Rick Coles is in his 23rd year as a faculty member and coach for Ripon College’s football program, where he currently serves as the team’s offensive line coach. He served as the team's offensive coordinator for 16 years from 2004-2019. He also serves as Ripon College’s Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership. Below is an interview with Coach Coles that addresses leadership behavior beyond the X’s and O’s. The interview was conducted and edited by Mickey Babjak, Erik Frafjord, Daniel Garcia, Reece Schreckengust, and Zach Gustafson, all members of the Ripon College Business Leadership course in the fall semester of 2021.
Please summarize your own personal story from adolescence to your career as a leader. How did you first decide that you could be an effective leader?
Well . . . I don’t really know how to answer that. My personal story as a leader...you know I’ve been involved in organized athletics since 7th grade, and I probably led by example, maybe a little verbally through that. I think sometimes circumstances put you in a position where you either have to become a leader or you don’t stay in those circumstances; and I think coaching and teaching are a couple of those circumstances. I don’t know if I am considered by others as a leader or not, I just . . . I do me and you know . . . I think that some people anyway look at me as someone that leads, but I think the circumstances of my life are what put me in a position of leadership.
You talked about how you played sports from a young age. Did you get encouraged by your parents or outside people while you were an athlete to be a coach?
Well yeah I was very very very fortunate that all through junior high and high school, I had really quality people as my coaches, great role models. They had almost the perfect balance of pushing us to be good but also showing some compassion and building relationships. Actually, this Saturday, I have one of my junior-high coaches and one of my high-school varsity coaches actually coming to the game. The high-school varsity coach is retired in Texas and he is up here visiting my old junior-high coach so they are coming up for the game on Saturday. So yeah I had great encouragement that way. My folks were encouraging me without pushing, they never said “oh you better get to the weight room” or that sort of thing but that was a thing that I did and what went on and then I got to college and again I had a pretty good mentor. So I knew from a fairly early age that athletics and education would kinda be my career path. So that’s what got me into this.
Has your philosophy of leadership changed over time and do you think your behavior reflects your philosophy?
Yeah I definitely think it has changed over time. I think when I first got into coaching, it was probably more about me, maybe more than it was about the kids, it was more about getting the W than it was about developing young people. I was probably a little harsher, not as encouraging perhaps as I should have been. I think over time my outlook on life and my outlook on athletics has changed quite a bit, and while I think sometimes players might perceive me being a bit more harsh at times, than I probably am. Hopefully over time we build the kind of relationship that they understand where I am coming from and they know now what I am about is what’s best for them. You can ask any offensive player from here from the last 20+ year that it isn’t just about winning, it’s about excellence and that’s one of my main mantras.
So what are the key situations in which leaders in your field need to exhibit leadership, not just technical and mechanical skills?
Well I think leadership is best done when you are in front rather than pushing from behind. I think one of the things is that the guys have to believe that we are not asking them to do anything that we didn’t at their age or that we wouldn’t do if we were physically capable of doing now, but I think the biggest thing is the relationship building and the job kinda automatically puts you in a position of leadership. I am no longer the offensive coordinator so I am not in charge of the whole offense, but I am still in charge of the offensive line and I have as many people in there as Ryan Kane or Lauren Busalacchi do on their basketball teams, and I don’t have three assistants, so you are kinda put in that position and it is more about showing the way, give them a hug when they need a hug or give them a kick in the rear when they need a kick in the rear – not literally. It comes out to having expectations to do everything I can to help you meet those expectations and it’s a two-way street. They have to want to meet those expectations, they have to want to achieve excellence.
So you’ve been coaching for quite a few years now. What keeps you motivated after all these years? What are the greatest satisfactions you get from being a coach?
Well one thing that keeps me motivated is that I don’t want to be unemployed (laughs). I enjoy being around young people. Some of the greatest moments of my life aside from family moments are some of the big wins or even some of the tough losses where the kids just played their tails off and it just didn’t work out at the end. You feel so much for the kids because you know that landed on the line, and that is where it is just not about winning, it’s about excellence. In 1992 when I was at Cornell we were 8-0 going into the game against Coe where they were nationally ranked and they were favored to win, we didn’t have the best players on the field, but my God we had the best team and we beat them 37-20 and that is still a major highlight of my life that we were able to push that group of kids who pulled together like that.
So what do you find the most challenging as a coach and a leader?
I think probably, particularly at the college level different from the high-school level where you get a group of kids that has grown together through many levels and they get to you as a group, in college we have people from all over the country coming from all kinds of different programs, cultures, philosophies, expectations, work ethics, and different use of the world and all of that and try to build them into a cohesive unit. I think that’s the biggest challenge. We have 100 players from 18 different states, where some grew up poor and some rich, some grew up with grandparents, both parents, some are politically liberal, some conservative, so try to build the whole packet so even if they don’t necessarily like each other at least respect each other and are willing to work together.
What are the most important skills and values that have contributed to your coaching success?
Relationship building, developing a sense of affection is the right word between the people involved in the organization. Where they want you to do well, and I think your whole attitude kind of perpetuates building, improving, and whatever it is. Also, walking the walk; anybody can say do this do that. If you're not walking the walk after talking the talk, you're not going to be a leader. They will grow to dislike you because you’re two-faced.
How do you respond when your players make a mistake? Do you customize it per player?
