By Dan Cardone
When a longtime successful coach leaves your program, student-athletes and parents will be eager to see how you replace him or her. This athletic director looks for two specific qualities in candidates.
We had a situation here at North Hills High School recently where a coach resigned after a career that spanned over four decades. He was highly successful and his passion for his sport never wavered.
How do you replace someone like that? Not very easily. The program expectations are off the charts, and there is concern that the next head coach can only fail. I have often heard advice from those in the coaching ranks that you "do not succeed a legend."
What can the athletic director do to keep program continuity? In this type of hire, there are two key qualities I look for in candidates:
1. A person who has the right stuff.
2. A person who has the right spirit.
Having the Right Stuff
Leaders have it. It is an intangible that comes to the forefront when you interact with that person. Along with persona, they can gain immediate respect from their players. When they walk into a room, you know you are in the presence of a head coach.
At our school, both myself as athletic director and our principal review applications and choose those to be interviewed. We look at their experiences as coaches and their dedication toward professional growth, such as by obtaining coaching certification or completing coaching education coursework. The two of us then do the interview using a prepared set of questions.
In the interview, we look for great answers to our standard questions. Is the individual knowledgeable and organized with a solid work ethic? Does he or she have a similar philosophy to what we are looking for?
But, just as important, we also observe the coach's interactions from start to finish--looking for signs that the candidate has the "right stuff." Is he or she confident when communicating with us? Does the individual come off as completely prepared? Does he or she capture our attention when speaking? How does the candidate answer questions about leadership issues?
Having the Right Spirit
Over the years, I have seen a common thread in successful coaches--they have an unparalled passion for their sport. These individuals talk about their team to whomever will listen. Their coach speak is all about where the team is and where they are headed. Their level of concern for those entrusted to their care is off the charts.
In the interview the way that a candidate speaks often reveals this quality. They have certain inflections in their voice when they talk about the opportunity to be a head coach. They go into detail when imparting their vision of the future of the program.
My favorite head coaches in the National Football League are Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks. Watch 'em coach next Sunday. They are the first to meet and enthusiastically congratulate a player coming off the field when he does something well. They very rarely engage with a player when he makes a mistake. They treat the officials with respect and recognize them as an integral part of the game. They have fun coaching and are cheerleaders in the coaching box. That is exactly what having the right spirit is to me.
Few More Thoughts
Another quality that is high on my list in selecting head coaches is that they must fit into the culture of our school district. Someone who is a win-at-all-costs person will not be a fit for us. We weigh the ability to mold young men and women more highly than the winning aspect of sport.
Some schools hire a lot of alumni to teach and coach. I see this as a positive since former graduates often see themselves as stakeholders. They already understand the culture and they often have the right spirit. In addition, knowing the ins and outs of how things run in the district and athletic department is invaluable and it drastically reduces the learning curve.
Coaching experience is obviously an important factor to consider, but it should not be the only reason one is hired. Experience is not always the answer. Age is just a number. Look at the number of head coaches in the NFL that are under 40. Being a great head coach means that you possess leadership abilities, not that you've been coaching a long time.
When it comes to replacing a coaching legend, the community will be carefully watching whom you select. Choose someone who has great desire and passion for being the head coach--someone who has the right stuff and right spirit to keep that program on solid ground for another four decades.
Dan Cardone is Athletic Director at North Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is a frequent contributor to Athletic Management.