The Teacher

Illustrations by Aaron Dana

Even 28 years later, I still remember the meeting room as clearly as if it were yesterday.

There I was, the new head coach of the losing-est Division I football program in history, about to meet with his players for the first time. It was in the old athletic building at Kansas State. There was no carpet — just cold, hard cement — and 10 metal folding chairs. When the players began to trickle in, I started counting, surprised at how few of them there were — only 47. Back then, a team could have 95 players on scholarship, and we had less than half of that. In fact, we had the lowest number of scholarship players in the country.

Of course, I knew that I was in for a big challenge, but I don’t think it fully hit me until that moment. This was a program that had struggled for decades to find success. We were on the cusp of being demoted to Division II.

They’d actually left that detail out until after I took the job.

One of the things my mother taught me when I was a kid was how to interact with people. So I decided that the best way to start things off would be by simply listening to the players. I invited all of them to come meet with me together and just speak their minds.

Once they were all settled into the meeting room, I began.

“I’m not here to criticize anything that’s happened in the past. I’m not here to judge. I just wanted to gather you all here to see what I can do to help.”

One guy stood up and said, “Coach, look around, we’ve all got jackets on because it’s cold out. But you don’t see a letter jacket in this room.”

I nodded.

“We’re too embarrassed to wear them.”

Another player chimed in, “Coach, you don’t know about Aggieville, right now. But Aggieville is a place where all the students go after ball games and have a good time. We don’t go. We’re too embarrassed.”

“Coach, after our games, on Mondays, very few of us ever go to class, ’cause we’re so ashamed.”

“Coach, that’s true on Tuesdays as well.”

And it just went on and on like that.

There wasn’t a single player in that room who had experienced winning a football game at Kansas State.

Meeting all these young men, I got a clearer picture of what the bigger issue was. The issue wasn’t carelessness or apathy. Football meant something to these players. It was more than just a game to them and it affected other aspects of their lives — their grades, their confidence, their sense of self-worth.

I knew that it would take time, hard work and self-discipline to turn around a program that had lost more than 500 games, by far the most of any team in Division I at that time. But I also knew that this was a place that had the capacity to change. It could change because there was a clear desire to do so. From the administration on down to the student body, there was a will for improvement and an eagerness to take direction. The Kansas State community had remained faithful to its Wildcats. They deserved a win. These players had the motivation to do what they had to in order to get better. They deserved a win.

Once the players were done saying their piece, we closed the door on one chapter of Kansas State football and began to look forward to a new era.

We had work to do.

I always knew that I was destined to be a coach.

It was simple: I loved sports, but, like many in my profession, I wasn’t good enough to play for a living. So I settled for coaching.

After my parents divorced, when I was six, my mother and I moved into a one-room apartment in St. Joseph, Missouri. Everything we had was in that one room. My bed came out of the wall, and my mother slept on a cot that we’d bring in each night from the landing. That was home.

It was in that tiny room where I first started playing sports.

I used to make basketball hoops out of coat hangers, which I would then attach to the door of the Murphy bed. Every day when I got home from school, I’d grab a pair of rolled up socks and shoot baskets until my mother came home from her shift. She worked as a sales clerk at a department store, and her work ethic was second to none. She would be at the store for a 12-hour shift, six days a week and she still kept close watch on me to make sure I was doing the right things.

My first exposure to football was playing on the brick streets near our apartment. We’d play full tackle, and just about every day we’d be out there scraping up our knees, getting mud in our hair and tearing up our clothes. I got banged up pretty good.

I started coaching when I was in high school, for the YMCA swim team. I wasn’t particularly passionate about it — YMCA swimming that is — but I found that I took to coaching pretty naturally.  It was a good fit for my personality and demeanor. I enjoyed the task of organizing and motivating people to achieve a goal, and being able to do that in relation to sports just made sense to me. From that point on, when people asked me what I wanted to do as a career, I said I wanted to become a coach.

After graduating from William Jewell College, in Liberty, Missouri, I took a job at at Gallatin High School, which was about an hour away. It was a tiny school, with grades K through 12 in one building, a total of about 100 students. I served as the assistant coach for football, basketball and track.

I also taught Spanish.

I had a minor in Spanish from college, but see, back then, that constituted basic reading and writing. I could get by, but I couldn’t speak the language. Regardless, I had four classes to teach, and it was tough.

Every night I’d stay up, preparing and stressing out about how the next day of classes would go. I would recite words over and over, trying to get the pronunciation right. I wanted to do a good job, but at the very least I didn’t want to let on that I was only one class ahead of where all the students were. It was maybe one of the greatest challenges of my career but, day by day, I made it through that school year.

As it would turn out, a couple years later I found myself in a similar situation. I was the assistant coach for football and basketball and the head coach for swimming at Indio High School in the Coachella Valley.

