The Grind: Coaches Detail the Role of a Graduate Assistant

The Grind: Coaches Detail the Role of a Graduate Assistant

Most careers in the football coaching profession lead to different directions despite the level or success. For football coaches, many get their start in the pre-entry level role, which is commonly referred to as a graduate assistant. In this industry, coaches start at the bottom of the totem pole and must put in hard work to advance and obtain that position coach, coordinator, or head coaching job. The coaches on this panel have all had their fair share of experiences with this notion since they were all graduate assistants at one point in time. They generously share insights on how to fully optimize the opportunity to become a graduate assistant.

The Panel

Fred Farrier – RB Coach at Alabama A&M University (Moderator)

Chris Hatcher – Head Coach at Samford University

Seth Wallace – Assistant Defensive Coordinator/LB Coach at the University of Iowa

Steve Ellis – Recruiting Assistant/CB Coach at Middle Tennessee State University

Alvin Parker – Head Coach at Virginia Union University

Scott Satterfield – Head Coach at the University of Louisville

Characteristics of a Graduate Assistant

When head coaches are looking for a graduate assistant, they often refer to what they want to see from any other coach on their staff plus some. Collectively, the panel of coaches came to a consensus that the following characteristics are extremely valuable as a graduate assistant coach:

  • Hard worker
  • Constant learner
  • Passionate about what they do

When referring to the characteristic of being a hard worker, it is doing everything you can do, including the little things. A point of emphasis should be made that the amount of work needed for any graduate assistant is similar to the other coaches.

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According to Coach Parker, “There is no difference in levels, you may just be asked to do more than others.”

The game of Football is constantly adapting and evolving. This means that a head coach desires a staff full of coaches that do not get tired of learning about new things within the sport. One way to continue to learn and adapt as a graduate assistant is by continuously watching film and studying with all of the position coaches. This allows for growth since the GA’s learn the full scheme of the team through different lenses. The last characteristic is one that is more visual since it is result-driven. Someone who is passionate about the work that they do will never settle for anything less than overachieving. It is a motor that boosts all other qualities attached to a coach. Graduate assistants should demonstrate a genuine passion for the game and everyone involved with the team or organization.

Ways to Obtain a Graduate Assistant Position

Teams can only keep a few Graduate Assistants on staff, so the positions are very competitive. Just like with any career, there is not always a guarantee that a strongly desired position will be available. That is why in this section of the discussion, the panelists agreed that the biggest first step in achieving any position is to consistently network. Digger a little deeper into the notion of networking, it is not just about meeting coaches and getting a number or business card. Instead, you should desire to form an established relationship with others, including those you feel inspired to work alongside.

Coach Wallace said it best when he said, “You must find what your beliefs and values are and align them with those types of people.”

Personal beliefs and values are best learned through associating with peers. This also allows peers to experience who you are so that when a position opens, they could offer a recommendation. This is also the case for promoting from a graduate assistant role to a full-time position. Also, in order to have the best chance of obtaining a position, you need to know the staff and schemes inside and out.

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“The most successful teams, and the most successful staffs have coaches that understand how the entire operation works,” said Coach Hatcher.

That statement is a testament to the success of the organization. For example, while the wide receiver coach may not fully understand certain techniques of the offensive line, he should know and understand the schemes of pass protections. This knowledge is likely to lead to the coach having a better understanding of passing concepts that could work against certain defensive coverages and packages. It goes back to the principle of hard work and learning to demonstrate the passion and grind a coach possesses.

Lastly, even though coaches do not want their career to end as a GA, it is paramount that they do not go through one job solely focused on the next one. Head coaches want to hire people who are dedicated and committed to their program and are willing to work hard and do the little things for the success of the entire organization.


Overall the coaching profession is a competitive grind that often begins at the bottom of the chain. Most coaches start off in a graduate assistant role and then work up to their desired position. The lessons learned and the people met in that phase of a coaching career serve as the foundation that one can build upon. This foundation (if built firmly and correctly) can promote and sustain future growth, resulting in greater knowledge, relationships, and positions ever thought possible.

To watch the “Graduate Assistant Forum” session, along with numerous other videos, please log in to your AFCA membership account and search through the AFCA Educational Library.

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