College Football Coaches – Looking, Listening, Learning

The Latest Word from John Ed Mathison

This past weekend I had the rare opportunity to be a part of the meeting of the American Football Coaches Association in Nashville, TN. There were 7,000 coaches present. I preached at the worship service on Sunday, which was sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

I have always enjoyed relating to coaches. I have been invited to speak at some of the coaches’ conferences sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. My coaches in high school and college played an important role in shaping my life. I probably would have been a coach if I had not heard God’s call to the ministry.

Much of my style of leadership I have learned from coaches. I think the most important thing a coach does is to place the right players in the right positions. If you have your quarterback playing tackle or your guard playing wide receiver—it will be a long season, and probably your last season. A good coach surrounds himself with people who are experts in coaching a certain position. Good coaches hire a lot of specialists, and not so many generalists. The coach is a leader and sets the tone for the attitude and philosophy of the whole team. The effective coach instills that DNA into the coaching staff and team members.

Last weekend I did a lot of looking because all the major coaches in the country were there. It was interesting to watch them interact with each other and all of the young coaches tried not to stare too much. Since the top college coaches in the nation were there, I tried to look without staring.

I also listened a lot out in the hallways. I heard coaches explaining techniques and philosophies to other coaches. I heard coaches sharing successes and failures. I heard coaches giving encouragement to coaches whose seasons had not been so good. I heard a lot of comments about how much coaches love what they are doing. I learned a lot of lessons. Here are a few of them:

Lesson 1 – The coaching profession has very little security. I saw some coaches who were “on top of the world” a couple of years ago and now they are experiencing losing seasons. I saw coaches form a pretty good fraternity to give comfort, strength and encouragement to each other during the tough times. Each coach knew that he is usually rated on his won/loss record, and sometimes that could change drastically. I noticed a couple of coaches who had some recent success and were a bit on the arrogant side—I wondered what their attitude would be in a few years.

Lesson 2 – I learned that different coaches have different value systems. I saw some of them that were so focused on winning and losing that nothing else seemed to matter. I even heard a couple of them confess that this had been their basic attitude in the past, but circumstances had helped them change that. I also met some coaches who saw that their primary goal was not just their won/loss record but to help make men out of boys. Some of them saw that their real measurement was not on the won/loss record but on the kind of records that their former athletes were making in life situations.

Lesson 3 – The success of a coach can quickly change. There is very little security for the future. An example was the introduction of Phil Fulmer, who was the speaker at the opening session. Coach Fulmer has the best won/loss percentage of any coach in America who has been coaching at a major college for the past ten years. He recently won a National Championship, a Conference Championship, and last year went to the SEC Championship Game and really had LSU beat in the 4th quarter until a couple of mistakes occurred. LSU went on and won the National Title. At his final game Coach Fulmer was honored by the fans and his players carried him off the field on their shoulders. Twenty-four hours later he was fired. Other coaches had similar situations. There are no guarantees for the future in coaching—or in life. Present production trumps past accomplishment!

Lesson 4 – I met some outstanding young assistant coaches who are strong Christians who were recently fired because there was a change in head coaches. I saw these young men with a faith and attitude that this was tough, but if God closed one door He would open another door. They were not having a pity party for themselves or seeking any kind of condolences—they were just open to the next step that God had for them. They inspired me.

Lesson 5 – The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is a highly respected organization among college coaches. There are a lot of coaches who will not “buy in” to the program, but they do respect FCA. I believe there are about 40 major colleges that have fulltime chaplains on the staff. Coach Grant Taff has been the Executive Director for the Coaches Association for about15 years. I served with him on the National Board of the FCA. Coach Dal Shealy is the coaches’ liaison with FCA.

Lesson 6 – The coaches seek out those who are successful and try to learn from them. The sessions led by Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, Joe Paterno, Mike Leach, etc. were in huge banquet halls that must seat over 2,000 people. People were standing around the walls and sitting out in the hall listening. Coaches were there to learn from those who had something to teach. I was especially glad to see Coach Paterno because he is 83-years-old and people are still trying to learn from him. Coach Paterno reminded me of a preacher because his picture in the program was probably the one he used for college graduation!

Lesson 7 – The best lesson to me was the affirmation of the Christian gospel. I am glad I am a Christian because we have the only message that offers true security and hope for the future. Our hope is not based on a won/loss record—but on a commitment to Christ and the promises of His word. The security He gives is for all eternity. Read Matthew 6: 19, 20.

The experience at the American College Football Coaches Association was one of the great experiences of my life. I will be a better leader and a better learner. I am thankful for the invitation from Coach Dal Shealy to be a part of a ministry that allows me to participate with leaders in the football world.

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