Sean Payton walks through the locker room to leave motivational props for players. Jim Harbaugh barges into the bathroom to rush players to meetings. Ron Rivera practically lives in there.
Gone are the days when NFL locker rooms were a players-only domain. More coaches are making their presence felt in a place they weren’t always welcomed.
“That locker room is our locker room,” Rivera said. “I have a vested interest in the locker room.”
Some coaches only pass through the locker room occasionally — Giants coach Tom Coughlin and Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith — while some are regular visitors, stopping to chat with players and socialize with them on their turf.
Rivera used to follow the old-school philosophy because he played for Mike Ditka in Chicago. Iron Mike stayed out of the Bears’ locker room, leaving his players to rule there.
But Rivera crossed that imaginary “Do Not Enter” line last year and became a fixture in the room. His approach worked. The Panthers won the NFC South and Rivera was the NFL Coach of the Year.
“The biggest mistake I made my first two years was not being around,” Rivera said. “I still have guys that when they see me, they say: ‘Whoop. The man is in here.’ And, they shut up. I don’t care. It’s our locker room.”
When a bullying scandal erupted with the Miami Dolphins last year, coach Joe Philbin said he didn’t know about it. In part, that was because Philbin didn’t visit the locker room. He let the players police themselves.
“I think I have a better rapport, chemistry, with the players,” Philbin said recently. “I’ve spent more time communicating with them in a one-on-one manner and in team meetings. I’ve been doing the bed check every single night at the hotel and just knocking on their doors and making sure that they’re OK, busting their chops a little bit if they’re awake.”
The events in Miami were the focal point of a meeting between the NFL Players Association and league officials in the offseason. The NFL wants more supervision in the locker room to ensure players respect each other.
“The locker room is part of the workplace,” Robert Gulliver, the league’s executive vice president for human resources, said during a panel discussion at the NFL’s career development symposium this summer. “Football is special and iconic, but we have to treat it as a place of work.”
That means coaches have to make sure they’re aware of the culture in their locker rooms. If the see any problems, they have to address them immediately.
“There should be no closed doors in terms of how you do it,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “We’re just continuing to emphasize what we emphasized a year ago. We don’t have any rookie shows, never have done that stuff. We’re trying to get a bunch of guys who are good people.”
Kelly encourages his assistants to visit with players in the locker room. He stresses togetherness and has no tolerance for players who don’t put the team first.
“The more people get along and share the same vision and aspirations, the more you’re going to get to where you want to get to,” Kelly said.
Many coaches say they build camaraderie with players in the locker room.
“You rip a guy’s ass out there (in practice) and then you go in (and say): ‘It’s just football. It’s nothing personal, we’re just talking about your football stinks. You’re a pretty good guy,'” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “You want to make sure that they know that. You ask them to do a lot of things and you get a lot of feedback when you go through there and talk to them.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid learned the open-door policy from Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. Reid also connects with his players through a leadership council that includes a representative from each position group.
“They can come to our office, we can go in the locker room,” Reid said. “There are no walls, everything is free, coaches go in and mingle. Players, I think, appreciate that. I go in there and don’t feel any walls there, no sneaking around, and they feel free coming up and talking to us.”
Some coaches are more comfortable in the locker room than others.
“I’ll go in every day just to see the guys,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “I mean, they get intimidated because I’ll be in shorts and that’s about it because we have our sauna and whirlpool and I’ll get in there. These are my guys. I’m comfortable wherever I am in that building. They’re used to seeing me in there and in the hot tubs and the cold tubs and whatever.”
Payton occasionally pops into the Saints’ locker room to leave props such as a porcelain doll at a locker of a player he wants to exhibit more toughness. Sometimes Payton leaves a laminated card with an inspirational passage from a speech or text. Sometimes he drops off baseball bats with the inscription “bring the wood” before games against physical teams.
Former players like Rivera and San Francisco’s Harbaugh blend in nicely.
“You have to get to know their environment, get to know what’s going on in their world with Twitter, with music, socially,” Rivera said. “There’s so many things that go on with these players that we didn’t have.”
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