September 01, 2021

Discussing Gen-Z Coaching with Associate Head Coach of Notre Dame

Dana Safa Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #55

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Brian Polian, Special Teams Coordinator at LSU, and former Associate Head Coach and Special Teams Coordinator at Notre Dame Football. He is also the author of Coaching and Teaching Generation Z: Honor the Relationships, which provides simple but effective ways to guide the giving and receiving of feedback and reminders of some of the characteristics that make Generation Z so unique.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Polian sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO Sam Caucci, and discussed teaching Generation Z, effective coaching, and recruiting.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Polian shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “If guys are interested in the wrong things, it’s never going to work and we can learn those things by asking the right questions.”
  • “If it doesn’t work one way, Gen Z will find another way.”
  • “It’s important that we work in incremental steps, that we have some victories, and we build on top of them.”


Sam: Can you share a little bit about your story and your background and what got you from where you were to where you are?

Brian: That’s a long journey. I come from a football family. My dad, Bill Polian, is in the pro football hall of fame, over 30 years as an executive in the national football league. But he actually started as a history teacher and a high school football and baseball coach in New York City. I grew up around the game. Really, my formative years were spent in Buffalo, New York when he was the GM of the Bills. And my summer job, when 14 and 15-year-olds are working at putt-putt, I was at training camp with the Buffalo Bills, working as a ball boy. 

And from that moment, from the age of 15, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to coach, play college football, John Carroll University, outside of Cleveland, Ohio. And from there, I graduated in May of ‘97, and in June of ‘97, I was at Michigan State as a GA for Nick Saban.

I worked my way up through the mid-majors and really caught a break at the age of 29 when Charlie Weiss hired me at Notre Dame. I spent five years here with Charlie and developed a reputation as a guy that could go recruit and assignment detail and a bunch of guys from the west coast here at Notre Dame did a couple of years at Stanford, a year at Texas A&M, and then was the head coach at the University of Nevada and the mountain west.

After a four-year stint there, and really, an unfinished journey there but hopefully my time as head coach will come again. I came back to Notre Dame under Brian Kelly, and coaching and working with young people has been my passion. I’ve never wavered from it and just come to work every day with a smile on my face. 

Sam: What’s it take to be a great recruiter? 

Brian: First of all, you have to be an intentional listener. I think too often in recruiting, everybody’s got their sales pitch. Here’s what we have to offer and they just kind of spew it out when in reality, we need to ask good questions. We need to be intentional listeners. 

For example, if I’m recruiting somebody on the west coast to come to Notre Dame, and I say, ‘Hey, what’s important to you?’ and it’s ‘I want to be close to home and I don’t want to be in the cold weather’, well, then that tells me I’m probably spinning my wheels and I should not waste my time.

If I ask somebody, ‘Hey, what’s important to you in this process’ and the very first thing they say is ‘I’m looking for a quality education,’ then I know how to attack the next part of the conversation. It’s my job as a recruiter to figure out what the prospect and the family is looking for, whether or not we meet those needs, and if we meet those needs, convince them that we can meet them better than anybody else can. 

Too often in recruiting, and I would imagine in the business world, we slam our head up against the plate glass window when we shouldn’t be fighting that fight, like part of being effective is having common sense and knowing when it’s time to walk away, that it’s not a battle you can win.

Sam: Sure. I think there’s probably a lot of similarities that you would be able to speak to. In the general workforce, a lot of times you might have a lot of candidates pursuing a job, and recruiters might feel like they can just sit back and pick, and there’s obviously a challenge to that. And in your business, you’re proactive, right? You’re pursuing the best athletes every day for Notre Dame. 

I think about questions that you have to ask in the process. What are the hard questions that you ask that maybe sets apart your process then maybe others?

Brian: There are a couple that are very specific to us, and then there are a couple that people don’t want to ask. Let’s start with the ones that are important to us. If you’re looking for comfort? Because if you want to be comfortable, Notre Dame’s not going to be your choice. We’re sitting here today in late February. It’s frigging cold here right now. And our entire student body is trudging across campus because at Notre Dame, you’re going to go to class. Nobody takes their school online here. Like there are some places in the country where players will tell you, ‘Hey, three-quarters of my classes are done online.’

Like we’re going to be in the classroom here and you’re going to be challenged. There are days that are going to be hard. And we’re going to ask, are you ready to be challenged? Because that is one of the core values of this place is that you’re going to get challenged.

I think one of the things that we’ve done and we’ve done at some other places and it was something that I picked up from my dad, was we’re going to ask some probing questions and really listen to the answers. Tell me about a time in your life, where you’ve had to overcome some adversity. Tell me about a time in your life when you feel like you’ve shown leadership abilities. Tell me about a time in your life, where you regret a decision you made and how you look back on it. 

When you ask those open-ended questions, look, whoever’s hiring for a job, there has to be some core skill set. I understand that, but I also think fit and makeup and character, all those things matter too. And when we can ask some of those probing questions and really listen to the answers, that’ll tell us something. 

