- Bill Vasko
How To Get Into Coaching at the College Level - Part 2
This article is a follow-up to Part 1 in this four-part series. Part 1 was a brief summary of the advice I give to coaches who are looking to get in to coaching at the college level.
The following information is from a blog I wrote a few years back that chronicles some of my experiences over the years struggling to make it as a college coach. I have been a high school athletic director and an assistant coach and head coach at the D1, D2, and D3 college levels in football, baseball, and softball. Coaching at the college level has been a great experience, but it has it's own unique set of challenges, primarily the issues of job security and financial security.
Even though I currently coach softball at the college level now, I started off as a football coach. I get a lot of questions from coaches who are looking to get into coaching at the college level, especially in football, so this article is primarily directed toward them, though this information could apply to coaching any major sport at the college level. Please realize, I am not here to shatter anyone's dream of becoming a college coach--only to be upfront with you about the challenges and competition for jobs, especially in football and basketball. A person can do anything they put their mind to, but if you are not currently coaching at the college level, then the odds are stacked against you.
The main thing I tell every coach who wants to get involved in college coaching--the market is extremely competitive, even for entry level positions, and the pay is not very good unless you make it big time. You're going to find that good paying, small college coaching jobs are few and far between. Most will be $25,000 or less because the colleges know that there are 1000's of recent graduates who are all hungry for the low pay/long hours lifestyle that an entry level coaching position provides.
The typical path to become a full time college assistant is to:
-Play a college sport
-Stay on as a volunteer / GA while you finish your undergrad or grad degree.
-Continue in this capacity for 2-5 years (working hard - living poor) until a full time position opens up.
Some coaches will do the first two steps - then coach high school for a couple of years, maybe as a head coach, have some success and then get hired at their alma mater or another school where their previous college experience makes them an attractive hire. Some very successful high school coaches make the leap to the college level. Making the leap from high school to the Division I level is rare, however, and usually it happens when the high school coach has set up a pipeline for talented recruits or has a previous relationship with the coach who is hiring.
Getting hired at a college is not all WHO you know, but that is a big part of it. There are a lot of good coaches out there - but if you're a head coach at a college and you know your job is on the line, WHO are you going to hire? Some unknown coach without college experience, or someone you know from camps, recruiting, or from playing or coaching together - someone with college experience!
The best advice I have is you've got to network--I'm sure we have all heard that a number of times. But networking doesn't just involving sucking up to well-known coaches. Networking is busting your ass wherever you currently are, and then tooting your own horn when you've done something good. It's called self-promotion. You must promote yourself every opportunity that you have—in your cover letter, in your resume, in your portfolio, and when you interact with other coaches. There is a way to do it tactfully without coming off as brash or arrogant. You have to walk that fine line without stepping over it.
I know that there a lot of head coaches looking to hire coaches who are ass-kissers and "yessir" kind of people. I guarantee that those head coaches won't be the coaches of the most successful programs. One thing I learned--kissing ass will help you move up the college ranks faster than working hard. But kissing ass will also get you in the unemployment line faster, because if a coach likes ass-kissers, they usually can't coach a lick. You want to work for a coach who appreciates another coach who works long hours and pays close attention to the little details. So when you're looking for a job, be prepared to show them that you're that kind of coach.
Take a look at the career bios of some of the most successful college coaches in the business today--they didn't get to where they are overnight!!!! But they also had connections to get them in at the college level, whether they were a former player or not.
My biggest downfall in the past was that I didn't network very well and I burned a lot of bridges. I've never kissed anyone's ass. I have always tried to work my way up all on my own, which is a good thing. But early on, I did not do a good job of staying in touch with the people that I had worked for or with. Those are the people who are going to help get you your next job, so stay in touch! I'm not saying you HAVE to kiss ass, but you MUST be loyal, stay in constant contact with people who can help you, and don't burn bridges. With social media, it has become so much easier to stay in contact with people who may help you land a coaching job—use it to your advantage!
My first coaching position was as a student assistant at Ohio State which helped me land my first job at a D3 school. All of my football coaching experience has been at the D3 level. The pay was terrible! My first job, I worked for free undergrad tuition toward a second degree and I worked at Walmart in the evenings to actually make some money. At one point, I was on food stamps and had to pay my bills with a credit card. My next few jobs weren't much better. A lot of schools that don't have GA positions have what is called restricted earnings positions. Basically, they take one coaching contract and split it up among 3 or 4 young guys. So, a position that may pay $30,000, now pays 3 guys $10,000 each. It's a tough way to make a living.
I coached full-time for 5 years at the D3 level. After not making more than $9000 a year in any of those 5 years, I realized I had to make a decision--keep plugging away, or get a real job. I sucked it up and enrolled in a 1-year teacher certification program. I obtained a teaching job right away and started making money--finally!! I taught for 8 years before I went back to the college level full time--and took a $20,000 pay cut!!
Coaching any sport at the college level does not make it easy to have a second job. If you are on contract, you are expected to be there full-time. For a football coach, during the season, this includes 12-14 hour days during the week preparing game plans, practice plans, and breaking down film. You have game days on Saturdays, and Sundays you are there all day breaking down your game film and the films of the next opponent. During the offseason, you spend a lot of time with the strength and conditioning program, since many smaller programs don't have a S&C who will do everything (this trend has been changing thankfully since I originally wrote this article in 2014). You also spend a lot of time recruiting--hosting kids on campus, making recruiting trips to schools, and calling recruits for 2 hours every evening.
Now, a lot of schools will hire volunteer coaches who come and help out around their primary job. I have done this and it's a good way to get into coaching or to stay involved, but it doesn't exactly satisfy the appetite that a lot of us coaches get when we want to be totally immersed in our sport. But it is definitely a way to get your foot in the door and still actually have a salary from your regular job.
There are a lot of small colleges that can provide opportunities for coaches to gain college coaching experience. The lower levels of college--D3, D2, NAIA--are the easiest to get into because those schools don't have a lot of money for coaching salaries. Therefore, they are always looking for coaches who are willing to work for little or no pay. That is the easiest way to get your foot in the door. And it doesn't matter how good or bad the program is--it's college experience. Most college head coaches at that level won't be around for long anyway. They'll either be fired or they'll try to move up the ladder themselves. And maybe they'll take you with them (up the ladder that is, though I've been on a staff that was fired). My advice is to get on at a nearby college at whatever level you can, make good contacts, network yourself, go to clinics and camps, talk to everyone, and apply for lots of jobs.
I know a lot of guys who were involved in college coaching--most of them aren't in it any longer. Like I said, I am not trying to shatter anyone’s dream, only to present a realistic view of the coaching market at the college and pro levels. If I can be of further help, please send me a message. Good luck!
If you need help with your resume, cover letter, interviewing skills, or you’re looking to put together a coaching portfolio or digital portfolio, click here to get started today! You can also network with other coaches at www.mycoachbook.com.