As early as the turn-of-the-century, Whittier College offered a robust athletics program for its students—notably beginning with a “new sport” called football . As the decades progressed, baseball, basketball, and numerous other men’s and women’s sports joined Whittier College’s athletics platform, resulting in its 21 competitive teams currently operating today. For more than a century, Whittier’s athletics alumni have converted lessons learned on the field into critical skills applied toward leadership in a broad range of industries. Whittier alumni choosing to pursue careers in sports have gone on to become successful players, coaches, and administrators for the National Football League, Major League Baseball, Major League Lacrosse, among other pro sports. Additionally, among Whittier graduates are two Olympic coaches, a golfer for the LGPA, the first woman to play for Major League Baseball, and up until his death in 2009, the oldest living major league baseball player on record (he played for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers).
Competitive athletes agree; there is a definite combination of qualities that separate a coach who is merely effective from a coach who is beloved. It’s a matter of heart, of drive, of experience, of trust. A good coach knows how to read his players, is able and willing instruct on the individual level, to identify and shore up weaknesses while reinforcing a player’s confidence in his strengths. A good coach deals not just with the physical drills but the mental skills of his players.
Without question, Jim Skipper ’71 fulfills this ideal.
Currently the running backs coach for the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans, Skipper has a combined 30 years professional experience coaching, including 17 seasons with teams in the USFL, XFL, and the NFL—specifically, the New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, and the Carolina Panthers.
A few years after graduating from Whittier, Skipper, who had played defensive back for the Poets, decided to trade his helmet and shoulder pads for a whistle and playbook. In 1974 he began his new career on the sidelines, hired by Cal Poly Pomona to work with their defensive team.
As he explains it, “I was always a more cerebral player than most, so the transition from player to coach was smooth, and I felt comfortable taking on this new role. I was coaching guys from the perspective of recently having been in their position, so I found it easy to communicate with them, to get what I wanted from them.”
Five years later Skipper was offered the opportunity to stretch his skills at the college-level, this time managing running backs. He admits changing his focus from defense to offense was a bit tough at first, but he charged in and met the challenge. His success with college teams garnered him a solid reputation in the industry, and in 1983, he was recruited into the pro-leagues—less than a decade after his first coaching job. Skipper recognized he now faced higher stakes: the politics of professional sports, the pressure and demands of media and a vested fan base, and a team of paycheck-driven players. To his credit, he did not let these peripheral elements alter his own game. He remained dedicated to his own clear-cut goal: to train these kids how to play ball to the best of their—and his—abilities.
When it comes to practice strategies, Skipper has fashioned what some have called an unconventional approach. The physical program he requires players to follow is common enough to pro-ball: weights, running drills, scrimmage, and the like. The mental program, however, is decidedly different, and one that elicits groans from his rookies. Realizing that players are required to quickly learn and execute strategies housed in ever-expanding playbooks, the Whittier College physical education major decided to apply a basic technique of classroom teaching to football coaching.
He gives exams.
On the Saturday morning prior to each game, Skipper’s running backs assemble with pencil and paper to answer up 200 questions covering all aspects of plays and formations taught that week—which can number upwards of 135. As an added twist, Skipper includes questions that target a variety of unexpected scenarios that could happen just prior to or during a play.
“Intuition,” he explains, “is not learned behavior; thinking on your feet, however, is. That’s what I have to train my players to do.”
Overall these tests and quizzes have proved invaluable to Skipper, allowing him to peer into the minds of his players and isolate what specific issues need to be addressed before game time.
Attentive, too, to the occasional wandering mind of students, Skipper administers verbal pop quizzes during the daily film sessions, randomly calling on players regardless of their position in the lineup. Players, he instructs, need to stay alert and receptive to new information at all times. In a December interview published in The Herald, Skipper recalled illustrating the point to his squad: “I guarantee if I gave you in the next five minutes verbal directions to go somewhere, and there’s $100,000 buried there, you will pay total attention. And this is the way you have to be when I speak. You’ve got to listen because I’m not just saying [these things] to say [them].”
As a coach, he trains himself to behave in a similar way, staying in a constant state of alert, ready to assess a situation and rally when plans are interrupted. During a game or practice should he lose a player to injury, Skipper must be able to identify at that moment which member of his squad is the best replacement. He has to be certain the new player can go from sidelines to the thick of action both intellectually and physically ready to perform at the highest level.
Skipper’s focus on the mental aspect of the game has produced impressive results; one proof point universally held by sports reporters and armchair critics alike is that Skipper is responsible for turning a pair of underachieving running backs into arguably the best duo in recent NFL history. He has also helped transform the Carolina Panthers from a team with a dismal 1-15 record into a team that proved a tough competitor against the dominant New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Over the years, interviews with various players indicate that this coach is overwhelmingly respected and revered, regarded more like a benevolent father rather than a tough disciplinarian. Yet he’s no creampuff, either. The working relationship forged with each player takes its shape on a case-by-case basis, and the approach can be as different as night and day.
He patiently explains the dichotomy: “Some guys only respond to me getting in their face and shouting out orders like a drill sergeant, while other guys need you to just sit them down and discuss things rationally and calmly. The trick is to size them up at the beginning, try to figure out what’ll work best with each guy, and be prepared to adapt or change tactics if your first attempt fails.”
Skipper silently considers his words for a moment, then sits back in his chair offering a mischievous grin.
“Which is pretty much what I require my players to do on the field,” he adds.