Nearly every assistant coach and coordinator in the country have aspirations of one day leading a program and sitting at the head of the table, and regardless of sport, head coaches face a lot of the same challenges across the board.
Before becoming a head college baseball coach, Denison’s (D-III – OH) Michael Deegan was an assistant coach at one of the top baseball programs in the country and was an integral part of three national championship teams. He spent years passionately studying leadership and points out on his blog Learning Life Lessons Through Sports that he felt he was ready to take on a head coaching job.
But regardless of the time he spent recruiting, and helping with fundraising, coaching, and wearing a number of other hats, he learned shortly after taking over as a head coach that nothing truly prepares you for running your own program.
On his blog, Deegan encourages those that think they’re ready to take on a head coaching job to consider the following seven things:
- Get ready to be unpopular: As an assistant, everyone likes you. As the leader, that won’t be the case. The happiness of our players, parents and coaches is really important to me, probably too important at times. Let me be the first to tell you, not everyone will be happy and they will more than likely blame you. Can you handle that?
- Get ready to be questioned: As an assistant you make suggestions, as a leader you make decisions. There is a huge difference. And guess what, everyone knows more than you. People with fractions of the information will tell you what you are doing wrong. The questions will come from everywhere. In my profession that means assistant coaches, players, parents, bus drivers, fans, administrators, faculty….the list goes on and on. Can you be confident enough in yourself to make bold decisions? Can you stay strong and not allow outside influences to affect your decision making process?
- Get ready to have your character challenged: I recently had dinner with a Federal judge. We were discussing the coaching profession when I said, “you are never popular as a head coach.” He responded by saying, “tell me about it, I’m the most hated man in America right now.” If you decide to lead you will be attacked at some point. People will take shots at you either directly or more often than not, behind your back. How will you handle this?
- Get ready to have your family affected: Yes, your family will feel the impact of your leadership position. Don’t let anyone fool you; this will be tough on your family. The hours will be longer and you will never be completely “off” from the job. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve come home from a long day at work and tried to shift gears into dad and husband when I’ve received the “emergency” text or email. This absolutely impacts the family. Yes, dad is home but now dad is distracted.
- Get ready to be on an island: There will only be a very, very select few people who know what you are going through. Other people may think they know but they don’t. You won’t have the ability to “vent” to many people. You will have to find a core group of friends that will be there to support you, provide you with advice and help you through the difficult times.
- Get ready for a different type of relationship with your players: This may be the toughest challenge. As an assistant, typically, you have a very close relationship with the players. However, as an assistant, you are not making the final decision. The leader needs to maintain a healthy distance. You will have to guard against getting too close; you have to make sure it doesn’t appear that you are “playing favorites.”
- Get ready to deal with people who just don’t get it: You will work around the clock trying to provide growth and contribution for those you lead. You will sacrifice your personal time for others. And, there will still be some people who don’t get it. In my profession, it all revolves around playing time. You will strive to teach the life long lessons that sports provide. It won’t matter to some. This will hurt. Can you stay the course? Can you continue to try to do what’s right despite of the criticism?
Coach Deegan hits the nail on the head with all of these, and they’re all really, really good, but there are a few additional pieces of advice that I have gathered from coaches in the profession over the years that I feel are worth mentioning. So here are a few additions to coach Deegan’s list.
- Are you surrounded by an outstanding support system?: Whether it’s your wife, a longtime coaching mentor, or even your AD, make sure you have someone that you can lean on when times get tough – because they will, in one form or another. Some coaches swear that they’ve found the perfect “coaches wife” that is there for them through thick and thin and supports them in every way imaginable, while others have their coaching mentor a call or short drive away. Whatever way you slice it, a support system is something you’re going to need.
- Be ready to hire good people that are willing to learn first, and good coaches second: We are in the profession of preparing men for lives after football, so surrounding them with good people everyday should always come before X’s and O’s. Always.
- Surround yourself with coaches that are willing to “put the same amount of sweat in the bucket” that you do: Nothing will suck your passion bucket drier than being the only staff member leading the weight room or off season efforts, while your assistants are nowhere to be seen. Try to hire as many guys as possible that are willing to put the same amount of sweat into the program that you and the kids are.
- Find something daily, weekly, or monthly that you and your kids can do that NOTHING can come in the way of: Down at the AFCA convention this year, I was talking to a former FBS head coach who shared probably the best advice that I heard from any coach down in San Antonio this year, and it was as simple as reading to his kids every single night when he got home from the football facility. Whether it was 7pm or 1am, he’d go to his kids room and they’d read a story together every, single night. No recruit, staff meeting, or other “football emergency” ever got in the way of it, and he encouraged the coaches in the small circle that he was talking to to find the same sort of thing to do with their children (or future children).
With coach Deegan’s seven suggestions, along with four from me, there are 11 things you need to consider when you feel you’re ready to take the next step in your coaching career before becoming a head coach.