Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
Chris Krich, La Verne’s new head football coach, brings a high level of energy, enthusiasm, toughness and a blue-collar work ethic to the job as the Leopards begin a new chapter in their gridiron history.
Chris Krich (pronounced CREEK) is already a big winner. In a nationwide search that attracted more than 200 applicants to be the University of La Verne head football coach, it was Krich who came out on top.
Krich, who previously spent five seasons as defensive coordinator of the highly successful football program at Millikin University in Illinois, takes over a program at La Verne that has won four games in the past four seasons. Since being hired on March 2, Krich put together a coaching staff and scooped up as many players as he could in an abbreviated recruiting season.
As the beginning of fall practice approached, Krich spoke about the job ahead of him, bringing the alumni back out, and winning, winning, winning.
You’re taking over a football program that has won only a couple of games in several years. Where do you start?
You start from the bottom. There’s really nowhere else you can go but up. It’s a situation where this is a program that is kind of a sleeping giant.
The very first step was with the coaching staff, seeing who was here and meeting with the coaching staff was the No.1 thing we did. I gave them my approach, you know, ‘Here’s how I coach, here’s my philosophy when it comes to what I feel is important in college football.’ And then, obviously, having that first team meeting with the returning players, and they were pretty excited about that as well.
We did all that within two days. When we first started, we were right in between 65 and 70 returning players, that is, returning players from last season and guys who had decided to play in the spring, before I got here. They jumped into the weight lifting class and wanted to be part of the football program when there was no head coach here. Brent Baier, who was recruiting coordinator and quarterbacks coach last year, and the only full-time guy that we retained here full time, he did a nice job of kind of being head coach when there was not one here.
He did a great job of keeping players ‘warm’. The way I see Division III football is kids are going to go to a school where they see themselves fitting in best. Coaches are coaches and a football team is a football team. But the actuality is that this has to be a fit for them, school-wise. Everything else on top of that is gravy. A lot of these kids went to local schools, they love the area, they loved the idea of being able to turn the program around, and the last thing they’re waiting for to push them over the edge is the financial aid. And, they were waiting to see who was going to get hired, and have an opportunity to come in and speak with me. So Brent and John Ausman and Joe Manfre kind of kept these kids hot.
There was one day in the spring, March 26, it was a Saturday, and we had a big recruiting day. A lot of them had been here before. But we invited them to come in here and check it out again, see how things were going to be different.
How do you sell La Verne to recruits?
I sell La Verne to the kids along the same lines of why I chose to come here. You walk around this campus and there’s a lot of people who say ‘hi’ to you and it’s a very open and warm campus. I think that’s the same thing that a lot of our recruits see when they come and check it out. It’s a very welcoming campus. You don’t feel like you’re in L.A. It’s got a small-town feel. It feels like home. I try to sell my personality, in the sense that, ‘Hey, we want to be successful, and we may not have the most luxurious amenities around, but we work hard.’ We’re a hard-working group that just cares about results. We’re going to work for that success and we don’t expect anyone to give it to us. I grew up a blue collar-type guy, and everywhere I’ve gone it’s been that same mentality of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to work for what we want. They’re not going to just give it to you.’ I just try to sell recruits on my philosophy and then we just show them what we have to offer. Hey, here’s our campus, here’s our football field, here’s our locker room, and let them make the decision whether this is the right place for them. Because if they don’t feel this is the right place for them, you know, fourth-and-1, they might not be trying as hard. We want people to come here because they can see themselves here and they’re going to fight like crazy to protect that field out there and to be successful.
Many people around campus say the only way to get people out to the games is to win. Are you OK with that?
