How to build a winning team
As general manager of the Alouettes, Jim Popp has played a key role in building a team that wins consistently. He says the secret to both his and the team’s success is hard work, which might sound simple but really isn’t
Sunday, July 17, 2005
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CREDIT: JOHN MAHONEY, THE GAZETTE
“I believe football is the ultimate team sport,” says Jim Popp, shown here with QB Anthony Calvillo after beating Toronto in the 2002 East Division final.
This year marks the 10th season since the rebirth of the Alouettes, and I have had the unique experience of being a part of the team since its start in 1996.
Many changes have taken place since then (including my hair colour), but one thing has been a constant: the Alouettes have given the city and the province a winner - a team that all Quebecers have been proud to call “our Alouettes.”
What I embrace the most from season to season is the uniqueness each team offers. Every year, a new team is formed. It is made up of many characters from top to bottom in the organization, each one playing an important role in the success of the team on and off the field.
For the past nine years, despite the significant yearly changes, the Alouettes have fielded a winner. About 50 players come together at the beginning of every year, along with coaches and support staff. Of those 50 players, approximately 10 to 20 changes occur each season, along with a few changes with coaches and support staff. This is what makes winning consistently even more remarkable.
I believe football is the ultimate team sport. For any individual who has played the game, I believe most would agree with the statement that it takes all 12 guys on the field working together, understanding each other’s roles to be successful. Every football team has its superstars, but it takes the supporting cast to help them achieve greatness. This is true within the whole Alouettes organization.
People constantly ask: “How do you keep finding these players? How do the Alouettes keep fielding a winner?”
My answer: Hard work and the work of individuals you never hear about.
That may sound simple, and in some ways it is. But realistically, it’s not. Everybody in the organization plays a key role, from the owner to the water boy. We all must take care of our individual duties first, but we all work together in unison.
Also, a few key strategic elements must be respected in order to build a winner. I would like to share a few personal thoughts about what can make or break any pro franchise in any pro league.
Free agency has become the centre of attention in pro sports. How do you make everyone happy, including the players, the owner, the coaches, the fans and the media? A good team will keep most parties happy. But how do you do that?
My job centres on taking care of what’s best to help our chances of putting a successful team on the field. Free agency can either tear a team apart or make it better. But there is a key to it all. That is understanding the philosophies your coaches are teaching. I feel one of my strengths is understanding what type of player a coach wants for his system.
Coaches have philosophies they follow and they look for certain players who will fit these philosophies. Part of my job is to find players who will fit the system. I find that the biggest mistake made in free agency is going out and buying a player because of what he achieved with another team, because he is a big name and will sell tickets, or because of fan and/or media pressure and even internal pressure from the powers above.
Just because a player is good for one team doesn’t mean he will be good for another. There are players who are worth changing your system for because they are that good, but those players are few and far between. Most players reach maximum free-agent power because of a successful system that best fits their skills. You get a lot out of them. The player also benefits from the good players around him who also succeed in the system.
Where the mistake is made is purchasing a free agent and asking him to perform like he did for his former team, but you do not put the player in a similar system or surround him with the same help. If you really analyze free agency, it doesn’t work for most players or teams, other than the fact the player gets paid more money.
The next mistake is holding on to a big-name player whose time has run out. Again, this is a common mistake made by all pro franchises. This happens because of internal pressure, fan pressure, media pressure and/or personal attachment to the player within an organization. Too many organizations wait too long to make a move on a player. This hampers the development of younger players and can knock a franchise down for years before they get back to a competitive level.
You have to be willing to part ways and have the confidence that you will still succeed with a new, unknown player who you know fits well in your system. Winning will ease the pain of losing the fan favourite and will create new stars.
The importance of the draft is another key element. The future foundation of an organization is built by the draft. Obviously, philosophies change along the way, so draft picks may never materialize out of the draft if you constantly have change. That’s why it’s important to try to keep your coaching staff and front office together.
We do not go into the draft thinking a player is going to start for us. Rather, we look at what they might become two or three years down the road. We expect them to be role players and special-teams players early in their careers as they develop.
And finally, you have to change with the times. You have to be willing to adjust. You have to be proactive in the sports world. You have to be innovative. We are always searching for what can give us the edge.
Our head coach, Don Matthews, is great at this task. Our coaches are always trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. We are always trying to figure out what will make us the best. This doesn’t mean wholesale changes year in and year out, but it does mean that you have to be willing to tweak the system now and then. If not, you will be known as the “underdog.” To be honest, I prefer being known as the “favourite.”
On behalf of the Alouettes, we thank you, the fans across the province, for your support. We will continue to strive to give you a pro franchise you can be proud of.
Â© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005
He is the main reason the Als are 112-52-1 in the last 10 years!