I was recently reflecting on the changes I have seen across my twenty-three seasons of serving Saluki Football (collegiate American Football). We have served with five different coaching staffs, some with lots of changes within the tenure of the same head coach. We have seen hundreds of young men cycle through the university in those years, about 25 new players each year, 100+ on each year’s roster. This note will feature the differences in how my service has changed across the years. I hope this allows you some sense that changes can be good, even if clouded by firing, failure, pain, and uncertainty.
1994-1996 – Head Coach Shawn Watson – I owe Shawn more than I could ever express. He invited me into college football and gave me enough room to experiment, to fail, to succeed, to be trusted, and to innovate. I attended practices, led team chapels, served in crises, began to travel with the team, wrote personal notes to players and coaches, and began to write game day devotions for the team. I prayed with Shawn personally before games and led the team in praying the Lord’s prayer after games in the locker room. He left our program to take another opportunity in coaching and we have stayed in touch as he has traveled through six universities since.
1997-2000 – Head Coach Jan Quarless – I was stunned when Coach Q allowed me even more space to serve and I started with tremendous favor. I did all the things I had done with Shawn and added some sideline responsibilities (get back coach), but with a little less personal relationship with the head coach. Coach Q’s tenure included a good deal of turmoil, a number of coaching staff transitions, and the team hovered near the point of excellence without ever achieving it. He was relieved of his duties shortly after the university hired a new Director of Athletics. Jan is out of football, having completed his PhD after being fired and then finished his career as a school administrator.
2001-2007 – Head Coach Jerry Kill – When Coach Kill and I met for lunch to discuss how I would serve his team, I was stunned at his response to my questions about boundaries. He said, “As far as I’m concerned, there are no boundaries.” I had again been given an amazing level of favor and access to the coaching staff, the players, the facilities, and more. We did as we had in the past years, but added some new forms of service as this staff developed an excellent program. I began to do “team-building” activities with the team during the preseason. In these sessions it was my job to accelerate the process of developing both the culture and the community that enables a team to compete well. We also added some weekly meetings to build team leadership. Coach Kill and I developed a strong relationship that continues to this day. It was forged in the fires of early losses, later championships, personal crises, health scares, cancer surgery, court appearances with troubled players, and lots of heart to heart talks. Coach left our program after a string of very successful seasons to take a new coaching opportunity. He has recently been out of coaching for a season, but just took an offensive coordinator position.
2008-2015 – Head Coach Dale Lennon – Coach Lennon came to us from the University of North Dakota and a radically different culture from Southern Illinois. I was unsure how he would perceive me or my role, but when we talked after recruiting was finished I was again amazed at the favor the Lord gave me with Coach Lennon. He fully embraced every way I had been serving and strongly endorsed our team-building process. He and I collaborated on annual and weekly themes for the team and I was thrilled to build those themes into my team-building, team chapels, and more. Coach Lennon’s more introverted nature made building our relationship more difficult than it was with Coach Kill, but we had a strong and open friendship characterized by respect and collaboration. There were a number of changes within the staff during these years, and though we had early success (two conference championships), the program seemed to decline year to year and Coach Lennon’s tenure ended in his firing. He and his wife, my wife and I, had dinner a couple of weeks after the season and I could sense how deeply it hurt him. I don’t think he had ever tasted failure of this sort and it was a rather bitter experience. We have stayed in touch, mostly by text message, as he is out of coaching. I doubt he will return to the game as this last experience may have squashed his passion for coaching and its life consuming nature.
2016 - ? – Head Coach Nick Hill – I have known Nick since he was an area high school football and basketball player. After a year of playing college basketball elsewhere, he transferred to our university, playing both basketball and football. As a four year starting quarterback retired from the game, Nick was the heir apparent to the starting job, and he wisely walked away from basketball. He led us to two of our most successful seasons, went on to some pre-season NFL football and then a couple of seasons of Arena Football. He coached some high school football in Florida, returned to coach a local high school team, and then was offered the opportunity to coach quarterbacks for Coach Lennon’s staff. He and I discussed the opportunity over coffee one morning and he chose to join us. Two seasons later, he was named our head coach, at thirty years of age. On the day of his introductory press conference, he called me to come to the office and to pray with him. That set the tone for our service together. Once again, I have been given remarkable favor and unfettered access. Added to all the earlier avenues of service, we added an off-season discussion of the book, Legacy, with the coaching staff and discussions of the same book with the five team captains during the season. Coach and I have shared book titles we are reading and he has been very responsive to each suggestion I have made for his leadership of the program.
I have no idea what the future holds. I have no idea how many years I will continue to serve in this manner. I have no idea how my service may change, immediately or in the next five years. I have full confidence that I am operating in the grace and favor of God, because there is no way I could engineer the opportunities I have been given. I trust that the Lord will lead and that I will follow as well as I am able. I cannot wait to see what is next.