A year ago our head football coach was fired and we worked with him, his staff, their families, and support staff to manage the transitions each had to make. A few weeks later, our new head coach was chosen and he began to assemble his staff, to determine the direction of the program, and to outline its values. The new head coach is only 31 years old and that presents him a particular set of challenges. His staff is also rather young, with one exception.
He and I talked after recruiting was completed about how I could serve him and we had a tremendous discussion. One of his first thoughts was to have his program defined by the statement, “Be a Man.” Rather than have a long list of rules, he would like the young men in his program to just, “be a man.” I pushed back, saying, “Coach, they don’t know what that is.” Near 80% of our players grew up with no man in the house, and probably a number of the others had poor models for what a man is. I said, “Coach, we have to define terms. Will you trust me to help them learn what it is to be a man?” He agreed and the rest of this note is related to what I told them and how I delivered the messages.
In the way that I work with our college football team, I have several different opportunities and methods to convey a message:
Preseason – Team Building sessions (4-6), senior player talks, coach talks, Sunday morning chapels (2).
In season – Pregame chapels (11), letters at pregame meals (11).
Prior to the season, during the early summer, I approached the head coach with some simple ideas to help define what a man is that we could emphasize over and over again. He agreed to this set of four statements: “A Man Loves. A Man Takes Responsibility. A Man Serves. A Man Takes Initiative.” I used these four statements as the anchor to which we tied all our communication throughout the season. At times I would deal with these by drawing sharp contrasts between what men do and what boys do. Boys are selfish, men love. Boys avoid responsibility, men take it up. Boys are self-serving, men serve others. Boys are passive, men take initiative.
For chapel talks, I majored on narrative texts that demonstrated a person acting on one of the four “A Man …..” statements. I would introduce the talk, recite all four statements, ask someone to pray, and then launch in to my talk. We would wrap up with prayer and I would be finished.
For the letters at pregame meals, I spent a good deal of time during a July study retreat writing devotional thoughts focused on the four statements. I would start with a story of a player or coach from the program’s past who was emblematic of that day’s statement. I would outline his story in one paragraph. The next paragraph would introduce a Bible passage that spoke to the statement as well.
The third paragraph would apply the ideas illuminated from scripture to the team and to the earlier player’s life, and the final paragraph would be a direct challenge to do as directed by the scripture and as modeled by the player or coach. I would insert a salutation, date, sign, and print the letter on my office stationery. I make photocopies and have one copy at each place prior to the pregame meal, 4 hours prior to kickoff. These devotional thoughts, being in letter form, feel very personal to the reader and are well received.
During the preseason, each senior player and each coach on the staff was given time to deliver a 5-7 minute talk to the entire team. I created a set of questions to help the players gather their thoughts about how their experiences at the university had shaped the kind of men they had become. I created a separate set of questions for the coaches with more information about their childhood and their life experiences. The results of these talks was amazing. Rather than posturing or simply stringing clichés together, they opened their hearts and spoke vulnerably. This was a strong factor in building the team’s culture and its cohesion.
You may be wondering how the team did this season? We started with strong expectations, quickly discovered our weak spots, competed strongly, lost several very close games, finished well, and had a 4 win, 7 loss record. The remarkable thing was that through a losing streak, our cohesion never broke down, the coaches and players all stayed together, and we never abandoned the program values or goals.
In a text message to the head coach during the last week of the season, I said, “Coach, you are doing the right things and holding to the right values. Press on. Recruit to the culture you are building. I am proud of you.”
Our society is full of men who never love, never take responsibility, never serve, and never take initiative. I hope that our work together in Saluki Football, produces young men who do love, take responsibility, serve, and take initiative. I also pray that the introduction of scripture and prayer to their lives takes root in their hearts and comes to full fruition as they become men who love Christ Jesus.