Editor's note: This week, the Deseret News takes an in-depth look at how football coaches balance the demands of their profession with commitments to their faith.
Monday: Justin Anderson, Nicholls State
Tuesday: Ed Lamb, Southern Utah University
Wednesday: Steve Kaufusi, BYU
Friday: Coaches and Christianity
As a freshman quarterback at Utah State in 1992, Matt Wells learned a valuable lesson from his coach Jim Zorn.
“Act medium: never too high, never too low,” Zorn, the former USU offensive coordinator, used to say.
Twenty-two years later, the saying hangs on Wells’ office wall. It reminds the Aggies’ head football coach that maintaining balance among football, family and faith will result in a happy, healthy and successful life.
“Life is hard to balance, but there has to be a balance in your life," Wells said. "It brings growth and reflection. It helps me in my job as a servant leader.”
Maintaining balance was one of the main ideas shared by Wells in a recent interview with the Deseret News regarding the topic of how college football coaches lean on their faith while dealing with the demands of the profession.
In addition to finding balance, Wells has drawn on his faith and life experiences to mentor and mold players into men. Kendrick Shaver, a USU assistant coach, found peace through faith following the death of a close family member.
“My faith keeps everything in perspective,” Shaver said. “I don’t know how some people do this job without having faith.”
Wells has no problem talking about faith and football.
“Absolutely, not if it’s who you are, man,” Wells said. “Are you going to be fake or are you going to be real? I have no problem with that.”
When he can, Wells attends the Alpine and Lighthouse Christian churches. Tojo Fairman, Utah State’s team chaplain, is pastor of the Lighthouse Christian Church.
Sometimes Wells serves as the parking-lot attendant, while his wife teaches Sunday School and helps with the children’s ministry.
“We just do it because we do it,” he said. “She does more than me.”
Like balance, helping his players maintain discipline on and off the field is a high priority for Wells. From time to time he will have what he calls “real talk” with his players, where they discuss academic and cultural issues, relationships and how to treat women, and how to face and overcome adversity, Wells said.
“I think the key to my responsibility as a head coach is to walk these kids through this life. Every kid comes in at a different stage and we want them to leave at a higher level,” said Wells, an Oklahoma native. “We have ‘real talk,’ nothing fake or sugar-coated. We deal with it head on, direct and blunt. You try to take a kid from a young man to a grown man by the time he leaves here because you are trying to prepare them for real life.”
Wells finds it effective to relate the game of football to real-life situations.
“I think the game of football closely resembles life in so many ways. You have to be a selfless teammate because it’s a team sport, and guess what? Life is too,” Wells said. “I think our kids learn so many things from this game and through the experiences we as coaches are able to relate to them.”
It all comes back to balance, Wells said.
“Football is my responsibility. It’s what I do, but it’s not who I am,” Wells said. “At the end of the day I’m a husband and a dad, and that needs to stay in balance.”
Shaver, who played his college ball at Missouri State, currently serves as Utah State’s defensive passing coordinator and cornerbacks coach. When able, he attends the Lighthouse Christian Church with Fairman.
Shaver’s faith was tested in 2007 when his younger sister died. What followed was a spiritual awakening, he said.
“When death strikes close, that gets the wheels turning and puts everything into perspective of how short this life can be,” said Shaver, who was raised as a Southern Baptist. “From that point, I wanted to dig deeper into it.”
Since then, Shaver has tried to come into work a little early to read the Bible and pray for “the Lord’s armor to make it through another day,” he said.
“It can get kind of hectic,” Shaver said.
On his desk he keeps business card-size Bible verses such as Psalms 28:7 (NIV): “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him and I am helped.”
“Nothing is forced on anyone, but the scriptures are for my players,” Shaver said. “It grabs their attention and gets them asking questions.”
Twice a week, the USU cornerbacks step into the “truth booth” and partake of “the bread of life.” It’s an opportunity for each player to share something positive or inspirational with the group, such as a quote, a scripture verse, song, etc. The activity builds unity between players and coaches, Shaver said.
"We try to keep it lively," said Shaver, who is from Oklahoma. "I’m not here to beat them over the head with a Bible, but if I let them see the light shining through me by my walk, my actions, that is why I’m here, to be a mentor and role model for them."
Shaver said his ultimate accountability is not to a coach, athletic director or the university; it's to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: "As long as I keep that in perspective, everything else will fall in line,” he said.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney does not hide his Christian beliefs. In fact, he’s designed the whole football program around his faith, according to a 2013 article in the Houston Chronicle.
“I’m a Christian,” Swinney tells his recruits. “If you have a problem with that, you don’t have to be here.”
The article says the program caters to all religions. Last year there were Muslims, Catholics and even two Mormons on the team, Swinney said. But each week there are Bible study sessions, devotionals and voluntary chapel services attended by nearly every member of the team. On game days, some players put cross marks on their faces and inspirational messages on their wrist tape. They pray together. Each player knows Swinney’s favorite scripture, 1 Corinthians 9:24, which conveys the message: “Run your race to win, don’t just run the race.”
Clemson finished the season ranked in the nation’s top 10 with a record of 11-2 and a victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Off the field, nearly 80 percent of players graduate with a degree, the article said.
Some have expressed concern that Clemson’s football program is too religious. Swinney defended his program in an ESPN.com article last April, once again welcoming recruits of all religions.
“I am who I am. I’m proud to be a Christian, and by being a Christian, I’m a Christian in everything that I do. I’m a long way from being perfect, but I do try to live my life with a positive influence on those around me,” Swinney told ESPN.com. “I’ve never been a guy who’s forced anything on anyone. I just am who I am, and I’m proud of how we run our program. The reason I’ve had success as a coach is because I love my players and I take great pride in having relationships with my players.”
Winning with integrity
In a 2012 Yahoo Sports article by Dan Wetzel, Georgia coach Mark Richt opened up about how his Christian faith has influenced him as a coach.
Amid the rabid fans, the bright lights and the pressure to win or be fired, honoring one's faith means winning with integrity, Richt said.
“Do I want to win a national championship? Sure I do. I want to win. Everybody who has ever won a national championship wanted to win a national championship,” said Richt, who doesn’t drink or smoke. “But it is about a process. Doing things right, fundamentally, schematically and football-wise. But hopefully (it’s about doing it) morally, within the rules of the game, educating young men, educating them academically, educating them about life, helping them understand right and wrong, how to be a good husband, how to be a good father, how to function in this society properly.
“I’m in the business of doing that. And you do that well for long enough maybe you have a chance to win a national championship,” he continued. “I want to win, but it’s all important to me.”
Richt’s example made a difference for at least one player, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times.
Musa Smith, a former running back and a Muslim, told the Times he was inspired by the way the coach carried himself.
“At the end of the day, it was about strengthening your spiritual foundations and to walk in a righteous way in whatever you believe,” Smith said. “It reminded me of my fundamentals and made me a better person.”
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