When the college sports world paused due to COVID-19 last year, former Nevada football coach Brian Polian wrote a book.
The book, titled "Coaching and Teaching Generation Z: Honor the Relationships," was released last month by publisher Coaches Choice. It includes a foreword by Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Polian has served as the Irish's special teams coordinator since 2017.
Polian was on the The Tony Kornheiser Show podcast recently to discuss the book. He said the realization that relationships are more important than Xs and Os in college football came after his return to Notre Dame, which followed his stint with the Wolf Pack.
"This all started a couple of years ago with my return to Notre Dame," Polian told Kornheiser. "Brian Kelly was coming off a 4-8 season. The administration at Notre Dam decided, 'OK, instead of making wholesale changes here, we're just going to hit the reset button.' I watched first hand as Brian Kelly became less worried about what plays we were going to call in certain situations and more worried about the culture of the team, the building of relationship with players within the program and listening to their feedback and trying to create a more give and take atmosphere within our football team. And as a result, we are 43-8 since that time.
"I felt a change in our world of coaching and teaching and probably parenting to a certain degree that relationships and the building of relationships is now the foundation of what we do."
Polian said a discussion with the head master of an all-boys school on a recruiting trip with Kelly sparked the idea to talk more openly about relationship building in coaching. That turned into a speech at a coaching clinic that was a hit, which in turn became the outline for his book.
"The pandemic hit and my wife, Laura, and my father, Bill, both said to me at separate times, 'If you're going to be locked up in the house, (you should write a book),'" Polian told Kornheiser. "For somebody like me whose schedule is very regimented, I had to have something to do. I had to have a goal, I had to have some sense of purpose. I took that outline and ended up writing a book.
"Look, it's 105 pages. This is not rocket science. For anybody who works with young people, anybody that coaches, anybody that teaches, I do think it's worthwhile. It explores this dynamic of relationships with young people. Why they're important. Why it helps bring out the best. And I attacked it from diversity and inclusion. How does a 46-year-old white man like me relate with an 18-year old African American?"
Polian said he's witnessed a dramatic shift in how to effectively teach and develop young people during his two decades as a coach. Generation Z, which is encompassed by people born from 1997-2012/15 and make up college rosters these days, has different needs and modes of communication compared to previous generations, Polian said.
"Generation Z has grown up in the age of technology," Polian told Kornheiser. "They've never know anything different. This generation can have a heartfelt serious conversations and do it via text and it wouldn't bother them one bit. To me, that would have been unfathomable that I could have a serious conversation with a coach or a teacher and not have it sitting there eye to eye. But this generation can address serious matters and have deep conversations and do it with their thumbs over a phone. To not understand that as a coach puts you at a disadvantage with this generation."
The book is not just meant for people in the coaching community but can serve as a resource for teachers, employers and parents, but from a coaching perspective the relationship building is one of the first jobs of the coach.
"There is an ethical responsibility as a college coach to help develop these people not only as players but as men," Polian said. "If we're going to be impact them as men, we have to focus on building relationships first."
Polian was Nevada's head coach from 2013-16. He posted a record of 23-27, including two bowl appearances (1-1). After being fired by Nevada after the 2016 season, Polian was hired as Notre Dame's special teams coordinator, a position he had held before his Wolf Pack hiring. He also has coached at Buffalo, Stanford, Texas A&M, Michigan State, Baylor and UCF.