Calling Audibles Part III: The Winning Edge

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. ~Colossians 3:14

During the twelve years that my husband, John, coached in the NFL he coached some great players and we met some wonderful people.  While leaving the highest levels of the game is a hard thing to do in a  competitive business like football, John made a choice to go back to college football because of what got him into coaching in the first place.

When I met him in Oxford, England while we were both in college he was deciding what to do with his life.  We became good friends because we were both athletes and religion majors and trying to sort out what was next after college.

During all these 20+ years of coaching for John in the NFL and college, I have never forgotten the comment he made to me when we first met about why he was leaning toward going into coaching instead of church ministry.  He said that when he looked back on his life so far that the people who had been the most formative for him other than his parents were his coaches, not his ministers.

Interestingly enough, even though I went into ministry myself, I totally agree with John’s assessment.  My coaches remain some of the most important people in my life.  They are like other-fathers to me and they did help me figure out who I am.   They not only pushed me and made me a better and better runner, but they made me a better person.

My cross-country coach in college, Dick Burchett, started every practice by saying “today I hope you will become a better person first, and then a better runner.”   I ran at a Division III college so many may say that we had that luxury—the luxury of the love of the sport and the luxury of character formation.  We didn’t have the pressure of the money and of the stiff competition and intense expectations for high performance.  There was space for some things at a Division III school that seems hard to find in Division I athletics, at least these days.

But maybe the art of coaching as character building, as relationship making, as caring, mentoring, and helping to mold young men is some of what we’ve lost and desperately need to reclaim in big time football.

It seems to me there are a few different models for who coaches are and what they do at this level of the game.

First, there is the CEO model.  Coaches are big names with big money and they are the “face of the program.”  They hire assistants to see to the more player-centered work and the x’s and o’s.  The CEO head coach is focused on raising money, building a program, creating an image, and marketing a “product.”  They are vision people and they are big personalities that people invest in.   This approach is the most popular model for big time schools these days.  They want big names, big plans, and big money will follow.  There are people who follow this model who do it professionally and who do it well.  And there are people who get lost in the ego trip and do not do it well.  And there are those in between who have some of both and bring some good things and some disturbing things along with them.

A second model is the X and O model. These coaches are great football minds, technicians of the game.  They are not about people; they may even be a little socially awkward.  But they know the game of football and people put up with their idiosyncrasies because of their technical skill.  Rarely do these technicians of the game become head coaches in college any more, but some do.  Their hyper focus on the details is extreme and they help create highly skilled players.  Their attention to detail can create great success and their eccentricities are excused because of their knowledge of the game.

A third model is the Player’s Coach.  Just like the other models, this one brings with it both good and bad connotations.  These coaches are involved in their players’ lives and focus on taking good care of their players.  At its extreme, this approach can mean working to secure special privileges for the players so much that some players become exceptions to rules.  In its more moderated form it is about making sure the players are respected and treated well.

As the coaching carousel revs up for this year, schools will be setting their sites on these types of coaches as well as on names and personalities.  Many schools will be looking for the silver bullet, the savior to come and redeem their program, the ultimate captain to right an errant ship.

The audible to call in this yearly ritual of big time football is to stop looking at “the who” and “the what” and “the how”, and do a gut check about “the why”—why do coaches do what they do?   What if the winning edge is really in the why?

I think many coaches might say that their most important work is invisible—not able to be quantified with statistics or records, not on video highlights or on ESPN.  Coaches who do what they do out of love, out of a higher calling than salaries or ego-trips or fame, do their best work in the ordinary parts of their long days at work.  They do their best work in their availability for conversation, in their attentiveness to a player who might need some extra support or push, in their belief that respect and hard work matter, in some extra time they take to focus on an unexpected problem.

The cold hard truth is that the way big time football works means that the little, invisible, ordinary things coaches do that make a difference in young men’s lives don’t help coaches get or keep jobs.  There is a bottom line—wins and losses.  And we’ve learned at UNC this year that even having more wins than losses doesn’t give you job security any more.

There are few professional courtesies left in big-time football.  And there are even fewer ways that institutions give coaches to build lasting, substantive relationships.  If coaches are constantly worried about getting fired they are not as free to do the kind of work that can really make a difference in people’s lives.  If coaches can’t trust that the university they work for truly values them as a part of the community, then it keeps them from investing themselves in the deeper problems of that community.

Our own experience has been that some of the best coaching John and his colleagues have done has been lost in the shuffle of the things that really fuel the engine of big time football—money and power—these are things most coaches and all players do not have much if any access to in this business.

What if in this year’s coaching changes universities did a gut check of their own instead of calling the same long bomb down field?  What if they see what they are truly up against today in big time football and choose to go back to the heart of what football at its best can be?

Teaching, nurturing, and helping to form young men in our culture who know how to work hard, be respectful, take care of themselves and others, and do things not simply for their own interest but for the interest of a greater good are values we can all surely agree are of the upmost importance in our society today.  If a young man can arrive at football practice and know that the people there leading him care that he is becoming a better person first and then a better football player, I say we all win.

20 thoughts on “Calling Audibles Part III: The Winning Edge”

  1. Frank says:


  2. Michael Shalosky says:

    Marsha..Great piece of writing..Being a coaches son and in athletics,your writing is awesome..Pls know that Susan and i are praying for you and John as well as your family..God has a plan for you both..Keep the faith as I know you will..God is the greatest of coaches and provides for all of us..MGS

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Mike. I know you understand. We appreciate your prayers and we know God’s hand will be in whatever comes next.

