Big Ten Conference head coaches offer advice to youth football coaches

By Samuel Teets | Posted 10/9/2023

USA Football recently continued its long-standing relationship with the Big Ten Conference by attending the conference’s 2023 Football Media Days held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. The quotes in this story were produced from a series of one-on-one sit-down interviews with the head football coaches responsible for programs in the Big Ten.  

USA Football is proud to support youth football coaches nationwide as they continue to build strong foundations and experiences for their athletes this fall. Youth football introduces a new generation to America’s favorite sport. Ensuring those first interactions and memories of the game are fun and positive plays a large role in determining a young athlete’s future in the game.  

The Big Ten’s head football coaches know the importance of good youth football experiences. They’re also familiar with the challenges and pressures youth coaches face. Here’s some of their advice for the many dedicated volunteers and coaches who support grassroots football.  

“Youth football head coaches have to remember that they’re the ones who will determine whether a young person loves playing or not. Having a great coach who teaches you to love the game and love to practice, that’s what will keep people involved. If they get to me in college, that means they had a great high school coach, which means that they had a great junior high coach and a great youth coach. Coaches make players fall in love with the game.” 

– Matt Rhule, University of Nebraska  

“Keep it simple, but keep it fun. You want the kids to know they aren’t playing on ESPN. They’re playing in front of their family and friends. Make it fun for the kids, and they will continue participating in the game.” 

– Bret Bielema, University of Illinois  

“I think the advice that I'd give to a youth coach is it's not about winning and losing. The goal is to win as a team, but if the focus is on that, a lot of lessons and opportunities for people to grow get missed. We all want to win, but it's the lessons, helping folks have a future in the game, keeping young people involved, teaching them the fundamentals and techniques and allowing them to enjoy the experience that matters. Some of them will move on, some of them won't. Either way, you want them to leave the game with a great experience.” 

– Ryan Day, Ohio State University 

“Through my grandkids, I get to see a lot of youth sports. I love youth sports, but I’m also concerned about what the approach is, particularly in football’s case. The most important thing with youth sports is teaching good techniques and fundamentals. The single biggest job for any adult or coach that is involved is doing it in a way where the players want to come back the next day and the next year. I don’t think it should be ultra-competitive. It’s more about getting players to appreciate the sport, love the sport and learn how to play it properly.” 

– Kirk Ferentz, University of Iowa 

“Having grown up playing youth football and the impact that the coaches had on my life, I think it starts with caring and trust. It’s the first opportunity as a kid where you’re taught the game. Being taught the game the right way early builds strong fundamentals. The coaches who coached me throughout my time in youth football played a major role in where I am and why I coach football today.” 

– Mike Locksley, University of Maryland 

“I know everybody wants to compete and win, but the goal is for the young person to show up to play youth football the next year. If you can get all of those young people to stay in the game, then every year they can see a little bit more of why it’s such a special game. Once they leave, it’s hard to get them to come back.” 

– Greg Schiano, Rutgers University 

“Identify how you can best serve your players. It’s not about the wins and losses. Your greatest gift will be seeing those individuals you have coached go on to succeed in the game of football, in larger arenas or more importantly in the game of life. I know it’s not directly related to football, but I learned lessons from my youth baseball coach in the game of life. I know he’s incredibly proud of observing what I became through high school, college and into adulthood. So I would encourage youth coaches not to be concerned about the wins and losses right now. Just be concerned about helping those young people develop.” 

– David Braun, Northwestern University 

“It’s not about you. Don't care who wins the game. You’re not trying to be the youth championship coach of the year. Your championship is won by the experience your young athletes have through how well you teach them the game and how you teach them the importance of being a great teammate. That’s really valuable at that age, and sometimes coaches get skewed in their approach. That can create a negative experience for some of the players. Why are you doing this? You’re helping this young person develop great qualities that are going to shape their future in terms of discipline, toughness, learning to be a great teammate, learning to rely on your guys around you and learning to be able to do things that are best for the team, not necessarily best for you … I think a coach at any level at any position can really be a positive influence on a young person.” 

– Tom Allen, Indiana University 

“The experience an athlete has at a young age, especially in football, is critical to their development, our ability to grow our programs and to keep football growing. Youth coaches have such an impact. I love the game because of the impact that I believe I have on 18 and 22-year-olds. I have five boys, young ones, that play the game, and the impact their coach has on them from the time they started playing football is incredible.” 

– Luke Fickell, University of Wisconsin 

“I think coaching at the youth level is probably the most important piece of football development. I played college football, and then I played in the NFL because I love football. My youth coaches made me love football. It was fun. We have to continue plugging the word “fun” into the game of football because it's the most fun game in the world, but sometimes people don't make it fun. Educating young coaches and getting them up to speed on what they need to be able to do properly to create a fun, exciting, positive environment so people want to play when they’re older – I think that’s imperative.” 

– P.J. Fleck, University of Minnesota 

“Teach the proper technique. Study it and know it’s a big responsibility. My dad was a long-time football coach. I remember the first time he dropped off John and I at the Ann Arbor Junior Packers practice. He said he was going to stay for the practice. We asked him if we could play, and he said, ‘I’ll let you know after practice.’ After practice, we asked him if we could play, and he said, ‘Yeah, you can play.’ We asked him what he had to see. He said, ‘I just wanted to see how you were being coached, and Tom Minick is a darn good football coach. You guys can play.’ Being a youth coach is a big responsibility.” 

– Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan