Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford was asked a few years back how he was going to find enough carries and keep running backs JK Dobbins and Mike Weber happy. He joked that it wasn’t his job to keep his players happy, it was their job to keep him happy.
The answer came with a smile, but there also wasn’t a false word said.
“I’m not a kind of guy that keeps people happy. Just ask my children,” Alford has joked in the past.
But seriously, how do you keep your players happy?
It’s a question that Alford has received every year he’s been at Ohio State, and Google will also tell you he got the same question when he was the running backs coach at Notre Dame as well.
It’s also a question that can’t be answered completely in the spring. Heck, sometimes it’s a question that can’t even be answered after a game.
“Whatever it takes to win games is what we’re going to do,” Alford said last August. “We’re not into making guys happy. This isn’t a happy camp.”
A decade ago when he said those same things at Notre Dame, he didn’t have to worry about the transfer portal. Despite the looming beacon of the portal, however, the truth remains — the best players will play.
The last two seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have finished the year with a different starting running back than they began with. In 2020, it was Master Teague who opened the season as the starter before eventually giving way to Trey Sermon. Last year, Miyan Williams started the first two games of the year before TreVeyon Henderson finally grabbed the starting spot.
This can be a difficult pill for players to swallow. Williams went from starter for two games — in which he rushed for 202 yards on 23 attempts (8.8 ypc) — to carrying the ball just three times against Penn State six weeks later, and just once at Nebraska.
Williams was seen by many as a prime transfer candidate, but Alford credits his relationship Williams and his mother in keeping the talented running back out of the portal.
“I had a handle on that the entire time,” Alford said.
But it’s never easy and the work begins from the first conversation.
“Yeah, it can be challenging at times, but I think it goes back to a couple things,” Alford explained last week. “One, it goes back to the belief system that a young man has — and his family has — that you can develop their son. The kid believes you can develop him as a player and as a man. And two, this is a very transparent program, and the brotherhood is very strong here. And so I think it’s that guys kind of feel entrenched like this is family here. And so to leave is hard at times. But I also understand the portal. I get it.”
Former Buckeye running back-turned-cornerback Demario McCall returned for a sixth year last year despite sparse playing time and multiple position moves and when he was asked last August why he never left, he said exactly what Alford said.
“The thing that made me stay was the brotherhood that’s here. It’s hard to leave,” McCall said. “It’s hard to leave the love and the brotherhood and the guys in the locker room.”
The transfer portal is always going to be an alluring option for players, so it’s up to the coaches to create a program that is difficult to leave. Honest conversations are important, but then if a player listens and applies the coaching and makes Tony Alford happy, then it’s up to Alford to find a role for him.
“As far as a coach, as far as coaching wise, though, it can be challenging at times, because you feel like you’re re-recruiting your room every week. And to some degree you are,” Alford admitted. “But I think as long you have transparent relationships going on, and we’re all on the same page as far as communicating what’s going on, there’s not really a lot that you can’t work through. I mean, that’s the best I can tell you. The highs and lows of the portal, they are what they are. It’s not going to change anytime soon, as far as I’m aware of. I don’t know, I’m not on the Rules Committee. But we are who we are and guys got to play. If you practice appropriately and do things you’re supposed to do and play winning football, then I have to find ways to get my guys on the field.”
The relationships between the players are important, but so are the relationships that players have with the coaches. When Ryan Day took over as Ohio State head coach in 2019, he emphasized transparency with the players. Conversations can be difficult, but if there has been honesty throughout, then nobody really feels caught off guard.
“You tell them the truth,” Alford said. “You tell them the truth. I mean, that’s kind of how I recruit anyway. I tell you what I think, and you may or may not like it, but I’m gonna tell you what I think. And it just goes back again to transparent relationships and transparent conversations. ‘Here’s where you’re at, here’s where we’re going, here’s what I think you need to do better.’ And we just keep going. And sometimes we’re going to agree to disagree. There’s some hard conversations that have to happen, but I think as long as you have built-up equity as far as your relationships with people and young men, then I think you’ll be okay in the end.”