Everyone wants to follow a winner. We want people in the community coming out here, we want the alumni to come back, to have fun and enjoy this atmosphere. It’s got to be a winning atmosphere, it’s got to be an atmosphere of success. Obviously, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we’re going to do everything we can to put our players in a position to be successful. We’ll take chances when we need to take chances and we’ll be conservative when we need to be conservative. But for the most part, we’re pretty wide-open. We play to win. When we prepare for a game, whether it’s the No.1 team in the country or a rival or some team that might not be as competitive as us. We’re going to do everything we can to be successful and we’ll play to win. We’re not going to play not to lose. With that comes a level of toughness you need to have, and football is a physical sport. That’s something I think I bring: The coaches I’ve worked for have been Ohio guys, Woody Hayes, Midwest, run-the-ball-to-be-successful guys. We’re not going to play basketball out there. We’re going be physical and we’ll come out and play the game the way it was meant to be played.
From a mental standpoint, how do you turn things around and get your players to believe they can win?
I had a parent ask me what I was going to do different. (Former coach) Andy (Ankeny) did a great job here, was a very nice man and I’ve heard nothing but great things about him. But my coaching style is a little bit different. I am a coach who believes you have to have a passion to play. There’s a lot of players out there who love the game of football, but, you know… My mom loves football. She loves watching it. But you’ve got to have that passion to get out there and play it, and it can be a real grind.
We had a lot of players making excuses about why they couldn’t do things, why they couldn’t be here for practice, why they needed to miss all of spring ball because of work. I said, ‘That’s fine, but we need football players who are going to make this one of their upper priorities. You know, family is no. 1, school is right there, they’re all really close together. A lot of players love the game, but they don’t have the passion to be successful. So, we really challenged a lot of the kids that were kind of out there. The goal was to get all the kids together. You have one kid who is doing weightlifting and you’ve got another kid who’s not doing weightlifting, the one kid who is doing the weightlifting is going to have some animosity toward the other kid who is not doing it. You can’t have that. Everyone’s got to be on the same page. I’ve got to be putting just as much work in there as Coach (Richard) Worsell is. Otherwise, he’s going to get mad and say the coaches aren’t doing enough.
So we got everyone on the same page and we told them, ‘This is what we need to have done. You will be at spring practice. And if you’re not, it’s gonna have a big impact on your playing time. Some of the kids who came in who were too busy — starters from last year, who technically, are our best players — and I just told them, ‘Hey, maybe football isn’t the right thing for you. I think you’ve just got too much on your plate.’ Two days later those same kids came in and said, ‘Coach, I got everything worked out! I got my whole schedule redone.’ When that happened, those kids reached a crossroads of whether they wanted to play football or not. They had to dig down and see if this was something they were really passionate about and they got the passion back. There were a lot of kids who told me, ‘Yeah, Coach, before you got here, I didn’t really want to play. The only reason I was playing was because I’ve been playing here for three years and I wasn’t going to let my teammates down. But Coach, now I can’t wait for the season to start!’ The funny thing was they were thanking me for it, but I was thanking them for it, because it was a similar thing for me. I’ll be honest, I was in the same job for five years, as an assistant, kind of having an itch to have my own program, so that passion really came out in me too. I can’t wait for the season to start.
How important is it to get the alumni to come to games?
I definitely want to get the alumni involved. For four years, those guys who played football here, they found a home. And same with the guys who played two years or even just one year. I always want them to realize that they have a home here. Whatever I can do to increase their enjoyment and get them out to come to the football games, I think they can be our biggest fans, as well as our biggest critics. Hopefully they’re more supportive than anything else, but the main thing is to get them re-connected with their school and their team.
How would you describe your ‘system’?
Very positive. Positive reinforcement is the most important thing. I’m not a yeller and a screamer. I’m not a whistle coach. I don’t make kids just run laps. I’m in-your-face and if you do something wrong, we’re going to get it corrected. Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said something about when you don’t like what your kids are doing, and when you don’t like how your kids are playing, and it really stuck with me. He said: ‘It’s either you’re coaching it, or you’re letting it happen.’ I think I’m going to get a big sign made with those words. And that’s something our coaches need to understand. We have to put our players in the best position to be successful, that’s our job. We have to make sure they are prepared properly for each game. The way we reinforce the kids with doing things well is we’re all over them [with praise]. When they do something wrong, we want to correct that mistake. But we’re all over them when they do something right too. If you’re a player and you have coaches like that, man, you don’t want to ever let your coach down again.
