I was asked by an FBS head coach in an interview for a Director of Football Operations position, “What would you do if a player got in trouble on a Saturday night?”
This was a fair question as the situation is unfortunately too common across all levels of athletics.
I was well-prepared to answer. After all, I dealt with the issue on a few occasions, most recently just a few weeks prior when a student-athlete had gotten in what Bruce Springsteen would call a “little hometown jam”. Additionally, I had practice in dealing with criminal matters from when I had a private law practice and represented criminal clients. I know how to deal with these kinds of issues, and often times protecting the student-athlete, as well as the program and the institution ran in direct conflict with what established athletic department protocol was. But sometimes you have to act quickly and issue apologies later.
I answered the best way I knew how, which included reviewing every step I would take. One of those steps was immediately informing the head coach via a call, irrespective of the time of night. After all, most football coaches that I have encountered are like Don Corleone in the Godfather in that they “insist on hearing bad news immediately.”
In response to my audacious suggestion that I would let him know one of his players was in trouble by phone call, the head coach said “No you won’t.”
This generated laughter from him and some of the other staffers that were part of this phone call. There was some levity in his tone, but also an element of seriousness. In no way would he want to get his hands dirty with a difficult situation like a player getting arrested.
At that point in the interview though, I should have saved everyone’s time, including my own and hung up the phone. I knew that I wasn’t going to be a good fit with this staff.
Rather than argue, attempt to clarify my answer or even backtrack and give them what they wanted to hear on this topic, I answered as if this was the practice I would undertake and proceeded to answer the rest of the laundry list of questions that they had for me.
I received a phone call a week later that they had chosen to “go in another direction.” It was no surprise to me that I didn’t get the job.
It was the first job in sports that I was happy not to get.
It is also of no surprise to me that the team that I speak about is floundering. Badly.
It was foreseeable that anyone that openly admitted to ignoring duties as a head coach to this degree was probably going to ignore other aspects of their program as well. (However I do giggle when I come across his twitter account and see proclamations of a devotion to team, attitude and the like. I guess it is easier to say it in 140 characters than to actually uphold these virtues in difficult times).
Coaching is more than just mere instruction of the sport. There is much more involved whether we want it to be or not. As much as coaches want to stay in their office, discuss scheme, and deal with direct football matters, they can’t. That isn’t the job. Most coaches of any sport will let you know actual instruction is just a fraction of what they do on a daily basis.
When we collectively decide to take employment in the sports industry and work for a team and around athletes, we cease to be just merely fans. Our fandom and passion for sports is probably what lured us in, but we have to evolve, as does our concept of what the job entails. Of course we root and cheer for our teams, but we adopt a higher mission, or should. We should be teammates with our goal of creating a winning culture. Maybe we don’t run, tackle or block but we have to believe that the things, even the small things, impact our ability to reach our goals.
This is true of not only coaches, but administrators and staffers.
We are here for the student-athletes. And not just between the hours of 9 to 5. And not just on Mondays-Fridays and fall weekends. We are here because of them. Thus, we need to be there for them, even when times get tough. Always. Even when it isn’t convenient for us. They are the reason for the positions that we have.
The people at the top, athletic directors and coaches set the tone. They are the pace car. They are the point guard that gives direction and speeds things up or slows thing down. They are the ones that need to communicate these values. There are some programs and organizations that don’t value the student-athletes. (And they wonder why they don’t win?) Caring about your players and staff takes more than just lip service. It comes in the form of action and a devotion of resources.
On fall football Saturdays, the fans don’t come to watch administrators. They come to watch the young men that are courageous enough to enter the playing surface and provide us all with entertainment.
So why is caring about student-athletes topical in July, two months away from the fall’s first kickoff?
July is the month in athletics, football especially, where many staffers go on vacation. Certainly coaches need to relax and take time to enjoy their friends and loved ones. They need to recharge their batteries before reporting for fall camp in August. However, because of the representations made during the recruiting process, coaches have enticed student-athletes to come to campus and join their team. While coaches and administrators aren’t the admissions office and didn’t admit these students, the promises of opportunities made to parents and student-athletes is why they are there.
Many of the student-athletes are away from home for the first time. They are just coming into their own and are still forming their own academic and athletic work habits as well as their moral compass. The development and growth of the team doesn’t stop just because you are away golfing and fishing. It grows without you and sometimes in ways that you don’t want it to. Thus, it is important for administrators and coaches to set the tone and ensure that others on staff aren’t just ignoring the student-athletes on campus.
Developing an action plan for monitoring student-athlete progress, socially and academically is necessary. I find that this type of detailed planning is strangely absent in athletic departments across the country. Coaches tell student-athletes that the gains they make in the weight room and on the practice field in the summer are seen on fall Saturdays. Similarly, coaches and administrators will confront the ramifications of a lax approach to student-athlete welfare further down the road.
Questions or comments? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Juan Lozano is a sports attorney in Los Angeles, California that focuses his practice on representing coaching talent. He is a former Director of Football Operations at a number of schools. Lozano is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin Law School.