This was my seventh year to attend the AFCA convention for FootballScoop, and thus the seventh time inside the Graduate Assistant forum. It's a long time -- at least in coaching years. Long enough for someone to go from sitting next to me in the audience to sitting in front of the entire room on the podium.
In fact, while I have no evidence of his whereabouts on that day back in 2013, Kenny Dillingham definitely could have been in that ball room that day. He was just a high school coach in the Phoenix area at the time, and now he's Auburn's offensive coordinator. Maurice Linguist began as a GA at his alma mater, got his first full-time job at the Division II level, then got an FCS job, then a MAC job, then got work coaching defensive backs at Iowa State, Mississippi State, Minnesota and, now, Texas A&M.
And this says nothing of the rapid rise of both head coaches on this year's panel. PJ Fleck went from an Ohio State GA to Western Michigan's head coach in a 7-year span, landing his first FBS head job at the age of 32. Mike Norvell played and GA'd at Central Arkansas, then hooked on with Todd Graham and became Memphis' head coach at 34.
How did they do it? Each coach shared their strategies for surviving and thriving in the coaching business during last week's AFCA Graduate Assistant forum, which was moderated by South Carolina State associate head coach Fred Farrier.
Q: What are you looking for when filling an entry-level job?
Fleck: You've got to be a little bit different. Make sure this is really what you want to do. It's got to be a burning desire to take young people from where they are to where they want to be.
Norvell: I look for passion and purpose. It's got to be truly to the core of who you are. When I hire a GA, who's going to inspire me to do my job better? Are you going to accomplish the task given or are you an advance thinker?
Q: What's the best path to a GA job?
Linguist: My path wasn't what I did as a senior, but the way I carried myself through my career. Your job is to take the pressure off your head coach and your coordinator. When it's Tuesday night in mid-October and you've lost two straight, who's going to show up with that same work ethic?
Dillingham: I shook Coach Norvell's hand at 20 years old, and he said (Arizona State) was an open book, that we could come to any practice we wanted. I showed up every single day that spring ball to make sure he saw my face. I tried to make sure no one's face in that building was seen more than mine.
Q: What do you look for when promoting a GA to a full-time position?
Norvell: Honestly, passion. What's the joy you're going to have when you're asked to get a cup of coffee? Are you able to work through issues that arise? Are you somebody that inspires people to want to be around you more?
Fleck: As a head football coach, how I judge people is how many things come across my desk that have to do with them. If something comes back to me, you've proven you can't do that job. The best advice I've ever been given was from Greg Schiano, "Never sacrifice what you really want for what you want right now." You have to be engulfed in my culture. You better eat, breath and sleep it, because if you work for me, you represent me.
Farrier: I've have an opportunity to interview for GA positions, and way too early guys are asking how much money they'll make. If you're truly in it to change lives, it won't matter how much money you're making. You've got to be a little bit different to be in a dark room at 11 p.m. watching film. You've got to be excited to do that.
Norvell: When you get an opportunity, make sure you structure your day so you can grow as a coach. I wanted to put myself in a position where if I was asked a question, I would have an intelligent response. Any time our offensive staff was talking ball, I made sure I was in there. When our coaches left for the night, that's when I started my busy work.
Q: How do you go about building a network?
Linguist: You've got to have your ears open and articulate information that's genuine to who you are. The best coaches are the best listeners.
Dillingham: When I worked in high school ball, I got go see how different coaches operate at the highest level. I decided I wanted to be like Mike Norvell, so I went to every Arizona State practice they would let me.
Q: If you're working as a GA, how can you hone your skills as a recruiter?
Fleck: We have them look at junior college players and the high schools where they're from. GAs have an opportunity to get a recruit because you're often the first person they meet when they're on campus. I've lost and gained recruits before because of a GA. "He told you what?!?"
Jason, our o-line GA, it's like he's the o-line coach. That's the passion he coaches with. My job as a head coach is to get you to fail every day, and then to teach you.
Norvell: If you can't call coaches, what are you doing on campus, when high school coaches visit you? That's how you bring value. You won't get hired as a position coach because of what you know schematically. That will not happen. It's the value you add in relationships and recruiting.
