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Motivating On The Next Level

Coaches from college find getting through to pros not much different


Defensive backs coach Nick Rapone (center with gray jacket) leads the secondary out to team drills at a recent OTA.

Kevin Garver knew a thing or 33 about NFL players before he joined the Cardinals' staff in February.

As an offensive assistant at the University of Alabama, he watched more than three dozen Crimson Tide hear their names called during the draft. That's enough to fill a depth chart three times over.

Even though he knew how to motivate the future professionals, he didn't know what to expect once he arrived in the NFL when those same players were earning a paycheck.

"I think one of the biggest misconceptions I had coming to the NFL was that these guys have been in the NFL for a long time and they just know everything," Garver said. "But it was the complete the opposite actually. These guys, at least the way they are here, they're willing to learn. They want to put the time in."

Garver isn't the only one who had to adapt to motivating professionals. Defensive backs coach Nick Rapone and tight ends coach Rick

Christophel also made the jump from college to the NFL this year, so figuring out that what works with college players may not work with pros was a process. But the three coaches all came to the same consensus: Motivating an NFL player was easier than they thought.

For years they've had to motivate players to go to class, to study, to do everything else a college football player needs to do. Their time was monopolized by the responsibilities the come with dealing with college kids, some of whom were only a few months removed from their senior prom.

Not anymore.

Even though they've only been on the job for less than four months, it didn't take long for all three to see the major difference between working with college kids and professionals.

"This is their job. They're professionals," said Christophel, who was the head coach at Austin Peay University before joining the Cardinals. "They understand what they have to do.

"They know their job depends on how well they perform on the field, so the motivation comes from making sure that they know that they got to learn the system or they're not going to get the reps. And they understand that."

Once he was able to earn the trust of the players, Rapone said motivating was easy. Regardless of how large their paychecks were, from Larry Fitzgerald to the last rookie signed, Rapone saw that everyone wanted to get better.

"I think the number one thing I learned is if you let them understand that you're trying to help elevate their game, then they're very open to what you're talking about because every one of these players wants to elevate their game," said Rapone, the former University of Delaware defensive coordinator.

One new coach has seen both sides before joining the Cardinals. Stump Mitchell coached at Morgan State (1996-98) and Southern University (2010-12) in between stops as an NFL assistant.

As a college coach, Mitchell worked on improving his players enough so they'd get looked at by NFL teams. In the NFL, it's about motivating the players to be the best in the league.

But it comes down to pride, the Cardinals' running back coach said.

"If guys don't have pride in what they're doing, it's tough to get them motivated," Mitchell said. "If they have pride it's an easy task because they want to get better. They have to want to. We don't want anybody being complacent."

Even though, it's still the same football, some tactics won't work in the NFL, Garver said.

"If you're one of those guys that's gonna just yell and dog out a player, you might not be as good in the NFL as maybe college because most of these guys are making more money than you," he said.

The ultimate motivator, however, is money.

Most professionals have experienced life like their coaches. They have families. They have bills. They support themselves. That's all enough to motivate millionaires by itself.

"I think (motivating professionals) is probably a little bit easier in the NFL because this is a business," Garver said. "This is what these guys do for a living. This is how they make their money. This is how they provide for their family.

"So, it's up to them to perform. It's up to us to make them the best they can be but they should take the motivation part from whatever it is – provide for their family, want to make the big contract or whatever it is."

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