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Published: Sunday, 8/23/2009

... a mentor and valued player on successful team

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Barry Church prefers to lead by example, but the University of Toledo safety is also not afraid to get in a teammate's face when he needs to.

Church admits he didn't always do a lot of talking on and off the field early in his career. He deferred to the Rockets' older, wiser veterans, as most young players do.

Now in his senior year, Church and UT's other team leaders know the success of the Rockets rests on their shoulders.

Just 20 miles south on I-75, Bowling Green State University coach Dave Clawson is also putting his faith in his group of leaders, hoping they will carry the Falcons to a championship.

While it comes in many forms, varying from person to person, strong team leadership is a necessity across college football.

"Every time you have a good season, people say, 'We had great leadership,'•" Clawson said. "A lot of times when you don't have a good year, they'll say, 'We didn't have enough leaders.'•"

Not everyone is a natural-born leader.

But because it is so vital to the strength of their team, coaches often implement leadership activities to help players develop those skills.

Over the summer, UT coach Tim Beckman assigned each of his seniors a chapter to read in the book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by James C. Maxwell. They then had to make a presentation to the entire team about that chapter's lesson about leadership.

UT running back DaJuane Collins was assigned Chapter 14: The Law of Buy-In, which conveys the message that people buy into the leader, then the leader's vision.

"It talked a lot about Mahatma Gandhi, how he got people to believe in him and buy into his way of thought," Collins said. "As he grew as a leader, people started to follow him and changed their way of thinking. It was really great because it helped me with my leadership."

In his first meeting with the Rockets after being named coach last December, Beckman told his players it was their team and that he was just the coach. If they wanted to be successful, they had to take ownership of the team and step up and be leaders.

Beckman has reiterated that message countless times since then, including during his presentation of the book's final chapter, The Law of Legacy, which states that a legacy is created only when a person puts his organization into the position to do great things without him.

"They did a great job of telling our team what that book was all about," Beckman said of his seniors, "and how it translates to making us a successful team."

At BGSU, Clawson has employed similar strategies to nurture his players' leadership skills, such as assigning every freshman a "big brother" on the team.

"We have a whole leadership development program that starts their freshman year," Clawson said. "Something that important, you can't leave it to chance."

Like Beckman, Clawson realizes a coach can only do so much. It's up to the players, especially the leaders, to get the job done.

"The coaching staff, our job is to set the direction of the program, to lay the tracks," Clawson said. "How fast and how hard that train wants to go is up to the leaders on the team."

Just as there are several different types of leaders, the definition of leadership is quite subjective.

If you talk to 100 different people, you will get 100 different perspectives on what it means to be a leader. On the football field, opinions differ from coach to player, from position to position, and from senior to freshman.

"Being a leader is knowing how to handle all kinds of situations, both on the field and off the field," BGSU senior safety Jahmal Brown said. "It's not just making big plays. It's also about giving the younger players guidance and setting an example on how we do things and the tradition that we have here at Bowling Green."

His coach echoed those sentiments.

"Leaders can't be hypocrites," Clawson said. "You have to set an example for the people you're leading in terms of the way you conduct yourself on and off the field. To me a leader is somebody that No. 1 always takes care of their own business."

Church said being a leader boils down to a few key elements.

"To me a leader is someone who can respect his teammates and listen to whatever somebody has to say," Church said. "You can't be a leader by thinking you're right about everything. You have to listen to other people's point of view, and once you listen to other people's point of view, you put it all together and that's how I believe you lead a team."

UT senior quarterback Aaron Opelt said he tries to practice that approach by always making himself available to his teammates.

"To me it's about being there for the guys," Opelt said. "If the guys have questions, they know that my door is always open. During camp, I leave my door open until lights out. Just being there for the guys, get to know them and their family and their roots. Once you do that, I think that's when the team comes together closer."

A leader must also produce on the field and should be counted on when it matters most, according to UT senior wide receiver Stephen Williams.

"You have a lot of people looking up to you, and they're expecting you to get the job done," Williams said. "It's my time to step up. I'm a senior. I've been through the fire."

As the top returning wideout for UT, Williams said he made it a point in training camp to take more of a leadership role with his position group and foster a greater family atmosphere with his teammates.

In recent years, Williams said there was increasing turmoil on the team, with players bickering with one another during games and practices.

"I told all the receivers there's no fighting on the field," Williams said. "If we have a problem, we talk about it in the locker room. On the field, we're a family.

"In the past, we were quick to point fingers at each other. Instead of just finding a solution, we always made the problem worse. Now we communicate better and we trust each other more. They know there's not going to be a whole bunch of arguing. There's going to be more encouragement."

As the first true freshman to start at quarterback for UT since A.J. Sager in 1983, Opelt's leadership skills have evolved greatly in the last three years.

While he admitted he didn't say much early in his career, Opelt said he has learned to speak up when he has to and come out of his shell to keep his teammates focused.

"The biggest thing is you can be a leader at any age," Opelt said. "It's not necessarily about being in people's faces all the time. It's not necessarily being the one that's yelling and screaming."

Working as an extension of the coaching staff, a leader must be able to pick a teammate up when he's down, praise him when he has success, and police him when he strays off course.

How well a leader accomplishes those tasks normally equates to how well the team does in the win-loss column.

"Good leadership and good teams go hand in hand," said BGSU senior quarterback Tyler Sheehan. "It's not very often you'll have a good team with bad leadership. And it's not very often you'll have good leadership and a bad team. One of the things a leader does is elevate the playing level of his team. If you get leaders that can do that, you usually have a pretty good team."

Contact Zach Silka at:

zsilka@theblade.com.



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