What effect do you think a winning football program has on the rest of the campus?
In my experience, success in the football program jump-starts the rest of the sports on campus. The thing about football is you only get one game a week. We’ve got to go through each week and prepare. I think that’s why football is so exciting. There’s a great buildup, where everybody talks about it all week long, and I think that’s the beauty of it. If you start getting some success, that’s going to increase the spirit on campus. It’s going to raise the level of the bar on the other sports, and then the other sports might say, ‘Hey, I want a little bit of that.’
There’s a lot of reasons why these teams, especially in Division III, make the playoffs and continually make the playoffs. The big reason is that those players get a taste of how exciting that is, to be able to play, like, in December, when you’re not supposed to be playing. You’re extending your time, especially the seniors. The chances of any of our players going on to play professional football are really slim. So that’s why it’s so special to be a part of a winning program in college. It becomes addictive, almost, when players see that success, they know what it takes to get there and they’ll continue to do it.
And then, you have guys who know how to win to show the younger guys how, and that’s the most important thing. That’s why I told the returning guys that they’ve got to come into fall practice in great shape. They’ve got to follow the workout program, follow through with it, because the NCAA doesn’t allow us to coach our players through the summer until it’s time for the 25 practices we get before our first game. So, if you’re not being a good influence on this young kid I just recruited, you know, that’s got to be changed. So, we’re going to reward the kids that have worked hard and have given the best effort. You can be the worst football player in America, but one thing you can do is work hard and give great effort. You can always do that.
How do you restore the competitiveness?
We will compete. It starts when we’re on that practice field, we’re competing with each other, competing everywhere you go. You compete for your position, compete for your place on the team, compete in 1-on-1’s, compete in pass rush drills. When we start, we tell the kids they will get an opportunity. I don’t care if you’re freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, if you’re the best player at your position, you’re going to play. The thing our coaches are concerned with are results. What are the results? Usually, the ones who get the best results are the ones who are giving the greatest effort as well, they’re working hardest in the offseason. Then, if you can win each play, the scoreboard will take care of itself.
We start off at each position, and our depth chart is alphabetical. Coming in, I don’t even know who our best player is. I don’t even know the best player at each position. We have to give every kid the opportunity to come in and prove to us they deserve to be there, and we will. We’ll give everyone equal reps, but we’ve got to find our best players. The ones who aren’t at the top yet, we’ve got to give them guidance in how they can get there. Don’t just tell them how to be faster; you’ve got to show them how to be faster. You’ve got to coach them. You’ve got to spend the time with them.
I like to do a couple of special things, practice-wise, even in the middle of the year. Early in the season, we compete, learning the offense, learning the defense. After the season starts, we spend most of practice preparing for the team we’re playing that week. But there will be time — and we have a special name for it, which I won’t give you, because we are focused on a certain conference rival — when we’ll be competing against ourselves and we’re pretending we’re competing against this one team in our conference that we feel we need to beat to be successful. So we’ve given it a name, and after every practice, we’ll do a little extra work, because we figure that’s what it’s going to take to beat those guys.
We’ve got to punch through, and there’s no reason why we can’t. The big thing is that we’ve got a lot of these good things going, the kids are excited, all this good stuff. Everything’s positive right now, and the thing we really started focusing on in talking to the kids early on was, ‘Hey, the one thing about football is the best teams are the ones that deal with adversity the best.’ What’s going to happen when our offense turns the ball over for the first time? Is our defense going to say, ‘Oh, no, here we go again!’ No. You’ve got to take that situation for what it’s worth. It happened, so how are we going to react to it? The normal way for humans to deal with it is they’re down. Now, that team over there is up because it happened. So our defense has to get excited about getting back out there. Change that negative into a positive by getting a three-and-out, or force a turnover ourselves. There’s nothing more demoralizing to a team than getting a turnover and then turning the ball over again. Now it’s totally flip-flopped the momentum back our way and we have to try to convert. So we have to prepare for that, we have to practice that.
