Since becoming a Head Coach at age 23, Craig Smith has become used to the transitions that occur within the coaching profession. Smith, who was born and raised in Clinton, Iowa, played two years of college football at UW-Platteville. He then went to Southwestern High School in Hazel Green, WI at age 23 where he became the Head Football Coach. “That was an interesting job” he laughed. He then went to Quincy University, then of the NAIA, and currently an NCAA Division II school. He then spent the last seven years at UW-Oshkosh. He now enters his 15th year of coaching as the new UW-Whitewater Offensive Coordinator.
While accustomed to adapting to change, perhaps no season will represent as much change on so many fronts as his inaugural UW-W campaign in 2015. Smith explained, “In a two month stretch, my wife and I had our first child, I took this job, and I moved.”
But even with the whirlwind, the new Whitewater Offensive Coordinator is excited about what he has seen so far at his new school. “UW-Whitewater is a blueprint with how the Athletic Department has run, from the previous Athletic Director (Dr. Paul Plinske) to the way it is run by Mrs. (Amy) Edmunds. She has been able to keep this thing going. The blueprint is the blueprint. And now Coach Bullis takes over the football program. The beauty of the blueprint, as I’ve seen it, is that you adapt it to your personality. Coach Bullis taking over what Coach Leipold built and putting Coach Bullis into is has been really cool to see. I’ve been taught now the process. And to see Coach Bullis add that hard academic focus into it has been great to watch. There was always a high academic standard for the football players, but Coach Bullis has brought it to another level. As (running back) Jordan Ratliff told me, ‘I love Coach Leipold, but Coach Bullis was waiting for me outside my classroom. And I wasn’t even intimidated by that, I think it is cool to know he cares about us so much.' To take the successful blueprint of how Whitewater wins and then see Coach Bullis build upon it by adding his strong academic focus has been really cool to see.”
Here are Coach Smith’s answers to a variety of questions:
How are the players adapting to such a strong academic focus? “It’s going to be a case by case basis. I wasn’t the greatest student on campus, so I would have been pretty wide-eyed about something like this. But there is a purpose behind it. Student-athletes are highly sought after in the job market today. And the reason is the skills they have to develop to be part of a successful football team. The diversity involved in being part of a team. You don’t pick your friends on a football team. You are thrown in with your teammates and you learn to work it out and become close. Managing the tight schedule of classes, meetings, and practice. You are not late or miss a meeting here or you will have to explain yourself. You are not going to bring your cell phone in. Those kinds of habits and that kind of accountability is important in today’s workplace. This new layout on top of the blueprint already established is preparing the guys for success in life, in addition to winning games, which is awesome.”
The affable Offensive Coordinator continued his observations about his new home. “The awesome thing about Whitewater is that things are done a certain way because it is best for you as well as best for the program and they believe in it through and through. So if you don’t waste their time making up something for the sake of making it up, they are right there with you. So when Coach Bullis laid this out, his convictions were right there in it and the kids are such big fans of his they said, ‘Yep’, and away they went. It is now part of the culture, part of the process, and they (the players) are all in.”
Talk about the coaching culture at UW-W. “You have your set responsibilities. There is no, ‘you come in at this time, you leave at this time’. You work until your job is done. When I came on board, I was told my responsibilities in detail. I was told exactly where I stand and what my responsibilities are. As the recruiting coordinator, of course I meet with Coach Bullis because that is a program thing. Offensively, the staff we have put together is exceptional. Coach has set the expectations and made my responsibilities clear. Now, I am free to run my staff. He will show up in my meetings at times and keep an eye on things, but it is his program, so he’d better, right? But he is hands off and lets us do our jobs.”
What adjustments have there been in adapting to the Whitewater way of doing things? “In the spring, I had to adjust to the way we practice. The Whitewater way of doing things. Coach always explains why we do things the way we do them. He educates us, he never says ‘That’s just the way we do it.’ He tells us why Whitewater has done things the way they do them. He is a teacher.”
