Obtaining a coaching position at a FBS institution is a coveted opportunity in today’s competitive landscape. Nevertheless, once obtained, you will quickly realize these positions require an incredible amount of sacrifice to maintain. They also require a commitment to excellence, a tremendous work ethic, a spirit of giving and serving, and an insatiable desire to learn. These traits, among others, are critical to landing and keeping a spot on any college football staff for that matter. In the paragraphs that follow, I share the pillars of my coaching philosophy and how they have served me thus far as a graduate assistant (GA).
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1. Making The Jump From High School
If you are contemplating making the jump into the collegiate coaching ranks, there are a plethora of opportunities for you. Can you do it without collegiate playing experience? Of course. Look no further than the likes of Coach Chad Morris (Arkansas) and Coach Gary Patterson (TCU). Neither of these notable coaches were big-time players in college, nor were they drafted to play in the NFL.
The difference is that they put more into it than their counterparts and worked their tails off. Coach Patterson used to tell me stories about the sacrifices he made when he first got into college coaching. The best advice he ever gave me came in the form of the question: “How bad do you want it?” Before I could make out my reply, he stopped me and said, “Answer with action.”
2. Compete And Challenge Yourself
It is a day-to-day grind competing against yourself to be better than you were the day before. I have to challenge myself daily to be better than I was yesterday. No, I am not perfect, and I do not compete with the guy next to me. My challenge every day is to get one percent better than I was a day ago. Be better tomorrow than you are today. Don’t compare yourself to the person next to you, compare yourself to the person you were yesterday. Create a “measurable”, so you can measure yourself against yourself, improving each day incrementally. By doing this, you will see you have made significant strides over a designated period.
3. Make Thoughtful Decisions
Sacrifice is one of the most important components you will have to consider if you want to become a graduate assistant. It was a huge step for me. I’m a father and newly engaged. The amount of money graduate assistants earn makes it very difficult to provide for a family. When I graduated from college after playing football at TCU, I immediately went into coaching high school football in Texas. At the time, I thought this was the best way to provide for my family.
I coached high school football for about three years before making a choice to try my hand at the collegiate level. I had some money in savings and was willing to make a sacrifice to make the jump to college. I knew that the money would not be as much as I made before, but I decided to take a chance on myself.
Unfortunately, the entire defensive staff was fired. Wow! I thought to myself: I can’t believe I took a leap of faith and a pay cut just to get fired. I have heard sayings that there are two types of coaches: those who have been fired and those who are about to be fired. It was funny at the time I first heard it, until it happened to me. The key is to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and trust the process – even when you don’t understand it.
4. Don’t Take No For An Answer
The next sacrifice I made was life changing for me. I sent out 30 resumes for an opportunity to become a graduate assistant and was denied (you guessed it) a whopping 30 times. That was a sobering feeling to be told “no” that many times. I could have easily given up and gone back to coaching at the high school level, but my passion was in college coaching.
The lesson here is simple. Don’t let being told “no” or you don’t fit the criteria or you don’t have any playing experience dictate your future. You only need one “yes.” Just one.
5. Take Risks as a Graduate Assistant
I reached out to one of my mentors, Coach Van Malone, and was afforded an opportunity to interview for a future graduate assistant opening at SMU. When the opportunity came, I had to take full advantage. I never wanted to be a GA, primarily because I didn’t think I would be able to provide for my family. At this point, it was either take the opportunity and sacrifice, or wait for a better opportunity to become a full-time coach.
I took the job without fully understanding all the requirements that came along with being a GA. The first challenge came by having to help around the office doing non-coaching activities as a volunteer worker until the spot opened. Not too many individuals are willing to work for free with the circumstances I had at hand, but I did. I love what I do and I was willing to do the work until I could take advantage of this fantastic opportunity. The key takeaway here? Just. Do. Work.
6. Serve Others
This experience has taught me many things, but one of the most powerful lessons has been that of adopting a spirit of serving others. One of my mentors told me that you must first become a servant and be willing to give more than you get.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” You don’t have to be a head coach or even on the full-time staff to help other people get ahead.
As a graduate assistant, your job is to make the position coach’s job easier. Whether it is assisting with recruiting, making cutups for players, or even curating information for players’ scout books. All jobs matter. You must be willing to go beyond your duties to serve others. If you seek to get what you want, help others get what they want.
