Special Relationships For Special Teams
By Keyon Johnson
After 30 years of coaching there are many people who would wonder how someone still has the desire to coach. Some would say that when you love what you are doing and having fun at it, the time just flies. For USC football special teams coach John Baxter, it's the relationships that he has built and maintained throughout his 30 years in the coaching business.
"When all the games are done, when all of the emotional outbursts from practice, the hard work, yelling and screaming, what you are left with is a relationship of not a player and a coach but of two people, two men," Baxter said.
The relationships that Baxter has built over the past years have meant a lot to him. He keeps in touch with many of his former players and one in particular.
"What those players have gone on and done with their lives and their experience playing football with us has done is pretty spectacular," Baxter said. "One of those former players is [USC head coach] Lane Kiffin. He played for us at Fresno State."
That relationship with Kiffin helped land Baxter a job at USC as the associate head and special teams coach. Special teams play is a very important aspect in the game of football. The momentum of a game can swap within seconds on a single play by the special teams. It happens all the time - whether it's a blocked punt, field goal or a kickoff return, the game can be turned around and won in a few seconds and not by the offense or defense.
"The great thing about being at USC is the head coach played for us at Fresno State so he knows the system," Baxter said. "He believes in it and he dedicates an incredible amount of time and resources to the special teams. All of the coaches here coach it together, and every player on the depth chart is available to us. So if you have the time and personnel, you are probably going to have a good chance at being a good special teams unit."
A good unit is an understatement for the USC's special teams, and they experienced success under the tutelage of Baxter last year. The Trojans blocked seven kicks and punts, returned a punt and kickoff for a touchdown, scored five times on 2-point conversions, had a defensive PAT and converted first downs on a fake punt and fake field goal. Baxter is known for his unusual approach to special teams. He utilizes props such as a prosthetic leg and foot with a football connected to it which emulates a punter. Baxter also gets the team involved and excited about special teams by creating different activities to generate interest in the special teams such as the "Survivor" reality series, even with team names.
"I think that our players are a mirror of our staff," Baxter said. "If you show up to practice with genuine enthusiasm for something and you can teach a guy how to be a better football player, I think players tend to get excited about that. If you coach with passion and enthusiasm, it doesn't matter what it is, the players will play with passion and enthusiasm."
This form of building interest comes naturally for Baxter as he has also created the 'Academic Gameplan,' comprehensive study skills program that teaches students the rules, fundamentals, and techniques of how to win at the game of school, and ultimately makes them competitive through the development of life skills. It is built around what Baxter calls the 'Seven Success Ts of Attitude,' Terminology, Training, Tools, Technique, Time and Teamwork. All seven of these areas are necessary in order to achieve success. This program is proven to be successful because it has given educators a way to interact with their students. It also helps to foster a relationship which is invaluable and allows the educator to facilitate student progress, resulting in high levels of achievement.
"At the end of the day, when I was first a graduate assistant, I tried to bring guys in back in 1986 and told them that if you just do X, Y or Z, I bet you would do a little bit better in school," Baxter said. "I tried to instill things in them that I was able to do when I was a student. After doing this you realize that this has nothing to do with football and everything to do with them as students. I like to say to guys if we can get students to run 60 yards full speed into someone, we can teach them how to take notes for class and strategic planning.
"In the end it doesn't matter what your plan is, as long as you have a plan. School is a game like any other game; it has rules, fundamentals and techniques."
Relationships are huge part of what makes Baxter stick around coaching and his relationship with his father-in-law, former Utah head coach and current Weber State Ron McBride, ranks among the top relationships that Baxter has built and maintained over the years.
"The guy who I have emulated the most, who has mentored and set an example for me in my coaching career more than any other coach, is Ron McBride." Baxter said. "His passion, energy, intensity, style and enthusiasm for the game have impacted my career the most. I was a graduate assistant for him at Arizona, and in 1990 he offered me a job with him at the University of Utah. Five minutes after he offered me the job, the head coach at Arizona offered me a full time job to come back to Arizona, so I went to Arizona. I have known my in-laws three years longer than I have known my wife, so as we say in our family, I came pre-approved."
Baxter has been a big supporter for McBride and throughout his tenure at Utah, Baxter was always there lending a hand and extra knowledge. McBride led the Utes to nine bowl game appearances and at each one of them, Baxter was there.
"Every bowl game that Utah played other than the one they played against Fresno State, I was on the Utah sidelines," Baxter said. "I have been at two bowl games when Utah played SC, once in the Freedom Bowl and once in Las Vegas. I was on the sideline the day that they beat SC at the Vegas Bowl, during Pete Carroll's first year."
Utah is more than a welcomed addition to the Pac-12 by Baxter because of the way that they play football, their tradition and their leadership.
"[Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham] is a tough guy." Baxter said. "He brings toughness to everything that he does. He has done a tremendous job in continuing to advance that program. He was handed something that was good and he is continuing to build upon it. They are recruiting great and their guys play hard. Their players are a mirror of their coach's toughness. I have tremendous regard for that program."