Meet a man who is building a dynasty in Spain with his own approach to coaching.
The success of a coach in football depends, not only on a knowledge of the game, but also on the intangible known as instinct, or a feel for his players. A coach has to be able to rely on the fact that his instincts are correct. To achieve that, a coach has to know his players. One of the most successful coaches in Europe over the past six years knows his players better than most because that is his philosophy. And he is not coaching in Germany, Austria or Italy.
He is self-effacing, unassuming and believes players should get all the credit for the success of the teams he has coached. But be warned. He has been building a juggernaut in Spain.
His name is Teo Polanco and under his guidance, the L'Hospitalet Pioners, in Barcelona, have won the Spanish league crown three of the last five years. Last year, in 2010, the club won it for the second time in the last three years. He was finally named Coach of the Year in Spain last season as well as Coach of the Year for the province of Catalana, a major accomplishment. Not that he is resting on his laurels. The Pioners have opened the 2011 season in equally convincing fashion with two lopsided wins. In fact, since arriving in Europe in 2005 as the head coach of the Pioners, his record both as a head coach and assistant is a stunning 65-12.
This native of New York City began his coaching career at Iona College in New York where, after finishing his playing career, he started as a defensive assistant. He began to develop his own unique philosophy of coaching back then. He went on to St. John’s University (NCAA Div I) and then to William Patterson (Eastern College Athletic Conference, Div I) in New Jersey as defensive coordinator. “Working at these schools really gave me valuable experience. I began to discover that by giving the players “ownership” of the team they take responsibility,” said Polanco.
The validation of this approach came in his very first year as a head coach with the L'Hospitalet Pioners, based in Barcelona. That was 2005, and his team posted an amazing 14-1 record and boasted the best offense and defense in Spain. The Pioners captured all three big titles “The Triple Crown” in Spain: The Spanish League Championship, the Catalan Cup and the Spanish Cup. This was the first time in 20 years that L'Hospitalet had won the Spanish title. The team achieved a number six ranking among all the clubs in Europe.
The following season he took over a faltering Barcelona Bufals team and turned the team into winners. They finished that year with a 6-3 record but defeated the top ranked Pioners and Badalona Dracs in the process and reached the Spanish semifinals for the first time in years. Again his approach of “players first” resonated with the team reaffirming his conviction. “When you win all credit goes to the players and when you lose, we coaches take the criticism,” Teo says. Sensing a need for a different league and experience, Teo accepted the defensive coordinator’s job with the Stockholm Mean Machine of Sweden’s top division for the 2007 season. He thoroughly enjoyed his sojourn in Sweden while shaping one of the best defensive units in the league helping the team reach the Swedish semifinals.
Returning to Spain in 2008 and the Pioners, he pulled off the Spanish “Triple Crown” again, running away with the Spanish championship, as well as winning the Spanish Cup and the Catalan Cup. The Pioners lost only one game that season posting a 15-1 record including EFAF Cup play, and led the league in both offense and defense.
Teo continued to develop a very unique approach to coaching in Europe, which again, demonstrates his “players first” attitude.
“I never bring an import player in for more than one year,” he says. “I want three new players a year to have the opportunity to enjoy the experience of playing in Spain and in Europe.” He also asks each of the import players to take on leadership roles, not just for the senior team but also to help out with the younger teams.
The system continues to work as his 2009 team reached the Spanish semifinals, won the Catalan Cup and finished 7 and 2.
“I take my time in selecting our imports,” Teo continues. “I look for young men who I feel will appreciate the experience and are mature enough to provide guidance and leadership for the rest of the club.”
He has the loyalty of his players: "Teo was the soul of our undefeated Spanish season in 2008. He was able to motivate players from 5 different countries using two separate languages to join together and fight as one. It was remarkable to see him accomplish that. I’m not surprised that since he’s arrived the Pios have won 3 of their 4 league titles and their only 2 international victories; and as long as he’s there, expect a whole bunch more," said Joey Stein, Eurobowl veteran.
After capturing the Triple Crown of Spain for the third time in six seasons in 2010, winning the team’s first ever EFAF Cup game and rising to the number 10 spot in the European rankings, Polanco’s Pioners started the 2011 season the same way. They have already won the Catalan Cup and the Spanish Cup and the initial games of the Spanish regular season.
Whatever he decides to do, this New York City transplant, who is fluent in Spanish, has established a legacy hard to follow in Spain, or anywhere else in Europe. And he has helped change the way people think about football and football coaches.