7. Have Faith In Yourself
Having faith is a key component of being a graduate assistant. It’s downright essential to get you through the tough times. If you don’t believe in yourself, or don’t think you have what it takes, you will not be successful. There are going to be days when you feel like this just isn’t working; you will want to give up. Just stay the course and believe that your breakthrough is coming. Nothing worth having comes easy. As a matter of fact, several graduate assistants took out loans to help get them through the tough times. If you give up on what you’ve done, all that work will merely go to waste. Have faith and believe that your dream job is right around the corner.
8. Find Good Mentors
Mentors are important to have in the college football coaching ranks. You must learn from them and their mistakes, and follow their instructions. Everything I have accomplished has been because I have had great mentors walk me through the steps necessary for success in this business. The worst mistake you can make is believing you have it all figured out and fail to reach out for wisdom from coaches who have been through it already. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because you never know who could give you great advice. If you don’t have a mentor, seek one out!
9. Focus On Time Management
Being a graduate assistant, you must have excellent time management. You must maintain a 3.0+ GPA to stay in most programs. The long hours you put in while breaking down opponents’ film, making practice schedules, and whatever else your position coach needs, make for a full-time job in itself. This can be quite overwhelming if you don’t manage your time properly.
Having to spend 11 hours in the office, only to have to write a 10-15 page paper for a class shortly thereafter, was difficult for me. In this same vein, having to stay up all hours of the night working on an assignment for class, then having to be at work in just a few hours, is tough. I had to learn to always to be proactive and stay ahead in the classroom and on top of my coaching responsibilities.
Given the dedication and sacrifices I made to become a graduate assistant coach, the only choice I have is to stick it out and have faith. Being a graduate assistant is probably tougher than being a full-time coach. A “graduate assistant grind” is a grind like no other. Can you relate?
10. Find The Balance Between Coaching And Significant Others
An intimate relationship can be hard to maintain due to a lack of communication and opportunities to spend quality time. If you’re dating someone, they must understand the life you live. From the long mandatory staff meetings, to practice, film study, and then a three-hour class after that, you will be drained after you finish. So, you will just want to go home and get rest. You won’t be able to go out on dates because you won’t have any free time. Nevertheless, if your girlfriend/spouse supports you and totally understands your schedule, then maintaining a healthy relationship is possible.
11. Network, Network, Network
This time in your life is a golden opportunity for you to expand your network. As a graduate assistant, you have the chance to meet new coaches around the country. It could even be a coach on the opposing team that you become good friends with.
Coach Van Malone always says, “It’s not about what you know, or who you know, it’s about who knows you.” The more people who know who you are, the better chance you have in this profession. When you attend conferences, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to a coach. Let them know you are a young coach and want to know what it takes to get in the business. You will be surprised at the amount of coaches who are willing and ready to help you.
12. Understand The Payback
Compensation is but one of the key factors that you should understand and, being a graduate assistant, you would basically be receiving the same pay as the student-athletes. If you’re making a decision to pursue this solely for monetary gain, then think again. There have been times when I have gone all day without eating due to a lack of funds. Being a GA is just like being in college again, which means you will have to go weeks without having any income coming in. It’s impossible to work any other job because 18 hours of your day will be spent either working in the office or on class assignments. Quite frankly, you just must be willing to make a small sacrifice for a lifetime of achievements.
13. Value The Lessons You Learn
Aside from everything I have covered up until now, I must say that being a graduate assistant teaches you a lot. I have learned a great deal from the group of guys in our staff room. Serving as a GA is the time for you to grow as a professional coach. No, I’m not perfect, but again, I seek to be one percent better than I was the day before. I seek to motivate myself daily to see the bigger picture as to why I am here, and that’s to serve our players. That consideration remains at the forefront of all I do. The fact that I am advancing my educational career and getting better as a coach is just more fuel to the fire.
It is my sincere hope that this piece gave you an idea of what life is like as a graduate assistant coach—a life that I would not trade for anything in the world. These are just a few steps I have taken to successfully fulfill my role as a graduate assistant coach. I hope they serve you just as well as they have served me.
I’ll see you on the sidelines, Coach.
Check out Coach Scott’s interview from the AFCA’s Inside the Headset podcast at the top of this page.
This article was written by Chris Scott. Coach Scott is a Defensive Assistant for SMU. Scott was recently promoted after serving as a graduate assistant for two years with the program. In 2016, Scott helped SMU’s defense become one of the 10 most statistically improved in college football. Coach Scott can be found on Twitter at @Coach_Scott31.