Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.”
A lot of coaches talk about how they care about their players but, when it’s all said and done, they really care more about the wins and losses than anything else. If the team is winning, they care a lot; when the team is losing, they can’t wait for the next set of freshman to come to campus. It is one of the sad aspects of the football culture where a coach is measured most often by his record on the field than by the character of his players.
At Illinois College they have a coach who is bucking the system. While he wants to win, and may be as competitive as any coach you will find, there is a priority that far exceeds Ws and Ls. It is a commitment to see his players become the very best men that they can be, and to show them that they are loved each and every day, no matter what the score is on Saturday. That coach is Ray DeFrisco.
Creating the Illinois College Way
Since 2011, Illinois College has been one of the top tier teams in the Midwest Conference. In 2011, the Blueboys won nine-games and advanced to the NCAA Division-III playoffs for the first time in school history. That season was followed by back-to-back 8-2 seasons, and a 7-3 record in 2014. It was an impressive run that was due, in large part, to the play of the defense. That group was led by Coach DeFrisco.
Coach DeFrisco had joined the IC coaching staff as an assistant back in 2006, and quickly rose to become the team’s defensive coordinator. He was not only a great teacher of the game, but a man who really inspired greatness out of his players, and this showed in the performance of the team.
Illinois College has traditionally had one of the most potent offenses in the conference, meaning that opponents were trailing early in most contests and forced to move the ball as quickly as possible. That has fed right into the Coach’s wheelhouse, as he has built a team dedicated to an impressive pass rush, tough physical play, and forcing team’s into making mistakes.
If you are going to have success in this style of defense, then your players have to be molded into men that are not only really adept at the scheme, but are also quite skilled at reading, reacting and making plays. This is where Coach DeFrisco has really excelled – as a teacher.
In the last six seasons, three of his players have been named the MWC Defensive Player of the Year, including Ricky Padilla in 2010, Kurt Frischman in 2013, and James Dambacher in 2014. Dambacher, for example, led the conference in sacks in 2015 with 10.5, using the techniques he was taught by his coach and coupling them with his tenacity and skill to be one of the most dominating forces in the conference.
Destined to Coach
With such success on the field, it is not surprising that Ray DeFrisco always envisioned himself as a head coach. In 2002, he graduated from North Park University but knew that his aspirations to stay in the game would not end when his football playing career ended.
“Ever since I was in college, when I finished my college career, I just knew that I wanted to stay in the game of football. I didn’t want to pursue any other career or anything to do with the major. I just knew that I wanted to be a coach.”
After graduating, Ray DeFrisco became a coach at St. Patrick High School, and later returned to college to get his master’s degree from Ashford University. He was making a difference, but Coach DeFrisco knew that coaching at the college level was really what he wanted to do.
In 2006, he came to Illinois College to begin to live out that dream. While working his way up the coaching ladder, Coach DeFrisco used the opportunities he had to gain greater insights into how to lead men. It also gave him the opportunity to learn from many who had coached him and who he had served with. The Coach dedicated himself to the idea that any circumstance he encountered gave him the opportunity to grow.
“I get inspiration from just about anything I pick up and read or look at. I try to find something great in everything I read. hear, or watch. I’m constantly learning. I don’t try to model my coaching after one particular person. It’s just been a culmination of inspiration throughout my career. I listen to certain people talk. Being an educator on certain things, you try to take a little bit from everyone that you encounter. That’s kind of how I’ve gone about developing my coaching style in my career.”
Those lessons helped him to mold his own style and to become a more effective and inspiring coach. The results were apparent as defenses thrived under his tutelage. He had truly proven to be an effective leader, but was still looking for that ultimate challenge – to be a head coach. That came following the 2015 season.
Looking to Return His Team to Greatness
In 2015, the Blueboys struggled through a 5-5 season. After four straight winning seasons where the team was 32-9 combined, it was a disappointing outcome and a change was coming. After eight successful seasons at Illinois College, Garrett Campbell moved onto to become the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Fullerton College. In May, Coach DeFrisco became the head coach, and he was thrilled at the opportunity.
“It’s what every coach strives for. I was honored to be considered for the position and looked at is as a great challenge.”
While embracing the challenge, he soon realized that his responsibilities were about to become quite exhaustive. Many think that a college football coach just coaches football, but there is so much more than anyone could possibly imagine.
“There are significant differences in my daily routine as the head coach then there were as a coordinator. The time is probably the biggest difference. In my early career, so far, I am learning that I need to more effectively manage my time. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
For many coaches, another one of the biggest challenges is to establish their relationship with their players. As a coordinator, they were leaders but the tough decisions had to be made by the head coach. That has led many to choose to draw back from the team, feeling that this will better enforce their new role. That may work for some but, to Coach DeFrisco, that is a style that simply is not him.
