Not many of my current students or fellow faculty members are aware of it, but I used to be a football coach. Other than “Dad,” it’s the best thing I have ever been called. Twenty years since I last blew a whistle, I still light up when I run into former players and they refer to me as “Coach.”
Although coaching had been a secondary passion for me after my first love, which has always been teaching, I loved to compete, and I especially enjoyed getting to know the kids outside of the classroom and sharing with them a different side of me. All of which begs the question, “Why then did I retire from it?”
The year I was hired as the head football coach at Port Clinton High School, the administration had introduced an initiative that asked all head coaches to step aside if their program was unable to finish in the top half of the league over a four-year period. As we were suffering from a dearth of competitive teams across the entire athletic program with only a few exceptions, something radical needed to be done. I thought then it was a reasonable request, and I still believe so. I’m not sure if it was ever an official policy or simply a “gentleman’s agreement,” but it doesn’t matter. I accepted the position with full knowledge of the initiative; therefore, I felt honor bound to adhere to its expectation.
Long story made short. After four years of trying everything I knew to try and a number of my own radical initiatives, I had failed to move the needle. My roster was always filled, but sadly, the win column stayed damn-near empty. Even so, I loved every second of the job: from the countless hours in the weight room (too often by myself or with a handful of players), to the time spent with my coaches preparing our asses off for teams we knew deep down we had no chance of defeating, to the countless hours on the practice field with the kids. The only part of the job that grew excruciating were the halftime and post-game talks with the team while or after being humiliated on the scoreboard. It broke my heart trying to convince them that our hard work the previous week had been worth it and that next week would be better.
Although there were a few positive outcomes from my time as head coach, when my four-year term was up, I had not done enough to make the football team competitive. Believe it or not, over that period I did not field one phone call from an angry parent, disgruntled fan, or impatient-for-success administrator. I dearly wanted to continue as the head football coach, but I knew the agreement I had made when I started the job. As much as it hurt, I knew surrendering the job was the only honorable course of action. Even though I’d failed in my four-year mission, I still had my honor. It was time to swallow my pride, concede that I was not the right person for the position, and abdicate the big whistle.
As difficult as it was to inform my players and staff of my retirement, it was doubly difficult to tell my boys, who were all in elementary school at the time. Ever since they could walk, they would often attend practices and work the games as water boys, ball boys, or tee boys. They loved their dad being the football coach. My leaving the position was going to radically change their lives as well and perhaps even their perception of their dad as some larger-than-life figure.
After the last day of practice in my final year, I kept them with me on the field after practice, and told them that, despite his best efforts, dad had failed, and it was time to turn the reins over to someone else, who might be better able to serve in my soon-to-be former position. I’ll never forget the look in their eyes. “How can it be?” their eyes communicated. “You’re Dad. Dad doesn’t fail.” But, dad had failed, and I had given my word.
Twenty years later, I know that walking away – good to my word and with my honor intact – from a job I loved was the right thing to do. I may have modeled for myself, my players, and my own children the best lesson I have ever taught. I’m far from a paragon of humility and grace, but on that one occasion when necessity demanded it, I chose to do what was best for my community, my school, and my players rather than what was best for me.
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