Rick Majerus: The Best Move I Never Made
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Rick Majerus: The Best Move I Never Made

"A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself."
Rick Majerus: The Best Move I Never Made

It is a dangerous proposition when salaries for Division I Head Women's Volleyball Coaches reach into the $400,000 range. It is dangerous when a Head Fastpitch Softball coach leaves the University of Oregon for a $505,000 per year deal at another school. You leave the best conference in Division I softball, a loaded team set to return to the Women's College World Series, and an athletic department that lacks nothing thanks to Phil Knight, and you go someplace for more money. Because of television contract money, coaching salaries are escalating to a dangerous level. And the danger is that people will enter the profession to make money. Who would have guessed that the average salary to coach women's gymnastics in the SEC would be over $300,000. Find the right Power 5 school and you can make over $300,000 to coach men's golf. While coaching has always been viewed as a way to make a significant impact in the lives of athletes, it now looks like a ladder to climb in order to make money.

Do you feel called to coach? In the introduction to one of his books, Lou Holtz talks of Wade Watts, his high school football coach. Coach Watts thought enough of a young Lou Holtz, his second-string blocking back, to tell Lou's parents that he should go to college and be a coach someday. Tim Keller is a New York Times best-selling author and a pastor in New York City. Keller authored an outstanding book, "Every Good Endeavor," on the topic of work. He writes, "A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself." Think of Lou Holtz . He distinctly remembers his high school football coach encouraging him to think about coaching as a profession. Keller continues, "And so our work can be a calling only if it is re-imagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests."

Each man stands and falls before his own master, but I don't know if leaving Oregon to make $505,000 a year could be called a mission of service to something beyond self interest. So, I ask again. Why do you coach? My wife has taught high school math for 20 years. This past year she had a new principal for her high school. He asked all the teachers to articulate their "why." He had obviously read Simon Sinek's book "Start With Why." The new principal asked every staff member in the building to write down their "why" statement and then post it in their room.

Coaching gives a person a chance to be successful as well as significant. With coaching salaries rising at Power 5 schools, I am afraid the profession can lose people who enter the profession for all the right reasons. Too many other people see the large salaries and choose to enter the profession. The college men's volleyball player loves his sport. He isn't sure what to do following his playing days. He begins to coach. He coaches on the women's side as he sees the high salaries of some of the top coaches in the game. Where else can he dream of making $400,000 per year? This is the unintended consequence of higher salaries.

Tim Keller talks of recovering the idea that all human work is not merely a job but a calling. Do you view your coaching position as a calling? And it doesn't matter what level you coach.

I worked in a middle school building for fives years. One of my co-workers was the varsity girls hockey coach for the high school. I heard all the nightmare stories over the course of his three years. The program was in need of massive rebuilding and the difference between good high school girls hockey and bad girls hockey is very large. These are not small margins. Despite improvement through the years, the parents in this district were merciless. My co-worker finally resigned and looked forward to a life of no parent emails. Once he resigned, his brother was hired to be the new varsity coach. I was shocked. Surely, he had heard the horror stories. When I ran into the brother in our neighborhood, I asked him why. Why would he accept this job that had been such a nightmare for his brother? With a new baby, he answered very honestly, "Diaper Money." I worry about any coach who takes a position for diaper money. Likewise, I worry about young coaches who dream of coaching at the college level because of the money.  

Do you want to be uncommon? Coach not for the money but for the opportunity to impact athletes. John U. Bacon tells the story of legendary Michigan Football Coach Bo Schembechler turning down Texas A&M. Bo is a legend in college football and at the University of Michigan. He succeeded at a high level and he made a significant impact in the lives of his player. Bacon tells the story of Schembechler turning down Texas A&M in 1982. Bo declined A&M's offer of $3 million for 10 years, which would have quadrupled his salary, and made him the highest paid coach in the country. Bo said, "Frankly, I've come to the conclusion that there are things more important in this world than money. For that reason, I've decided to stay at Michigan."

Know why you coach. Keep your why statement in front of you no matter how high up the ladder you climb. Tony Dungy won a Super Bowl, but Tony Dungy also defines success different than most coaches. Dungy talks about significance- the significant difference our lives can make in the lives of others. That's why you coach. You may not share the same faith as Tony Dungy, but I hope you coach because you want to make a positive impact in the lives of others. Dungy writes, "This significance doesn't show up in win-loss records, long resumes, or the trophies gathering dust on the mantels. It's found in the hearts and lives of those we've come across who are in some way better because of the way we lived."

I have already written about Rick Majerus. The following Rick Majerus story deserves being repeated right here. It comes from a chapter in Majerus' book where he talks about turning down an offer to coach in the NBA in order to stay as the coach of the Utah Utes. While at Utah, Rick turned down Arizona State, Texas, and the NBA to stay at a school that was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. What follows is Majerus' version of turning down the NBA:

"Everybody told me to take it…Nobody would have blamed me had I left Utah. It was difference-making money, and it was the NBA- there aren’t many of those jobs in the world. And it was in San Francisco. But the truth is, I really like my guys. It’s hard for me to tell them that. I’m like a German father: joy through work…never pat you on the back while you’re on the job…save all the hugs for Senior Night. That’s how I am.

"I turned him (Golden State’s owner, Chris Cohan) down, not because I didn’t think I could coach in the pros- I could. I turned him down, not because I didn’t think I would enjoy it. I wasn’t sure about the players. I wasn’t crazy about the constant travel."

Majerus met with Cohan one last time and turned him down. He then called Richie Smith to tell him that he wasn’t taking the job. Richie asked why he turned it down. That’s when Rick read him a pair of letters he had with him. Richie Smith tells the story in Majerus’ book:

“He had a letter from Keith Van Horn’s mom, May. She had written to him to express her appreciation for everything Rick had done with Keith, what a positive influence he had been on her son. Then he read me a letter from Larry Cain. Rick inherited Larry when he took the Utah job. No one took more abuse from Rick than Larry Cain.

“Larry’s whole goal was to go to medical school. But during his senior year, Larry almost gave up on that dream because of a personal situation. Rick jumped on him just as hard as if Larry had missed a block out. Larry ended up going to medical school and becoming a doctor. He wrote Rick during the Golden State courtship.

“So Rick had these letters and he’s saying, ‘Do you think there’s a player on Golden State who’s going to write this kind of letter?’ That’s what he based the decision on. Not money, but if he could enrich a person’s life.”

Enrich the lives of your athletes. Seek to make a positive impact in the lives of your players and their parents. I watch Last Chance U on Netflix and I see coaches who want rings. They seem to want notoriety. They want fame and fortune. They want to win. And they want it to happen fast. I don't see a head coach who feels called to coach, who seeks to enrich lives.

Dick Bennett felt called to coach. He built winning programs at all levels- high school, NAIA, and Division I. He led the Wisconsin Badgers to their first Final Four appearance in 59 years. After his success at the college level, he even had NBA offers, but Bennett always thought of himself as a high school coach, a college coach. Bennett said coaching high school was always his favorite because "all there was to the job was a love of the game and a love for the kids.”

Know why you coach. It's not about diaper money. It's not about higher salaries. There are things more important in this world than money. It's about a love of the game and a love for the kids. Seek to enrich lives. Seek significance not a bigger stage. As legendary basketball coach Don Meyer once said, "It doesn't matter where you coach. It matters why you coach."

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