As college football season approaches teams all over the country are choosing captains, those hard-working, high-character players who set an example for their teammates to follow through both actions and words.
At least that’s what coaches are hoping will happen.
Captain selection is yet another thing that worries coaches. Most put it in the hands of the players before the season starts and hope for the best. Some coaches try to eliminate the headache by having weekly captains — or none at all.
Captains usually reflect a team’s leadership, and leadership problems can sink a season.
“If you’re not careful, voting for captains is a popularity contest,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “And the players vote for who the best player is. It’s not who makes the people around them better.”
Coaches say it so often it has become cliche, but it’s true: The ideal situation is when a team’s best players are also the hardest workers, both on and off the field.
Best-case scenario, the players embrace the coaching staff’s message of discipline and attention to detail, and they begin to police themselves. Captains take the lead. Even if the players are voting for captains, ultimately, it comes back to the coach.
“I’ve got to do a good job as a leader of making sure that I tell them exactly what’s needed, what’s necessary and what a leader looks like and not just tell them, show them,” said Vanderbilt coach Derrick Mason, who lets players vote for captains.
At Arkansas, coach Bret Bielema’s system for choosing captains is based on practices from his college coach, Iowa’s Hayden Fry, and old boss, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder.
Offensive players vote for two offensive players and one defensive player and defensive players vote two defense and one offense. The voting usually takes place two weeks before the start of the season. Bielema said doing it late helps minimize friends voting for friends and it allows the freshman to have input.
“To me, sometimes new eyes are the best eyes. They literally can tell who really, truly, does lead, who kind of has a voice and not necessarily going with the most popular. As you get older, I think it’s easy to start voting for your buddy,” Bielema said.
To cut down on some of that and eliminate peer pressure, Kansas coach David Beatty said the Jayhawks’ votes are secret.
“We talk to them all the time about what this means, what this represents for you,” Beatty said. “Be careful who you’re choosing.”
Kansas defensive lineman Daniel Wise sounded as if he was getting Beatty’s message: “I’ll pick a guy who may not be starting or may not even be playing, but I know he’s a great guy. He may have better leadership skills than some of the guys who are playing.”
Former All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor was one of four captains for Notre Dame in 1993. The Fighting Irish went 11-1 that season and were the only team to beat national champion Florida State. The other captains were offensive lineman Tim Ruddy, defensive lineman Bryant Young and defensive back Jeff Burris. All went on to productive NFL careers. In that case Notre Dame had the ideal set up: Four star players who were willing leaders and good examples for teammates.
But players, Taylor said, can have a hard time looking past on-field performance. There is no greater currency than production.
“So that’s why bad apples that can ball typically get voted captains and that drives head coaches crazy,” Taylor said.
Former Texas coach Mack Brown said early in his career he received advice from former LSU coach Paul Dietzel about naming captains that he stuck with for three decades.
Brown had been having coaches pick captains before the season. Dietzel told him it was better to have game captains that change from week-to-week.
“If you pick them before (the season) you can have one get hurt and he’s not as powerful,” Brown said. “You can have him get in trouble and you lose who you are because you’ll probably have to strip him from being a captain. And that’s worse.
“If you name four captains in preseason, you’ve diminished some of the other guys’ ability to lead. And if (the players) get it wrong you’ve hurt some of your best leaders.”
At the end of the season, Brown would have players vote permanent captains. Brown said he was the only person who saw the results of the final vote and it helped him get a read on his team for the following season.
“What I learned the most was if there was a guy who we as coaches thought was a good leader and he got no votes then we had an issue,” he said.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez uses a similarly system of weekly captains.
“It forced the seniors to establish some leadership,” said Rodriguez, who also spent stints at West Virginia and Michigan. “I have been at other places where people were really critical because this broke tradition, but I kind of liked it, so I did it.”
Washington State coach Mike Leach, who often steers toward the unconventional, doesn’t name captains at all anymore. The final straw was when he had to kick one off a team.
“So then I said, ‘Screw this.’ I don’t need four guys to do the coin toss, and I don’t need anybody out there thinking that they’re special, that they’re above the others,” Leach said. “So we’re not going to have team captains. We’re going to have a designated coin toss caller.”
Leach made Jamal Morrow Washington State’s coin-toss captain two seasons ago because the running back once had a successful appearance on the TV show “The Price is Right.” In 22 games, Morrow has “won” the coin toss 17 times.
Maybe Leach is on to something.
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Pullman, Washington; Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee; Dave Skretta in Lawrence, Kansas, and Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, contributed to this report.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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