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.

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