“The one thing that I knew that I would never want to do as head coach is to change how I am with the team, and I didn’t want to change who I was as a coach. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories where coaches just changed who they were because they became the head coach. They really did separate themselves from the relationships, so I’m trying to do the exact opposite. I’m trying to make sure that I’m in touch with the vibe of the team and making sure that the relationships that I have that I let them stay intact and continue to grow.”
This should be surprising to no one. The Illinois College Coach is not just concerned with helping his players to become better football players. He is more concerned with them as men than with anything else. It is his concern for them that is his No. 1 priority.
“My first priority is to show them that I care about my players. That I love them. That is the most important thing that I’ve learned as a coach, not just as a head coach, but just as a coach. Your players are going to play for you if they know you care for them.”
The Coach understands that his players will better perform for him if they have a greater reason to do so. However, he is getting as much out of his relationship with them, and this is why he cherishes them so much.
“Hands down the relationships that are made in the football program are obviously some of the most rewarding to me. These young men make such a difference for me, and it is an honor to know them.”
Ensuring that the Transition Was a Smooth One
While four months may seem like an eternity to many, this is not very much time to transition to a new head coach, install new schemes, get replacement coaches, and still continue to recruit for the 2016 season as well as for subsequent seasons. It would be easy to get caught up in so much of the administrative functions that the relationships would become secondary. Not with Coach DeFrisco.
The Coach valued his relationships and none more so than with his seniors. He understood that they may have been the most affected by the change, and so ensuring that they were taken care of became a major priority.
“Under the circumstances of the transition, the number one priority was to make sure that the seniors had the senior year that they had always kind of planned on. Going through a coaching change is very difficult as a player. It’s even more difficult as a senior. So I knew that I wanted to make sure that they were being taken care of in their senior year. So the expectations for them I kind of put first onto myself. So that I had expectations for myself more so than for them. I wanted to get through the transition as smooth as possible.”
Taking care of his coaching staff also became a major priority, because he did not want them burned out from all the time they spent watching film, developing schemes and teaching players. This, of course, can lead to a lot of long hours which is not beneficial in the long run.
To combat this, the coach implemented some policies to make sure that his coaches were taking time for themselves. At noon each day, they spend time exercising in what the coach views as a “good time to step away a little bit.” He also has given time to his coaches on Friday morning so that they can take care of any personal business that they need to resolve.
Coach DeFrisco has made sure that his staff is getting time for themselves to take care of their own issues and spend time with their families. This is because he values family more than anything. Building a family atmosphere has been a priority, and that extends to coaches, support staff, players, and all of their families.
“I’m a family man, so my program is all about family. So we definitely want to make sure that the parents and the families, the players, the coaches, the support staff, it’s not just them; it’s the entire family. So we try to include them in everything that we do. We try to keep them in the loop, make sure that they are in the know so that they know what’s going on in the program, so that they feel like they are a part of it as well. I think it’s very important to include the parents. It’s also very important to have a relationship with them where they know that they can trust you when their sons are in our hands.”
Of course, the one group of people that has been most affected by him becoming the head coach has been Ray DeFrisco’s own family. He spends his Friday mornings with his wife and kids, and each Friday (when the team is not on the road) he has lunch with his wife. The Coach is loving his job but he fully appreciates that when he deprives himself of time with his family and does not care from himself properly that the job he loves will become more of a chore than a blessing.
“You got to find time to balance work and life because its greatest profession in the world but it can’t be a grind, it can’t be a job; it’s got to be what you enjoy to do.”
A Plan for Success
Two weeks into the season, the Illinois College Blueboys are 1-1. They narrowly defeated Rose-Hulman 14-13 before falling to Simpson College 25-23. Those close contests prove that this team battles to the end and that they are coached to be in a position to win every time they take the field.
The defense has allowed just 217-yards rushing combined, while their own offense has rushed for 559-yards. It has been an impressive start statistically that bodes well for how dangerous this team will be in the upcoming weeks. There is no doubt that when the season ends that Illinois College will be near the top or at the top of the Midwest Conference standings.
What is even more likely is that the group of young men who graduate this year will head out into the world to be some of the most successful and influential men in their communities. They will be men of great integrity and perseverance, who value their friends, families and communities. How can one be so sure of such a thing? All one needs to know is that Ray DeFrisco has been their coach. With him in their lives, how could they become anything but great young men.
By Robert Pannier