. Sometimes, you have to flat out tell them this is how it needs to be done. Sometimes. But for the most part, if you ask them how they think things should be done or played or what have you, then they feel a part of the process. A lot of the times, the answer is already within them and you just have to work with them to get it out.

EM: You've been coaching now for a number of years. How would you say you are better at it now than when you first started?

EB: I am definitely more patient now than when I first started. As a player, I was able to use my anger or disappointment and channel that on the field. If I got angry or disappointed with a player as a coach or even if I was happy with a player, I couldn't transfer that energy onto the field. I had to become more understanding, more patient…Now, I'm more understanding about how to address those mistakes. I have learned to study it. Have they made this mistake before? If so, why did they do it again? Can addressing them wait until we are alone? Do I need to make an example of this? Will yelling at them openly help them or hurt them? Things like that, all coaches have to learn. It's the psychology of coaching. I've gotten better at that. Being more patient has helped me be better at that.

EM: That makes a lot of sense. Last thing for you, if you had to choose the best piece of advice you could give a player now who might be thinking of making that switch into coaching, what would that be?

EB: Make sure it is something you're going to love. You need to love football and you need to love coaching if you're going to do it. Players can tell if you don't have love for the game or love of being a coach. Once they know that, that changes the relationship you can have with them. If you love the game, if you love teaching and coaching, players will respond to that. Not only will you be happier in your profession, but you will get the respect of your guys.