Linguist: Coaching isn't what you see on ESPN. If you're a GA, have a list of 20 o-linemen you've evaluated, 20 wide receivers you've evaluated, 20 DBs you've evaluted.
Dillingham: The No. 1 job as a GA is to make your boss's job easier. The best way to get a job is for your boss to get promoted. Sometimes being a GA is knowing what your boss wants before he knows he wants it. His success is your success.
Q: Is it better to get a Master's degree or take a full-time job?
Fleck: I don't have a Master's. I'm not going to hire you based on whether you have a Master's. My biggest advice: go coach, go teach, go fail. Get a job at a level you're comfortable that you can coach. The worst guy to piss off is your head coach because that guy is your ticket to your next job.
Norvell: I can find a lot of people that can draw up good plays, but do you have the ability to connect with that wide receiver? I want my youngest coaches to inspire me to be the best versions of themselves. I love watching my QCs during recruiting weekends. During a break in the action, are they talking to a mom or their buddies?
Linguist: The way you're going to be loyal to your head coach is absolutely killing your job and being a great representative of your staff. Just because someone offers you a job doesn't mean you need to go if it doesn't align with who you are.
Q: What's the best way to approach your interview?
Norvell: Every day is an interview. You go through the questions of why. What is this job going to help you accomplish long-term? A lot of people chase logos. When you come interview for a job, you need to know your purpose in that job.
Fleck: The No. 1 thing is, do I know you? Rarely do I hire someone I don't know. Now, if I shake your hand, then I know you. I got 25 cards yesterday. I've called people based on cards.
I want to know what you know schematically. I look at the teacher you are. If I'm an offensive lineman, teach me from Square 1 how to play offensive line.
The first question I ask in interviews is tell me about your life, from birth to now. Some people tell me about their football career, then I know they're all about football. I've had guys start at birth. I want to know where you recruit. Maybe I'm looking for a guy that can recruit California, Texas, Atlanta, but any great recruiter can recruit anywhere. I want to know about mentorship building. How well do you know your players?
Most of my interviews, we go through Xs and Os. If I don't like you, we won't get there. If I love you, I can help you cover up deficiencies.
Norvell: What do you do to set yourself apart? Kenny was in our meeting at 6 a.m. every day. He was taking notes, so I knew what I said was important to him. When I went to Tulsa, I went six months without getting a paycheck. I slept in the coaches' locker room.
Dillingham: Getting a job, if it's not the right job, it doesn't matter. Find a place, find a coach you're going to believe in because that's how you're going to be successful. If you have someone who doesn't believe, that person is going to come back to bite you.
Linguist: Getting a job is just a beginning. It's like a recruit signing a scholarship -- now the real work begins.
Norvell: What are you willing to sacrifice to get a job? Everybody wants an opportunity until you tell them what it pays. You say, "I can't do that?" Then you don't want it.
Fleck: I want all my coaches to leave me. I don't believe in management. You manage machines, you lead people. I have a saying, "Everybody gets treated fairly, not equally." You have to pay attention to how people learn. Whatever position you coach, spend time with other positions. If I'm Coach Linguist, I'm spending time in wide receiver clinics.
Norvell: Accountability is the absolute key. If someone is struggling, how do you inspire them to improve? As a position coach, you have to take ownership in how your guys behave. If it was walking a guy to class or shooting them a good morning text, I made sure I did that.
Q: What are your final thoughts?Dillingham: This is a people business. Get a room and coach, then build relationships. Find people you believe in. When you find those people, you don't take no for an answer. You force them to build a relationship with you or they ignore you. I promise, they won't ignore you.
Linguist: I was the first person in my family to go to college, because of football coaches. You have to connect with your players. They're going to go on to become husbands and fathers. If you're a competitive person who loves connecting with people, there's nothing better.
Norvell: Be intentional with every day. Make an impact with every thing that you do. The logo on your chest does not determine who you are and what you've accomplished.
Fleck: Don't forget the fun part. It better be fun to you. The stoic coach on the sideline, that doesn't fit me. If you truly enjoy it, don't lose that. This can be the most miserable profession if you're not enjoying it.
The difference between successful and unsuccessful people is one gave into human nature and quit and one didn't.