When I arrived, the principal pulled me aside and said, “I see on your résumé that you have taught some Spanish.”

When I was hired I thought I was going to teach Phys Ed and math.

“We have a Spanish teacher who is with child and is gonna be out for one semester,” he continued. “I’m hoping that I can get you to teach one of her classes.”

I went over my options. It was either teach Spanish or perhaps get fired.

When I walked into my Spanish class on the first day, there were over 30 students in the class.

Five of them spoke English.

I was clueless. I had no idea what to do. I bluffed my way through the first day, but when I got home that night, I was worried sick. I just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. That class was all I could think about. I did not habla espanol. So, I thought it over and came up with a game plan.

The next day, I split the class into five groups. Each group had one English-speaking student. I asked the English-speaking students to teach English to the Spanish-speaking students, and the Spanish-speaking students to teach Spanish to the English-speaking students. I monitored them.

Somehow, some way, I got through the semester like that.

In the three years I spent at Indio High, I became friends with a fellow who was a close friend of John McKay, the head football coach at USC. He provided me with the connection I needed to become a graduate assistant there under Coach McKay.

This was a big step for me, working for a major program like that. Before the first game of the season, because I’d only worked with the junior varsity team and was new on campus, I didn’t realize that the varsity team played games at the Coliseum, rather than the practice field. As a result, I was almost late to my very first college football game as a coach because I was unprepared. I tried never to let that happen again.

When my semester as a GA at USC ended, I embarked on a coaching journey that took me all around the country, including 10 years at Iowa under Hayden Fry. In my career, I’ve coached at many different levels, from tiny high schools to big Division I programs. But regardless of the level of competition, something I’ve tried to instill in every single team I’ve coached is the notion of self-discipline. It can be defined in many different ways, but to me, at its core, the concept is pretty simple.

Do what you’re supposed to do. Do it right, and do it that way every time.

That’s it.

Everything starts off the field. Treat people well, go to class, do what’s assigned. If you strive for that, all the other stuff isn’t that complicated. And eventually, that standard you hold yourself to will carry over onto the football field.

There’s a solution for every scheme. But there is no easy way to defeat a humble mentality grounded in self-discipline.  I’ve carried that with me since childhood, and I brought it with me when I got to Kansas State.

It was 1988 when I found myself walking around the Kansas State campus in the late December cold for the first time.

I wasn’t there for a job interview so much as a program viewing. I wanted to get an idea of what I would be working with at this small state school in Kansas.

I had been the offensive coordinator at Iowa for 10 seasons when Steve Miller, then the athletic director at K-State, called to ask if I had any interest in interviewing for the head coaching job there. I politely declined, citing that it was the middle of the season and it didn’t seem right not to give my full attention to the Hawkeyes program. He called again after our bowl game to gauge my interest and I told him I wasn’t sure if it would be a fit for me, and that he might be better off looking at other candidates. Two days later, I got a knock on my front door in Iowa City and it was Steve. He came all the way to Iowa City to talk me into visiting Manhattan — and it worked.

During my visit I had a long, productive meeting with several members of the athletic department and the administration, including the school president, Jon Wefald. They told me just about everything a young coach might want to hear before taking on a job like this. When our meetings were over, I asked for an hour to just walk around the campus. There was a good reason for this. I knew everybody in the administration, no matter how nice they were, had an agenda. In order to get a non-biased impression of the university, I needed to be on the campus and talk with people who didn’t know who I was and didn’t care.

For those of you who don’t know, Manhattan in December can be cold. So walking around campus, you’d figure everybody might be in a rush to get from one building to the next, right? At most schools, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was unable to carry on a single conversation outdoors on a day like that.

But here’s what I learned pretty quickly: Kansas State isn’t most schools.

During that hour on campus, I stopped students, faculty members and staff — really everyone I passed — and they were all willing to engage with me and answer all my questions. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me. But they took time out of their day to make me feel welcome there. I asked about the community, the university, the students, the faculty, the athletic department. I asked about so many different things, just trying to get a feel for what the identity of Kansas State was, and what the community of Manhattan was like.

I came away so impressed and even a little moved by how genuine everybody was. They were so caring and gracious, just nice people.

That experience helped me reach a decision that would end up defining my life.

I knew this was where I wanted to coach.

Not long after I started, I was in the parking lot by the stadium when one of my players ran up to me frantically. He told me that another player on the team was at the lake and he was contemplating doing something pretty drastic.

“It’s gonna be something bad.”

I was still getting my bearings for the area, so he guided me to the lake.

When I found the other player, he was in his car and he had a hose running from the car’s exhaust pipe in through window of the car. All the windows were rolled up.

He was attempting to take his life.

Fortunately, I got there in time to stop this young man from making a terrible mistake. And over time, we helped him to get back on track. He became a successful student and player for us, and even today he stays in touch with the program and is living a very successful life.

