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An open letter for coaches on leaving the right way, from someone who has tried

A lot has been made about how guys like Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley have left one program for another, so here's an open letter on how to (try to) do it the right way, from someone who has tried.

Yesterday we shared some footage of Brian Kelly's early morning meeting the other day with players in South Bend letting them know he was leaving for LSU. It's a moment that most coaches historically have had behind closed doors and away from the cameras, but those days are clearly numbered, as evidenced by the leaked video from that Notre Dame meeting. 

Video wasn't even needed for critics to come out of the woodwork, including a number of those covering the sport at the national level, who were quick to rip Kelly apart about everything from the length of that meeting being too brief, to the text he sent to players the night before.

In Norman, the morning after Lincoln Riley left for Oklahoma, Sooners fans hung signs that read "TRAITOR" up around town to let their feelings be known.

As head coaches, we understand we have to take the criticism with the praise, and while many of us are are able to take that type of stuff in stride, it's always more difficult for our families to see it and process it.

First to state the obvious: I have never left a Notre Dame or Oklahoma for LSU or USC, but regardless of what level you're coaching at, it's never easy to look a group of kids who have bought into your vision and tell them that you're leaving for somewhere else.

In 2019, as many of you know, I accepted my first head coaching job at Ravenna HS (MI). My wife was about 6 months pregnant with our second child, and Ravenna was a football tradition rich program that was a 45-minute drive from our home. They had been a Power-I program for about 30 years, and I was bringing in a spread no-huddle approach.

Not only did Ravenna and the kids there welcome my family and new approach with open arms, but they had the perfect personnel to thrive after making the switch in scheme. Inheriting a 3-win team, we won 5 games in year one and by week five of year two we were a top-10 team in the state in our division, went to overtime and lost the shot at the school's first conference title in decades in week 8 against our rival, and won a playoff game before losing in the second round in overtime.

It was a special season. The staff that we put together was as tight-knit as I had ever been around and were comprised of former head coaches, former Ravenna players, and longtime staffers, and a parent of a player I had grown really close to. The culture we had been working to create had taken shape, and you could see it in every corner of the program.

Whether you're looking or not, success occasionally brings along other opportunities. Sometimes those conversations bring to light great opportunities or new challenges for you personally, or for your family, and as difficult as it may be, they deserve your time and attention.

Long story short, I had one of those types of opportunities present itself after that 2019 season. Comstock Park HS (MI) was just 20 minutes from home, had won three games in the past two seasons, and was making a change. I went into the interview process at CP really happy about what we had built in a short time at Ravenna, knowing we were at a place with the program that could compete for championships for the foreseeable future, and not yet convinced that I was ready to leave for another opportunity.

But during the interview process, it was clear to me that they were looking for someone who understood the value of creating a culture, and that is something I take a great deal of pride in. To see them smiling and nodding at some of my answers to questions flipped my perspective a bit.

After being offered the job, and talking it over with my wife, we made the decision to take the new opportunity at CP. It was somewhere close enough for them to swing out to practices at the drop of a hat, and that was really important to us, and the program had made a few runs to the semifinals just a handful of years prior and there was a renewed and unified vision for how to get the program back to those days from the administration.

As a family, we felt that CP was a special opportunity we couldn't walk away from.

I lay that all that background down as a foundation to share this next part, because it's something that we've seen under a microscope the past several days, and is a real-life situation coaches face this time of year. 

Once the decision to leave was made, I shifted my focus to how I could do it "the right way." That phrase could mean a lot of different things to different folks, in different situations, but here is what it meant for me.

First off, throughout the process I confided in one of my assistants who had a young son on the team, who we pulled up to play a critical role as a sophomore. As someone that was both part of my staff as well as part of the initial interview committee, and someone whose wife handled all the peripheral stuff a head coach shouldn't have to worry about (team meals, scheduling concession workers, and everything in between) we had become really close. So close that I kept him in the loop at every step through the process.

I knew "leaving the right way" started with a difficult conversation with him, his wife, and his son.

Late one night, on the eve of the team meeting we scheduled, I drove up to his office. He, his wife, and his son were there waiting and we all went and had a seat in his office.

He knew what I was about to say, but the other two had no clue. Come to find out, his son thought I came to deliver bad news about someone being a car accident, so that sets the mood for what the room felt like when we all sat down. Choking back tears, I told them I was taking another opportunity that was a really good fit for my family and I. 

Meeting with that family and delivering that news was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. But it was also absolutely the right thing to do. No question about it.

Words spreads fast in a small town, and on my 45-minute drive home, I started to get some texts from parents and community members. 

Meeting with the team after school the next day, I knew deep down that most of them already knew, but I was determined to be accountable for my decision and to look them in the eye. I think them already knowing probably made it easier on me. I'm not sure I'm made of the type of stuff that could go through a meeting like that with players not having a clue.

To be honest, I don't remember a lot of what I said in that meeting, but I imagine it lasted no more than 7 minutes, and that may be generous. 

Even if it was 7 minutes, that was probably too long because I'm sure I rambled. I remember getting emotional telling players that I love them, that this isn't the end of our relationship, and that Ravenna football was successful long before I got there, and will continue to be successful because of the commitment from kids like them. 

I remember choking up a number of times as I focused on looking them in the eyes through my tears, reminding myself that's what they deserve.

Keep in mind, that's coming from someone who spent two years there. I can't imagine pouring a decade or so into a community and the program there and doing the same.

At the end of my remarks, I'm sure I wished them all the best, and kind of stepped away. Each and every one of them stopped by and gave me a hug before they went on their way. In a weird way, that's something that I will always be proud of because while some refused to look at me, it was their way of showing they care and they appreciated me being there to be accountable. Not every coach is able to leave with that kind of sentiment.

Looking back, I have one regret, and I would change the way that I had handled delivering the news to my assistant coaches, but that is a story for another time.

In the coaching world, you're either coaching long enough to get fired, or you find a way to leave on your own terms. I'm young in my coaching career, so I can't weigh in on what it's like to be fired, but I remember leaving that meeting with the Ravenna players and my favorite Ravenna family thinking that being fired has to be easier than those emotional goodbyes, or see-ya-laters.

As far as the critics go with this kind of stuff, I'm not sure what amount of time people are looking for in those meetings. In listening to what Brian Kelly told his Notre Dame players, it's really hard for me to find fault in what he said as someone who has been in those shoes. 

Could he have showed more emotion? Sure. If there's one critique of the situation, that's all I've got, but I have no interest in judging how someone's emotional response being different than mine is right or wrong.

For some, coaching small town high school football is light years away from the college blue bloods of leaving Oklahoma or LSU, but as wide as the gap may be, there are parallels between the two beyond just the game of football. Most notably, some deep human emotions are involved. You might not always see them, or want to acknowledge them, but it is impossible coach young men and be driven about making them better people and players without emotion.

Leaving the right way is going to require some tough emotions we don't always like to confront as men. It might come in the form of sleepless nights, or tears behind closed doors or in front of your guys...but rest assured that emotions will be there.

So if/when you find yourself in a situation where you have to leave the team your coaching, my advice is to find a way to do it the right way. Do what feels right to you, and do everything in your power to make sure the people who took care of you during your time there hear it from your lips.

There will always be critics in this profession, that don't see and probably aren't interested in what happened outside the snippet they're criticizing, but that shouldn't deter a coach with the right motives from doing everything within their control to leave the right way.