An Interview With New Reading Knights Head Coach Rob Smith.

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As the Uniball season is over, there are teams that are looking to shake things up in the coaching department, one such team is the Reading Knights.

We caught up with the new head coach of Reading, Rob Smith for an interview regarding his Uniball history and what is next for the Knights.

So, Rob, first of all what are your experiences with Uniball?

“I’ve been involved in uniball since 2015, played for Oxford Brookes for three years followed by a year with the Reading Knights. After that I was the Defensive Line coach for the University of Lincoln Colonials. Then after Covid cancelled a season, I got back into coaching this year with Oxford Brookes University, coming in as the Linebackers coach and ending up as defensive coordinator.”

“This season I’ve also been lucky enough to be involved with the GB South students All Stars program, as the Defensive Line coach. At conclusion of the season I have since stepped into the role of Head Coach of the Reading Knights as we head into the offseason in my first HC job.”

So, as you ended up as the OBU Panthers Defensive Coordinator, what are your thoughts on their 2021/22 season?

“I think that the guys that did a really good job to come back after COVID, you know, to keep the program running. There were a lot of really good teams that struggled this year with numbers, throughout the league, you know really well-run programs just have not had the fortune to have had the players come back like we’ve had.”

“The guys have really bought in to what we were trying to do, especially on defence this year and I think we just came up short in the playoffs really. We had a really, really good season and despite just falling short, the players can look back and be proud of what they’ve achieved this year.”

“We had some really tough tests in the regular season, Brighton, Oxford especially and yeah, from my perspective, the defence was absolutely outstanding throughout. They’re all fantastic players. We had four members of the defence make the GB South trials and two of those guys making the game day squad for the All-Stars game this weekend, which is sort of a testament to them and how good they are, we’ve got one of our offensive players in there as well.”

“It’s never easy in Div 2 to get out, typically you need a clean sweep. So, to go 4-1-1, it’s something we can be really, really happy about, especially after the last couple of years off.”

“I’ve also got a lot of respect for their HC, Nick Wykes. He’s had a massive influence on me both as a player and as a coach, so I have complete faith that the Panthers will continue to be a competitive presence next season and beyond.”

What are the lessons that you have learnt coaching at Oxford Brookes and Lincoln that you can bring to the Reading Knights?

“I think one I’ve been able to develop is sort of my own culture and my own sort of way to get guys to buy into what we’re doing as a position of group or as a unit. I think we really saw that with OBU this year and the amount of extra work that the guys put in away from practice, they started to get their nutrition right. They started to get their S&C right, they took class seriously, all of the extra things you need to separate you in a tight division. I’ve learnt a lot about how to get these guys to respond to what we’re trying to do and you know how to speak to them on a level playing field as people and understand things from their perspective, and I think that will serve me quite well going into my first head coaching job”

What is your personal philosophy when it comes to creating a winning environment?

“I mean, for me. it’s less about the Xs and O’s as such and it’s more about the people, the level we’re playing at, there’s less scholarship players and programmes that dedicate significant funding towards football. Everybody, in my opinion, starts on a relatively level playing field. I think that’s the beauty of Div Two, every team pretty much starts off at the same spot. If you can get guys to buy in, be coachable and be accountable and you get the guys to fall in love with the sport, the winning will always come as a result of that.

“I think it’s getting them to, you know, lead themselves almost. You create leaders within your team that are essentially delivering your message for you to the younger guys to ensure that the buy in and accountability runs throughout. It’s very easy to overcomplicate schemes and overcomplicate playbooks and everything like that, when the reality is if you get fifty guys or whatever it is to buy in to your programme and understand the importance of the fact that they have a limited time to wear the jersey and if you tap into that and emphasise the importance that every game has because you don’t to do this forever, players will gel and bond on and off the field and that creates a positive environment for success. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, I’m going in as a rookie HC but I can only speak from what I found as important as a player and what I know these guys will and won’t react to.”

“To add to that, I’ve also spent the off-season reaching out to a number of excellent and experienced Head Coaches throughout the league, all of which have been extremely helpful with advice and support and I think that’s a testament to the community that exists around Uniball.”

Is there any particular coach you are modelling your coaching style after?

“So, there’s a chap at the University of Minnesota called PJ Fleck.”

“His entire program is built around a culture called “row the boat”. It’s about constant enthusiasm and getting a constant buy in from players regardless of whether you’re winning. He’s a high energy coach on the side line and that sort of thing, and I genuinely think that that’s what I’d like to model my style around program for sure, but we’ll wait and see how things go”

Why the Reading Knights?

“So obviously I played at OBU for three years, but I also did my masters at Reading and as such played for the program there, and I really enjoyed my time with them. They have also had a strong coaching staff and a very well organised set up and I learnt a lot about coaching whilst playing there under Rob Lowe and his staff in 2018-19.

“I still play for the Flag team that that started at Reading Uni, which has now broken away to become the Reading Devils so I’ve always been still very much in and around the guys on the program with both former and current players, there’s also a lot of former Knights on my OBU staff so the lines for me have always been a bit blurred. So when I got the chance to take on the HC job, it was too much of a good opportunity to turn down.”

So, Rob, the Reading Knights have just been relegated, went 1-6-1, had 5 shutout losses and a -211-point differential. How do you see yourself changing that?

“I think contextually, Reading were one of the teams that was hit quite heavily by COVID, they didn’t have that many returners coming back. If you actually sit and look at how Reading have done over the course of the season, it’s an upward trajectory.”

“if you actually look at their trend and especially after Christmas, they had a very narrow loss of Bristol then beat Southampton and held Bath to a draw. It was a big rookie squad which is going to be a very deep veteran squad going into next year and they’ve recruited a lot in the second half of the year. They’ve got a lot of O Line guys coming back in particular to build around so the foundation for the squad is strong.

“They’ve got a massive coaching staff. I think we’ve got about 15 to 20 guys in the coaching staff right now ready to go for next year. So, the pieces are there for Reading to be a successful program next year, it’s less about me coming in and thinking I can fix it, and more how I can help put together all of the existing pieces and carry on the hard work the players and coaches have put in to this season.”

What has the reception been like from the Reading Knights players and staff?

“I was introduced to them at their AGM a couple of months ago and they’ve been nothing but supportive and welcoming of me back. I’ve obviously had some stick about Varsity but that’s fair game. I’m genuinely looking forward to working with them and seeing what we can do. There’s definitely a good potential there, definitely some excellent players.”

You are on the All-Stars coaching staff for the South, what has that experience been like?

“So, for me it’s genuinely been fantastic, and I appreciate the South HC Maxwell Petitjean giving me the opportunity. I joined that program so that I could become a better coach and get to work with some of the best coaches in the country who do what they do”

“I’ve been able to learn an awful lot from the coaching staff there about how to develop my own way of teaching d-line and how to run a program and stuff like that, that I will take with me into the Reading Knights coaching job”

“Getting to work with these guys has been really interesting and it’s really helped me develop. And as I say it’s the same with the players and getting to work with the best up and coming players in the nation from teams like UWE, Filton and Birmingham will only help me get better and I hope I can contribute something to help them be better players in the short time we get together on All Stars.”

With that, we thank Rob for his time and the best of luck as the new HC of the Reading Knights as well as at All-Stars this Saturday April 9th, which will be livestreamed and we will put the links up shortly.

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