Go to any coaching convention and it quickly dawns on you just how many guys there are vying for the handful of head coaching jobs that are out there. Sure, some guys are happy being assistant coaches or coordinators, but the profession is stocked with quality coaches who hope to one day be calling the shots in their own program.
I can remember back to my days as a young small college assistant, getting the opportunity to interview for a few head coaching jobs, and how ready I thought I was. But the years that have followed as an assistant and coordinator have taught me a ton of invaluable lessons under some truly fantastic coaches. If I had landed one of those jobs early on, I’d have missed out on a lot of learning opportunities that have continued to shape me as a coach in the years that followed.
Some guys are ready at age 24 to run their own program, while others don’t get a shot until much later in their careers. So how do you know when you’re ready to call the shots with your own program?
Here’s a quick look at some signs that you’re TRULY ready to take the leap to running your own program.
1 – Have a detailed packet prepared that you whole-heartedly believe in, and you’ve allowed it to evolve along with your coaching style
I remember what my sorry excuse for a head coaching packet looked like years ago, and how far it has come as it has evolved over the years to reflect the lessons I’ve learned. That’s exactly how it should be. It should be reflection of your vision for the program (not a cookie-cutter, one packet fits all programs approach), your coaching philosophy, what you want your culture to look like, how you’re going to deal with adversity and conflict, etc. Someday I’ll create a place where all coaches can share their packets with each other so we can all learn from one another. But the bottom line here is customize something that fits you and the job you’re going after and how you envision changing things, because you want to get hired because the school sees, and agrees with your vision, otherwise things are going to get rocky right off the bat.
2 – No excuses
The last thing anyone wants to hear from the head coach of a program is a bunch of excuses. As the leader of the program you’ve got to learn to take the heat of adversity, as well as the wins and other special moments that occur as a head coach. Many will argue that you can’t truly get a feel for this until you’re in the head coach’s seat, I think you can learn a lot about it as a coordinator, and by taking responsibility within your position group.
3 – You have a clear picture of what you want your culture to look like, and how you’re going to get there
I think this is one of the most overlooked aspects in taking over a program, especially by younger coaches taking over programs. If you look at successful programs, they’ve found a way to create a culture that mirrors the head coach and his beliefs there. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something we covered with a number of coaches on The FootballScoop Podcast, who shared some great insight and tips on how to accomplish this.
4 – You understand when to ask for help
Being a head coach means knowing when to ask for help. Those that try to take everything on and do it themselves are destined to be overworked. Learning how to delegate tasks is an important thing to understand because it helps to give your staff responsibilities to allow them to show what they’re capable of. Also, sooner or later you’re going to have to ask for some type of help from administration, or a booster, or donor, or someone else along the line. Having allies in administration will be play a big role in the amount of headaches you deal with.
5 – You don’t avoid conflict
A head coach that wants to avoid all conflict is a doomed leader. Conflict, from parents, players, administrators, and the community is a constant, unavoidable issue for those in head coaching positions, and you have to understand both how to handle it effectively, and also how to put it behind you in a way where it doesn’t cloud future judgement.
6 – You’ve found your own coaching style
So many people get derailed in their first head coaching job by trying to be someone else – whether its the coach they learned under, or the coach that they’re filling the shoes of, or anything else along those lines. It’s nearly impossible to be successful and get a team to follow your leadership if you’re not being genuine and are trying to imitate someone else. Kids, and the community, will see right through that.
7 – You’re confident in your decisions and have no trouble sticking to your convictions
One of the many reasons that coordinator-to-head coach is such a logical progression is that coordinators have to be confident and live with the decisions they make, and that translates well to sitting in the head coaches chair. Few things would be more frustrating to a team and staff than naming a starter, then having a parent complain and change your mind so now you decide to start someone else. You have to be confident in the decisions you make, and then stick to those convictions (in most cases).
8 – You know how you’re going to balance family time, your job, and being a head coach
This is one that so many coaches today struggle with, because they’re being pulled in so many different directions. I would suggest carving out a flexible plan on how to balance everything well before you head into your first interview. Things are going to come up in life, with your work, and with your program that will throw a wrench in things, but communicating with your family about your plans to juggle everything successfully, and the sacrifices that will have to be made by both you, and them, will go a long way. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have some non-negotiable’s in place, some guys I know reserve Sunday afternoon’s strictly for family time, with football on the back burner until late night or super-early Monday morning.
9 – You aren’t overly affected by praise or criticism
Being a head coach means dealing with both healthy amounts of praise and criticism, and it’s equally important to not drink copious amounts of “the Kool-Aid” either way. It’s vital that you keep a level head and take the good with the bad equally as well because there are bound to be plenty peaks and valleys during your time leading a program. If you show that you’re affected by them, that will eventually spill over to your team, and your staff. This can be a tough one to learn before actually under the hot lights of the spotlight, but much like #2, you can learn a lot as a coordinator and position coach in this area.
10 – You’ve got a clear view of the big picture
Being a head coach involves so much more than X’s and O’s, creating depth charts and practice plans, and everything else that meets the eye. You have to know how you’re going to attack things like fundraising, meeting with the booster club, scheduling buses and transportation, strength and conditioning, off season work, community service, ironing out the summer schedule, forging relationships with alumni and donors, recruiting (for HS coaches that means guys that didn’t play in past years, and for college coaches…well, you get the idea), communicating with the media, and so many other day-to-day things that come up that you’d never think of beforehand.
11 – You’ve proven that you can be flexible
One of my favorite quotes was shared with me during my first year of coaching at the college level by a student assistant we had, and he told me “the great ones adjust”. It’s so true for so many different things that pop up during the course of a practice, or the year, and I find myself using it all the time for a variety of reasons. Being a head coach means you may have a louder voice and more prominent position, but it does not mean you’re always going to have things go your way. Your willingness and ability to be flexible without getting overly frustrated in the face of adversity is going to have a big influence on your overall success.