  3. cindy cheatham pietkiewicz says:

    John is doing god’s work and unfortunately that work does involve taking up a cross against a hostile world that does not share our values. Thanks for sharing the deeper meaning behind john’s passion for coaching. God has done and will do great things through you two and all those you touch

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Cindy, for your comment and for your perspective on things. The Christian walk is full of these kinds of challenges in all aspects of life. We are thankful for how God sustains us through it all.

  4. michael pickett says:

    Beautifully written and well said. I had the pleasure of meeting your husband last summer at a camp. His passion and knowledge were second to none in my book and I instantly became a huge fan. His influece and encouragement for my son meant a lot. Please know that we will keep your family in our prayers and hope for the best for you.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you for your comments, Michael. I hope your son keeps working and gets where he hopes to get with not just football but his life. Thank you, too, for your prayers. I hope you will keep reading!

  5. Matt Schramm says:

    Marcia, Great post! I really liked John when we had a chance to visit last year, and even more now. A great testament to the value of sport for character formation in today’s world, particularly (if I might, even in the changing landscape in Pennsylvania in particular) with young men who too often lack positive male role models. Well done.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Matt. There are many, many possibilities for a positive and lasting impact in people’s lives through sports. I know you have experienced that yourself. May we all find ways to focus on and support those valuable effects more and more.

  6. Kevin Bullard says:

    Dear Marcia — thank you for the insightful post.

    I am a UNC grad (’97), and have heard John’s name for a number of years. Your post made me realize how little I know about him (e.g., I’ve never seen a picture of him, nor did I know he was a Christ-follower). I just knew him as our offensive coordinator.

    For your family’s sake, I am happy to hear that you two are in Christ, and have him as your foundation. It will be interesting to see what happens at UNC over the next few months regarding the football program. My prayer is that the Lord will honor John’s integrity (Psalm 26:1), and that He will bring your family into a good, wide space (Psalm 18:19, 31:8).

    1. Marcia says:

      Dear Kevin,
      Your comments are a blessing to us–especially your invitation to us to remember the inspiring words of the Psalmist. May you and your family find the same honor and good, wide space.

      1. Kevin Bullard says:

        You’re very welcome. Blessings. 😉

  7. a. wayne harrison says:

    dear ms. shoop; thank you for the remarkable insight you have provided into the life of a family deeply engaged in two very demanding undertakings.

    you must find profound solace in the knowledge that you and coach shoop have long ago found a methodology that will carry you safe through the most difficult days that this old world has to offer.

    i don’t know your husband, and i am a mere amateur football fan; but i can say that his style is nearly unique–his offense has a signature that i have found very interesting over the years you have been at unc.

    thanks to him for many pleasant times as i have followed my university on the football field, and the best of luck to you and your family throughout your time together.

    a. wayne harrison

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Wayne. We have had some wonderful times here at UNC. Lots of exciting and happy game day memories. We love the atmosphere here at UNC and have loved the players that John has had the opportunity to coach here. It’s been exciting to see a new tradition of offense take shape here with well over 60 school records being set during the last 5 seasons (it may be closer to 100 now, haven’t heard lately). We’re excited that just last night Dwight Jones went over 1000 yards receiving–which marks the first time UNC has had a 1000 yard rusher (in Gio) and a 1000 yard receiver in the same season. I can’t tell you how much John enjoys coaching these guys. So many blessings to celebrate. Best to your family, Wayne, and I do hope you will keep reading.

  8. Lanier says:

    Rev. Shoop,
    First of all thank you for sharing your unique insights into the world of college football. It’s refreshing to hear about it from someone on the inside who also views it through a biblical worldview. This series has been a must read for me and I look forward to following your writings wherever you and Mr. Shoop end up next.

    On a personal note, I worked in the UNC football offices for two years as a student recruiting intern which is probably about the lowest position on the totem pole. I worked for a guy named Sam Petitto and ultimately Joe Haydon. I spent little time around the coaches just to bring them tape on a recruit or pick up tape they had already watched. Most of the coaches were friendly guys, but your husband was totally different. He was the only coach that remembered my name and would actually stop what he was doing to ask me how I was when we were in the same room. I was shocked because I knew how busy he was and how many people more important than me he already had to remember. I am sure he does not remember me but please pass on to your husband that his kindness and warmth meant a lot to me.

    Thank you,
    Lanier Ward

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Lanier, for sharing your story and your comment. John certainly remembers you and we hope all is well with you. Your comments mean a great deal to both of us. I do hope you will keep reading and adding your insights to the conversation.

  9. TD Fon says:

    In my fifth decade of following UNC sports, I can easily remember why I became a lifelong UNC fan. Soon after I started watching UNC Basketball, I learned that Dean Smith lived and expounded the exact qualities that you just so eloquently stated. Since then I have seen numerous other coaches and players at UNC follow suit. Wins on the playing field are enjoyable, but for me the way many of our Tar Heels conduct themselves on and off the field has brought me even greatly pride.

    During more recent times these things have become known as The Carolina Way and The Carolina Family. I sincerely appreciate the contributions both you and John have made to the Tar Heel community and will always be proud to consider you members of The Family. Best Wishes.

    1. Marcia says:

      Dear Mr. Fon, thank you for your comments. I agree with you that Dean Smith is a shining example of the best of the Carolina Way. I have deep respect for all that he did with his position here at UNC to be a person of influence on important issues of the day. He is a model for us all to be sure. We cherish our connection here at UNC and have many, many treasured memories from the last five seasons. I have never seen John happier in his work than he has been here. We are thankful for that and always will be. Thank you for reading and for adding your insights to the conversation. I hope you will keep reading.

  10. Len Garner says:

    What a great blog. I was really pleased to read it and look forward to more. keep up the great writing. Tell your family hello.

    1. Marcia says:

      Hi Coach Garner. Great to hear from you. Thanks for reading. I hope you will keep reading and commenting and that all is well with you and yours!

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