How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
“My personal coaching philosophy statement has been the same since day one. ‘Live life to live life and play football to play football.’ I understand that football is so big to so many people and I may be a little different than some others in this. But there are so many things that are going on in a person’s life. The question I challenge myself with is, ‘What can I do with them when I have them as far as helping mold them.’ I believe in getting to know the other aspects that are going on in a player’s life so I can know the person. If I can know the person and the other aspects of his life, I can figure out how I can help him become the best player he can be each day. If I know he has a family member who is ill or has another important issue he is dealing with, that’s not the day to yell at him. That’s the day to say, ‘Hey, I need you to focus up on this drill and give me your best. We will get you home right after practice.’ But if I find out the kid is having a poor practice and he stayed up until 3 AM playing X-Box? Yes, he’s going to get yelled at.”
How would you position yourself in a player’s life to know whether he is dealing with a personal issue? “I believe in an open and honest dialogue. I make the time and effort to get to know the guys as people. I know their majors, I know about their families. If they know I care about them as people, then I would hope they would let me know about the bigger things going on in their life. I don’t expect them to tell me at first. That is a relationship that is developed over time. Having a staff now with position coaches at every position who are here all day, every day, they (the position coaches) will be the guys who will develop the closest relationships with the guys. They will let me know if there’s something I need to know about that might be affecting a kid. But I will meet with them also. That also comes from Coach Bullis. You’d better be meeting with kids. You better know your players as people.”
Are you going to bring Oshkosh’s read-option offense to Whitewater?
"Yes, I’m going to let the offensive line know, ‘You are one of the best groups in the country, but I am going to blow-up the offense you know.’ That was tongue in-cheek. No, the way they execute the schemes Andy Kotelnicki laid out is really sweet. I’m not changing this system. I will do tweaks within the system. The hope is the common eye can’t even see it. Some people will be able to look at it and say, ‘This is a little different, that is a little different.’ Others will look at it and say, ‘They are running the same stuff.’ The job Darryl (former Offensive Line Coach Darryl Agpalsa) and Andy (former Offensive Coordinator Andy Kotelnicki) did with this group of players is pretty amazing. These players know the game. Their adjustments are QUICK. When you get a group of guys who really know the game, you can do some pretty fun things with them.
What were your perceptions of UW-W from the sidelines at Oshkosh and how have those perceptions changed?
“I will speak of this from a player’s in-house point of view. Arrogance versus confidence is a thin line. The young men I’ve worked with since coming to Whitewater are so confident in the process and how we do things here that they don’t waver from it. There is no questioning of it. You talk to people from other programs, they may say, ‘We do this, it’s alright.’ You don’t get that from young men at Whitewater. Their belief is so thick, that it can be perceived as, ‘Man, Whitewater is arrogant.’ But they are just so confident in what you are giving them. And how they practice it is why. Once you put it in and give them the ‘why’ and then they rep it, they have total belief. There is no wavering. And then that can be perceived from the outside as arrogant. Nope. They just believe in what you told them. And they believe in their ability to execute it. Because the process has been built that way. And that is what I’m learning from them. They will say, ‘Just call it, we’ll run it.’ “
From what you have seen so far, how would you rate the leadership among the players on this team?
"So much is self-sustaining. Every single player here knows their job and they know Whitewater’s way of doing things. The seniors have been huge for ME. They continue to help me with the way they do things here. They have so much belief in how it is done, they just show me and tell me how they are used to doing certain things. They set the tone for the younger players, but truthfully, all the players know exactly what is expected of them and they do it the right way. It’s just the way it is. And that goes back into the confidence they have in the blueprint."
How would the players or coaches deal with an in-coming player, be it freshman or transfer who has some arrogance to him? Someone who seems more about himself than the team because he considers himself a star.
“That wouldn’t get by Coach Bullis. If that is the feeling he has, coach would sit the young man down. If the players are seeing it, I would hope the seniors would come to me and say, ‘Coach, this guy’s saying this, doing this. It’s not that big of a deal yet, but we wanted you to know.’ I believe we would get that from these seniors. But the reality is, Coach Bullis would have zero tolerance for a young man making it about himself and not about the Warhawks. Those young men don’t exist in this program. This is his program so he would get them squared away pretty quickly.”