In Chasing Perfection, legendary coach Bob Ladouceur lays out the Xs and Os of building a powerhouse
By the end of his 33-year career as head coach of the De La Salle football team, Bob Ladouceur was receiving a nearly unending flood of calls, emails, and visits from coaches eager to learn his secret sauce. After all, under Coach Lad, the Spartans became the preeminent high school team in the state and perhaps the country, winning 151 straight games and spawning a book, documentary film, and last year, a feature film, When the Game Stands Tall, about their success.
“But it’s so hard to answer that in an email,” Ladouceur says. So the coach teamed up with Neil Hayes, author of When the Game Stands Tall, to set his blueprint to paper. The result, Chasing Perfection, lays out his keys to building a championship team—from the nitty-gritty details of running a practice or building a scouting report to broader excursions on the nature of leadership and commitment.
Diablo huddled up with Coach Lad to talk shop on writing the book, dealing with helicopter moms, and helping kids grow up.
Q: A lot of the book is devoted to really specific details of technique, but other parts are much broader, about leadership and commitment. Did you always want the book to resonate with a wider audience?
A: I wanted something that wasn’t just about mechanics. You can get that from a football clinic. I thought so much of our success was due to our philosophy and how we approached everything. And that was, in a nutshell, how to teach kids to be accountable and be authentic teammates to each other. Trying to pull 50 or 60 kids together in a tight-knit unit—that’s a hard task.
Q: You write about keeping a sort of formal, arm’s-length distance from parents. How did that play with the moms and dads who tend to get really involved in their kids’ lives?
A: I always looked at football as a vehicle that allows kids to stand on their own two feet and be their own [people]. They can take accountability for what they’re doing on the field and off the field. I try to remember what it was like when I was in high school. Maybe it was my generation, but I didn’t want my parents meddling in my sports life. This is a time where kids have an opportunity to make choices and live with the consequences. That’s a huge step in a young man’s life.
Q: There’s a great ironic moment in the book when you’re explaining why you don’t really like pregame pep talks—except this phrase, “a perfect effort,” that you used in a pregame speech has taken on a life of its own.
A: If I have to go in before a game and get my team in a frenzy by yelling and everything, trying to concoct some emotional speech, that’s a waste of time and effort. You have to step off the practice field on Thursday and know your guys are prepped. It has nothing to do with going in to the locker room 10 minutes before the game and saying, “OK, now we need to really get ready.”
Q: What do you tell parents who are—rightfully—concerned about head injuries?
A: We have a very strict injury protocol, and we’re very good about not pushing kids back in when they’re not ready, especially with concussion symptoms. … I think the game can be played in a safer way, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to get injured. You rarely see anyone play for any length of time and never get hurt. But I feel the risk is worth the reward. And the risk is part of the bonding. You know, that If I don’t make my block, my running back’s going to get killed. If I don’t occupy the lineman, my linebacker’s getting wasted. The nature of the game adds to that accountability.
Q: How do you react to some of the really ugly behavior we hear about from so many NFL players?
A: There’s a certain worship factor to athletes at that level, and I think a lot of them buy into it. Like, they’re doing something nobody else can do, so that makes them special as a human being. They can’t go anywhere without people praising them or buying them drinks or giving them free stuff. But it’s a false reality. That’s not how life is; that’s a fantasy world. But when you see yourself as entitled and special, it can show itself in a really ugly way.
Q: What are you doing with all your free time these days?
A: I’m still helping coach the defensive line here and there. But I can watch film and not have to chart it—not get involved too heavily in the game plan. Now, I can go from practice to my car and go home, not stay behind and put out fires. That frees up my time. Plus, I’m 61 now: I’m taking more naps.
Q: OK, finally, Super Bowl 50: Who ya got?
A: Well, I always think the coaches who are doing the right things have the inside track. So Bill Belichek, he gets a bad rap, but he’s the best coach in the league. He leaves no stone unturned; he takes average guys and turns them into producers.