That experience, in my first season at Kansas State, is one that will always stick with me. Not just because something terrible almost happened, but because we were able to stop it and help turn things around. It is a reminder that maybe by helping these young men to become better and better and better on the football field, we could also help them to find a sense of purpose and satisfaction as human beings.

Of course, the process of getting better on the football field didn’t happen all at once. Not at all.

In those first couple of seasons, there were some really low lows, but also some really tremendous highs.

Our fourth game of the season in my first year was against North Texas at home. We hadn’t won a game in over three years, the longest streak by far in all of college football. We were ahead late, but with 1:37 left in the game, North Texas scored and took the lead. When that happened, a certain sense of dread filled the stadium. Understandably, those fans had grown accustomed to disappointment. It felt like history repeating itself.

But the team — the team wasn’t ready to quit.

Our last drive began at our 13-yard line. The players made some big plays down the field and we found ourselves at the 12-yard line of North Texas, with four seconds left on the clock.

And just like that, Kansas State won its first ball game since 1986.

The stadium went crazy. The players were all celebrating together in the end zone, and the crowd ran onto the field. Everybody was excited. The fans even pulled down the goalposts and carried them off the field. It was like Christmas had come to Manhattan three months early.

You have to understand, the environment surrounding the program at the time was a losing one. It was a community that expected to lose because they had been conditioned that way. This feeling of success, it was new. My job was to turn that feeling into a habit.

One win — even a big one — was still just one win. Before that season began, I told the players and anybody who would listen that I wasn’t going to judge our success by what the scoreboard said. I was going to assess the program and the players by their improvement, by how hard they worked. The goal wasn’t to get wins, it was to simply get better.

We only won that one game our first season. If you were just looking at stats, it was a terrible year. By that December, I had calls from a lot of former colleagues telling me, “You better get out of there while you can.”

But I was convinced by the improvement we had made that year. There was something happening in Manhattan that couldn’t be communicated through outside stats or analysis. I knew when I took the job, change wasn’t going to happen all at once. Rebuilding this program would take time.

And each year, we got just a little bit better.

We had five wins in our second season, then seven wins, nine wins, 10 wins, 11 wins, until we won the program’s first bowl game ever in 1993, and then the Big 12 Conference championship 10 years later.

We didn’t get there by having the flashiest facilities or fanciest uniforms. We didn’t get better by recruiting the best players — only the right ones.

As many know, we’re known for recruiting a variety of players from all over. We specialize in getting the most out of young men who many thought were too small, too slow or who had made a mistake in the past that cost them dearly. The process for finding these players hasn’t deviated too much since we started here. Our coaches go out and talk with people who know these young men to get a sense of what kind of person they really are. When they aren’t anywhere near a football field, what are their values? That’s the most important thing, even before athletic ability, because if you have the desire to challenge yourself to be your best, the stuff that needs to be done on the field is pretty simple by comparison.

A great example of this is an amazing young man — a wonderful young man — we had in our program some time ago.

He was a smaller guy, which resulted in nobody really giving him a shot to play at the collegiate level. But what struck me right away was his character. He understood the value of humbleness and hard work. And when we actually got him on the field, it became clear that rather than letting his size be a detriment, he used that to his advantage. When you gave him the ball, all the big linemen would be up front, blocking for him, so nobody on the defense could see him. By the time they got a good look at him, it was too late. He had already left them in the dust.

As impressive as his accomplishments were on the field, it was his demeanor away from football that truly impressed me. He was always present and paying attention. If I was addressing the team, I knew that he had his eyes and ears on me 100% of the time. I knew that he heard me and understood, and if he didn’t, he would ask.

So, given everything I learned about him while he played for us, it’s no surprise to me that Darren Sproles has taken his diligence and work ethic to the NFL, where he has become one of the most exciting players in the league. I can’t think of a better representative for what this program is about. He’s just a good young man, one of the many, many young men I’m very proud of.

I made a statement once about why I came back to Kansas State after retiring briefly in 2005. It’s on a wall in the stadium, by a set of stairs that take you up to the suites. In fact, it’s plastered all over the place here.

We came to Kansas State because of the people, we stayed because of the people, and we returned because of the people, and that remains unchanged.

Kansas State isn’t great because of any one person. In fact, it’s great because everyone here makes it that way.

This community is truly a family. There’s a warmth that exists here that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. In my 28 years in Manhattan, this family has stuck with the program through all the highs and lows, wins and losses — just as they stuck with it through everything that happened before I ever arrived.

Just about every season I’ll get asked about my future with the program. People wonder what, after all these years, keeps me motivated each day to continue coaching.

The answer is simple. It’s the exact same takeaway I had from that very first locker room meeting all those years ago.

We still have work to do.