We’re going to do a turnover period. We’ll be in the middle of practice and I’m gonna walk away and then put the ball down and blow the whistle and I’m gonna start yelling “Sudden change! Sudden change!” It might be in the middle of kickoff practice or whatever and the defense is gonna have to get their helmets on and find coach, the offense is going to have to get to Coach Worsell. I mean, you’ve got 40 seconds to get on the field and get a play off. So we’re going to practice those situations.
You open with Azusa Pacific and then travel to Linfield College in Oregon, two opponents that are very tough, year-in, year-out.
We’ve got a tough schedule and we open with two ranked teams. One’s ranked 15th in NAIA and the other, I think, is ranked sixth in NCAA Division III. I’m all about playing anybody, anytime. I’m fine with that. The hardest thing is we’re trying to create this level of competitiveness, this level of excitement and winning. So, we’ve got to go into these games preparing our kids to be successful, but we also have to be prepared for how we’re going to react if something doesn’t go right. Last year against Azusa Pacific, it’s a 10-point game at halftime. They’re right there. Then a couple of long runs in the second half and you see the wheels fall off. Then their shoulders slump, their heads get down. That’s not gonna happen this year, and that’s on us, the coaches, to show them why they can’t go about doing that. The ball’s going to bounce our way again, and we’ve got to get that confidence back.
We’ve got a tough road ahead of us and it’s not going to be all rosy out there like we think it is now. We’ve got to go into each game thinking we’re going to win, but we also have to prepare for how we’re going to handle adversity.
Sounds like your players will have a different attitude this season.
The energy is going both ways. They’re pumping me up and the coaches, we’re all excited.
Offense and defense, we’re still up in the air about what we’re going to run. We’re not married to any offense or defense. We’ve got to see what we can do. Once we get into full pads, after those first couple of days, we’ll be able to figure it out very quickly.
I really needed to make sure I brought somebody in, and Rich (Worsell) and I worked together before. He and I have a very similar wavelength on how we want to get this thing going, not just offensively, but overall, Division III, understanding the philosophy, the fundraising and he’s great with all that. I really needed someone to whom I could say, ‘Here’s the offense, take it.’ He’s been very successful. The school he just came from, they broke a lot of records, both throwing the ball and running the ball. He’s from England, so he’s already getting the ‘British Airways’ nickname attached to his offense. That’s a little misleading, because we are going to run the football. We’ve got to be physical up front, we’ve got to be able to run the ball when we want to, run the ball when we need to.
You can still recruit to your own system in Division III, but you might get a Division I bounce-back pocket passer who can sling the rock around, you know, you’re not going run the triple-option. We’ve got some guys who were starters that we might move over to defense. I’m a real big believer that defense wins championships. I don’t like those games that are 43-40. A 13-7 game is fine with me. If we’re holding them to seven, or three, I’m great. Then, we’ve got a great chance to win the ballgame.
What will fans notice immediately that’s different?
The No. 1 thing they’re going to see is a team that is prepared. I’m a big believer in out-working the opponent, as coaches and as players. Our coaches have to have a tireless work ethic and out-work the other schools.
The other thing is our level of enthusiasm. Our players are going to have fun. There’s a time to work and there’s a time to be excited about the game. There’s that play time in there as well. We’re going to walk that walk. We’re going to be loose. We want our kids to have a personality. I’m not going to go out there with a bunch of robots. I want those kids to have a little enthusiasm. They’re playing football because it’s exciting, they’re passionate about it and we want to keep that passion going.