Sam: Yeah. It’s not the give me your three biggest strengths and your three biggest weaknesses.

Brian: No no, I’ll give you a great example. I said to a kid one time, tell me about recruiting. Do you like recruiting? Coach, I love recruiting. All right, well, what do you love about it? I love walking around my school and being the big man on campus. I love all the attention I get. That guy’s not going to make it here. Because the minute he signs the letter of intent recruiting is done. 

And now it’s, do you love the weight room? Do you love the grind of practice and studying? And if guys are interested in the wrong things, it’s never going to work and we can learn those things by asking the right questions. 

Sam: You just said about asking kids, are you ready to be challenged, and you know I got your new book on coaching and teaching gen Z. I thought one of my biggest takeaways was there’s a ton of really cool tools in here about how you think about connecting in relationship building with young people, and for talent managers and CEOs and all the leaders out there that are hiring kids that you coach, right? The ones who aren’t going on to the league or going into the workforce right away, or at some point, what are your biggest learnings about gen Z because there are just so many people complaining about them?

Brian: First of all, they’re absolutely relationship-driven. And for any manager of people who says, well, that’s not me, I’m not warm and fuzzy, you better figure it out because all the kids that we’re working with now are absolutely relationship-driven. They want interpersonal connection. They want face-to-face. They want a conversation. 

Now they’re unique in the sense that a conversation like you and I are having right now via zoom or texting each other, to generation Z, that’s interpersonal communication. Whereas when I was raised, I would have thought it highly unusual to have a serious conversation with somebody other than sitting there face to face. With gen Z, that’s not the case. You can use technology, but they crave interpersonal interaction. They want to see the big picture. 

I’ll give you a great example. We changed our punt formation against Alabama in what was a pretty significant change and changed the personnel a little bit. And the first thing was, Hey, why are we doing this? Well, that’s the Heisman Trophy winner down there catching the punt. We need to get more people out in coverage. Oh, okay. All right. We understand. 

They want to know. They want to have a voice. That’s the job of a manager, whatever your business world is, you’ve got to find a way to give them a voice, to keep them engaged. They’re really creative and they can find solutions that some of us would never dream of, but they need to be empowered, right? Like, okay, you don’t like it, help me find a solution. And you’d be shocked at some of the ways that generation Z can come up.

The other thing too is they’re really adaptable, and I make the analogy with a high school football coach, where you’re not recruiting your personnel. Right? One year I might have a senior quarterback who can wing it all over the field. So now we’re going to be four wides. And the next year I don’t have anybody who can throw us so now we’re going to be a zone-read option team. 

Systematically, those are two very different worlds, but think about generation Z; they’ve grown up with phones and information on their fingertips. If it doesn’t work one way, they’ll find another way. Adapting to them is not unusual at all. So there are a lot of unique traits about this group that we need to be aware of, but they’re also things that we can take advantage of if we approach it the right way. 

Sam: Right. One section of the book here, you said Gen Z wants to have fun was one of the points you made, and I’ll give you this to react to:

I had a phone call a few weeks ago with a new head of HR at a Fortune 500 company. And they were saying to us, listen, we put all of our workers through employee training. They go through a really intensive onboard. Fun is not a part of that equation. This is training and it’s serious.

How do you react to that as a coach? 

Brian: I disagree completely. I just think times have changed. I used the term in the book and it’s not mine, but in the book I cited who it was, but ‘we are in the edutainment business’. I mean, I’m trying to teach here. I’m no different than anybody else. I might as well be trying to teach history or science. I just happen to be teaching football, but I have a lesson plan every day, and in fact, I would tell you that my job has got more pressure because 15 million people will watch us take our exam. And there’s a scoreboard at the end. There’s a clear winner and a loser.

But to be most effective teaching, we’ve got to keep their attention and we’ve got to keep it light. Look. Is there times to be serious? Sure there are, but there’s also time where we need to celebrate victories and we need to keep it light and it’s okay to laugh and it’s okay to have personality.

I’ll give you an example. In training camp when we’re really in the dog days and we’re going at it 12, 14 hours a day, I bring a gigantic tub of Halloween candy into the meeting. And if a guy has one good rep, he steps the correct way and I saw on film, I’m going to give him a piece of candy and we’re going to celebrate him in front of his peers. And then if you make a really good play, you get a Milky Way, because everybody knows that the Milky Way is the king of the candy bars. And then all of a sudden you see a really good play on the screen. And 20 guys are advocating for their peers. ‘Coach, that was a hell of a play. That’s a Milky way play right there.’

The most effective we can be is when they are light, when they’re smiling, when they’re engaged. When we gotta make corrections, we’ll make corrections. But at least the way I look at it, I coach a game and it’s played by kids. It’s supposed to be fun. And the minute it starts to feel like drudgery, then we have to adjust.

Sam: On top of leading recruiting, special teams is also something that you’re known pretty well for. As a coach, developing managers and developing like the next coaches behind you is a challenge for a lot of businesses. What’s different about coaching and teaching your gen Z players and coaching and teaching and developing the next wave of coaches that work on your staff?

