We all make career decisions for better or worse in the elusive quest for professional fulfilment, that abstract concept that we define both subjectively and objectively in the vain attempt to do what’s right while trying to strike some semblance of balance that fits our core belief without wandering into cognitive dissonance territory.
I’ve been blessed with several ‘dream’ professions but my true calling led me on a four-decade odyssey trying to get a full-time paying job in a profession that in some cases pays millions of dollars annually – coaching football.
Coaching football has two extreme salary scales – millions per year to working for free. I started a 40-season unpaid coaching career in 1975, under the label of ‘volunteer.’ After 8 seasons as an assistant coach, I fulfilled a professional goal that I made when I was 10. I was ‘hired’ as an unpaid high school head football coach at the age of 26. It was a blessing. After turning around a losing program, I decided to pursue a full-time job as a football coach. The good news is that many coaches make a living coaching football. The bad news is that paying jobs are limited, especially the high-paying jobs. I became driven to build a CV to beat my competition who were chasing the same dream. The process of chasing my dream job failed but the Law of Unintended Consequences came into play. The process taught me everything I needed to know about business.
Depending on perspective, one of the smartest or craziest professional decisions I made was to coach two teams a year starting in the late 80s to learn as much as possible and double my practical experience. To supplement my unpaid high school head coaching experience, I became an unpaid defensive coordinator for an AAU-style 22-under summer league team, that served a dual purpose of as a post-secondary alternative to college and a recruiting path to college. Head coach is the equivalent of CEO. Defensive coordinator is the equivalent of VP. The 22-under league was a significant level higher than high school, both psychologically and physically. But, two unpaid coaching position per year can be a form of madness to balance family, real job, and working out. I learned that as much as I loved coaching football, I didn’t love it as much as my family, my paying job, and my own fitness. I learned a valuable lesson about investing your heart and soul into preparing without investing around-the-clock focus on football at the expense of raising children, being a husband, exceling at your work, and staying in top shape.
My obsession with getting as much coaching experience as possible was the profound side-effect of losing in my rookie head coach season. It was more than just being a sore loser. It was being embarrassed by exposing myself as incompetent. My first season as a head coach was a nightmare winless season that I have never forgotten because despite all the rhetoric about diminishing the significance of winning and losing, uncorrected chronic losing was unhealthy. Getting slaughtered in my rookie head coach season was an extension of my 8-year assistant career, my high school career, and little league career. Not one championship, not one playoff game, not one winning season. My rookie head coaching season was another losing season. Losing seasons were all I had ever experienced as a player and coach. I made a Pledge to change.
I learned that losing has a purpose, a meaning that can promote a positive transformation if you find the purpose behind it. I read everything I could read. I went to every coaching clinic I could afford. I was committed to developing my coaching career, no matter what, to give my players a different experience than I had been used to. Regardless of the well-intentioned football company-line that tries to downplay the significance of winning, chronic losing gets you labeled as a loser. The loser stigma isn’t fun. It’s a stigma that you and your players carry like a heavy weight that needs to be lifted.
Coaching two teams in one year, for several years, is an extreme that I wouldn’t recommend because of the commitment pressure, but I am blessed with a football family. My wife and daughters were part of my coaching career, not apart from it. And I could afford to coach for free when I was working for other people before I became a full-time business owner. Otherwise, I would have left coaching long ago. My decision paid off, not financially but in every other way. I was blessed with countless coaching experiences and practical experience that evolved my coaching careers in ways I could not have imagined.
The 1985 season changed everything. The losing stopped for good – dual meaning. But it wasn’t enough. I feared complacency, leading me to my two-seasons per year experiment. It worked out. The 1992 season was a turning point that forever changed my defensive coordinator ideology, philosophy, and system forever. The Law of Unintended Consequences came into play. Synchronicity changed my coaching career. The 22-under summer league turned out to be the most extremely offensive league I have ever coached in. Our opponents included run-and-shoot no-huddle extreme passing, double/triple tight-ends ground and pound, three-back, two-back, single-back, no-back, and option from both under center and shotgun. Extremes and everything in between.
After my off-season film study I made a radical decision. I had played and coached only in a 4-3 defense. In our 1985 championship season, I began the long process of evolving my SWAT defense. It no longer was a 4-3 exclusively but I continued calling it a 4-3 because of habit. The defensive system became interchanged with other formations but I wasn’t confident to scrap the 4-3 label. I believed that the defense needed a traditional label. The 1992 season changed that. The labels were removed. The SWAT defense became a limitless system, not a playbook. Since 1992, I have never again used conventional labels to coach defense. The reason was a revelation I had to solve the problem of restricted time to prepare every week for a different style of offensive opponent. I didn’t have the luxury of investing around-the-clock attention to defensive game-planning while coaching for free, working shift work, working out every day, and raising a family.
I invested three weeks of off-season preparation and designed a no-playbook defensive system that was ‘’offensive.’’ I adopted my offensive philosophy and system to coordinating defense. I fully utilized the rulebook that doesn’t require minimum defensive players on the line of scrimmage, doesn’t dictate number of defensive players off the line of scrimmage, and most importantly, doesn’t restrict unlimited defensive motion and shifts. The result was a system that blended proactive and reactive strategies. The system eliminated the need for weekly game plans because the SWAT system allowed the capacity to change without change. We could defend any offensive extreme without changing the system. We league the league in every defensive category in 1992. I learned how to structure learning outcomes more efficiently that created a defensive curriculum instead of conventional practice planning that was dictated by opponent.
The extreme strength of your opponent determines how far your defensive coordinator career goes. If you are fortunate to coach against extreme offensives in the same season, you will have to adapt and innovate, especially at the unpaid amateur level when coaching is only a part of your life but not your full-time job. Being a head coach is great but I loved every moment of being a defensive coordinator because it allowed me to learn the game in different ways through need. I needed to find solutions to solve the unique problems and challenges inherent to amateur football.
In summary, I learned the following business lessons from chasing my dream football coaching job that never paid off:
1. Learn when to change and when to stay the same. Identify when you need to innovate and when you have to stick to the basics.
2. Think outside the box until the box disappears. But think inside the box when the box has the solutions inside.
3. Never stop learning. Become a true expert. Being good at your profession isn’t good enough. Life-long learning is essential.
4. Be relentless. Chase with a passion. Never fear competition.
5. Failing to get your dream job is never a failure if you chase in the right direction.
6. Knowledge alone is never enough. Practical wisdom matters.
7. Leadership is more than a checklist of traits.
8. You don’t move obstacles. Lift them.
9. You don’t find your true self. You build it.
10. Business lessons are learned through building teams from the ground up, not the top down.
11. The soul of an entrepreneur will manifest in mysterious ways.
12. Commit with all your heart. If you don’t get what you want, you will get what you need.
Please listen to my new Podcast called Blunt Talk www.BluntTalk.libsyn.com
Please read my blogs at: www.ginoarcaro.com and www.swatfootball.com
Gino Arcaro M.Ed., B.Sc., Level 3 NCCP (Nat’l Coaching Certification Program)
Head coach – Niagara X-Men Football
Owner – X Fitness Inc.
Blogs – www.GinoArcaro.com and www.SWATFootball.ca