Brian: Well, when I’m in a position where I can hire my assistant, my quality control, or when I was a head coach and I was in charge of the entire school, there’s a place for veteran wisdom. There are places for guys that can speak truth to power and keep you from stepping on a landmine, but there’s also value in young people that can connect and can serve as a conduit between a 19-year-old college sophomore, and a 46-year-old white middle-aged special teams coordinator. Somebody that can bridge that gap. There’s value in that.

In the end, it’s going to start with first who, then what, and I think that’s really important. It’s not first who then what when we’re talking about brain surgery, like you need to train professionals, but there are some places in the world where we can teach smart people what to do. Let’s start with getting great people first. 

So to me, like the last assistant I hired was a former player of mine from Nevada who was not a four-unit special teams player, he was an elite safety. But I knew he was a great kid and he was really smart and he had an elite work ethic and was a wonderful communicator.

I can teach him how to cover kickoffs. I can teach them the techniques that we use. That stuff’s fine. I mean, I’m looking for highly intelligent, self-motivated, and people that can communicate. If they can do those things, I can prepare them to do the rest. And hopefully, we advance guys that way. 

Sam: I’m sure in your practices, from a practice structure perspective, failure is something that happens pretty often. How do you think about challenge? When you design it, when you put people through drills and put people through different periods in practice, how do you think about the balance of what should be hard and what should maybe be easy as a teacher and a coach and an instructor? 

Brian: Absolutely. Failure’s okay. It’s one of the ways that we learn. I will say this; too many managers, too many coaches, too many teachers miss the teachable moment, like something happens and we let it go and say we’ll address it later. Like, no, there’s a teachable moment. Stop and fix it right there. It doesn’t mean that it needs to be a three-minute coaching clinic, but just say ‘Hey, stop. Everybody pay attention. That was wrong. Here’s how we’re going to correct it.’

I think we’re most effective when we don’t miss those moments. Will I skirt for success early on? Absolutely. Because I want our guys to feel small victories. They have to have some success, but then there are other times that I’m going to put them in the most difficult circumstances possible, and we’re going to teach off of whatever occurs. And when we teach off of it, we’re going to prepare ourselves for when it happens, live bullets in a game on a Saturday night. 

I think there’s a mix to both at the very beginning, we want to skirt for success. We want to put people in positions where they can enjoy some success, but as we get further advanced and we start to prepare for what for us is game day, then I’m going to put them in the worst-case scenarios and see how they handle them and then teach off of it.

Sam: I like what you said there about the giving, essentially, some simple wins. I guess there’s a momentum and a confidence that gets built up as you start to just weigh the tough stuff into practice. 

Brian: Yeah, like we have a situation right now where we have a player who’s way overweight, and instead of saying, Hey, by April 1st you need to be down 35 pounds, what we’re saying is, Hey, by Friday, we need you down 3. Let’s build small victories on top of small victories on top of small victories. And then we’re going to look up 60 days from now, and we’re going to be really excited about where we’re at. So I think it’s important that we work in incremental steps, and that we have some victories and we build on top of them.

Sam: That’s great. I’ve got one other one last question for you. What was your favorite part of writing the book? As you went through it, what was the best part for you?

Brian: Saying that I’ve written a book. I heard Bill Lawrence, who is a really well-known TV writer and producer, and I became fascinated with the show Ted Lasso.  

Sam: Same here! 

Brian: Oh my God. It was just so good. It was just in a time that was kind of a downer time, it was just so upbeat, and I think it really captured the essence of why people coach. And Bill Lawrence, I heard him interviewed and he said, ‘nobody actually likes to write. They just like to say I wrote something.’

But this project, I enjoyed the research. And my favorite part was in the last chapter of the book, I reached out to coaches from college women’s softball to soccer to basketball, from high school to college to pro, and just said, Hey, what are your thoughts on this subject matter?

And I was just blown away by how giving people were and how insightful they were. It was great. And it’s humbling to think, I wrote this book and had this project and the best writing came from the contributors, not from me, but I thought it was a nice addition to what I think is a helpful book to anybody that works with young people.

Sam: Totally. I shared right away after reading it, the covenant relationship consumer relationship I thought was a really great section for me, for like the younger managers, as they start to think about how they develop people behind them. Because so often you take the best employee and you take the best seller, make them a sales manager, you take the best employee and make them a manager. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re gonna be the best coach.

Brian: No, and our approach to the people that we manage cannot be dictated by the production that we get for them. Because like you said, there’s going to be somebody on the sales team that may not light it up, but if we’re dedicated to building a relationship and working with that person, we’re gonna find out, two, three years down the road, they might be extremely gifted in another area, and we’ve only discovered that because we didn’t just leave them by the wayside. 

Sam: Totally. Coach, thanks for spending the time.

Brian: Grateful to be here. Appreciate it. 

Topics Discussed: Coaching, Recruiting, Gen Z, Leadership

Dana Safa Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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