Yes, I customize it and take in the factor of whether or not they should even be making that mistake. I've always felt like it's an assignment error or a technique I probably haven't taught well enough. If it's a concentration error or an effort error, that's their fault, and I'm probably going to bring it to their attention. If somebody has been in the program for a while and is making assignment or technique errors, then it's probably a concentration error and their fault. If there's someone new in the program, you need to find the balance between being patient and being demanding. Some kids take a little longer to learn, and you have to find the time to teach them. Some kids are lazy, and I had to get on him and push him to do better. You shouldn't treat everyone the same because everyone learns differently and should be taught differently. You should treat everyone differently. But fairly.
How do you respond if your players or colleagues make a difficult decision and it works out?
My biggest weakness as a coach is that I don't tell people “good job” a lot. As a coach, I focus on the mistakes and trying to correct them and I need to work on being better at celebrating people doing the right things.
What do you look for in incoming recruits and incoming players or new coaches?
For new players, we look at the junior year film because by then we can do the process of recruiting in their senior year. As an offensive line coach, I'm looking for footwork and finish. Do they have good footwork and can they do what we're asking them to do, and do they go hard from snap to whistle? If they can do those things, we can teach them the rest. But if they don't bite as a pup, they won't bite as a dog. If they're not playing hard from snap to finish, you can't teach that. I don't look for players who are over the top and make a pancake block then run around the field acting like they won the World Series. Looking for a good leader is hard. Youth sports have changed a lot. When I was a kid, we didn't have travel sports. We just got together as friends and guys wanting to play and played at three-on-three tackle football just for fun. This develops leadership because one person was making the phone calls to get all your friends together. Over time those kids develop into leaders. The other thing is conflict resolution. For example, there was no one calling fouls, so you needed to talk about what was holding or what was illegal, and you needed to call your fouls. And now and then, there was a bloody nose involved, but by the end of the day, you got over it, and we're friends. And youth sports have lost that now because adults are organizing everything, and there are more foundational rules. Kids aren't having the opportunity to develop leadership skills early, so it's more of a task now to bring that out of them.
Describe your relationships with your coaches and players outside of sports, and how do you try to develop those relationships?
While they're still in my program, I do not do anything socially with them. I'm still a believer there should be a line between coach and player. First, it was like a big brother and a father, then now a grandparent, but they always needed to be a line when I first started. So where they're not my buddy, I'm the coach. One thing I started with one or two seasons ago I would take all the offensive seniors out to Pastimes [a local restaurant]. Then we would have a few drinks and a meal and talk about the past four years and have a good time. As for the coaching staff, we get together now and then and have a party, which is one of the most incredible things because you work hard together and enjoy each other.
If you have not already done so, please share any interesting, revealing, or entertaining stories about your development as a leader, and the people you have worked with.
If you develop trust, you can trust people to do the right things, particularly if they know what the boundaries are. If they know that if they don’t stay within those boundaries there’s going to be some kind of consequence, whatever that is. I had really good teachers and coaches going through school and I was a multi-sport athlete in junior high and high school and college. I had really good people as coaches and teachers who mentored me. My parents backed up the coaches. I’ll never forget when I was a senior in high school, I injured my ankle the week before we played a team we had beaten 53-0 the year before. We knew we were going to beat them, so all I was going to do in that game was a long snap and we beat them 53-0 again that year. So we didn’t punt until the fourth quarter, and by then I had kind of lost interest in the game and I didn’t realize it was fourth down and I didn’t run out for the punt team. We had to take a timeout and our head coach, who was a great coach, walked over to me and grabbed my facemask. You could do that [back then]. Then it was acceptable. He jerked my face towards the scoreboard and said “can you see where it says down and distance?” “Yes sir,” I said. “Then pay attention.” So I got home that night and my dad says “oh Coach McCoy looked like he was a little upset with you tonight.” I started the typical teenage “yeah he was” and he cut me off right there. He said “I don’t blame him.” Because of all that stuff, I think I learned to respect authority, as long as that authority didn’t do something to lose that respect. Then when I got into coaching, I had really good mentors that I coached with for the most part. My Cornell experience was awesome because Steve Miller was only there for three years, but he was a phenomenal mentor. I think that is the biggest thing, I was an extremely fortunate person growing up and going through the profession.
How do you give out expectations and boundaries to your athletes?
I’m not in a position per se to set boundaries necessarily for anybody except the offensive line now. When I was the offensive coordinator and essentially in charge of half the team, I had a dress code. Some guys tape jerseys up or stuff them underneath. I wanted our guys to dress how they were gonna play. One thing it’s a safety issue because if your shoulder pads are taped up and you fall on your shoulder and it flies up, you could get hurt. The other thing is to look like everybody else. Don’t be an individual, look like everybody. I set some of those boundaries and I wasn’t harsh about it. Early on some of the freshmen would see the defensive guys do that and I said we don’t do that on this side of the ball. So they would take it off and it wasn’t an issue. Raising kids it's about, and coaching and teaching is a lot like raising kids, it really is, and you set, you know if they’re going out, they got a curfew. There may be expectations of things that they’re not gonna do. If their job is to take the garbage out every three days and they don’t do it, but there’s no consequences, why are they gonna do it? Unless they want to be a good kid, which, you know there’s not a 13-year-old in the country who actually wants to be a good kid at that point. I guess you just do it. I haven't thought about it from an intentional standpoint, it’s just something that you do.”
After all these years as a coach, do you consider yourself to be a great leader and what would you change about yourself to become a better leader?
I don’t consider myself to be a great anything; I just do me. It’s for other people to decide if I do what I do well or not. I like to think that I do a decent job at what I do. I like to think that most of the kids respect me. When you're dealing with this many people, there’s gonna be some that don’t like something about you. I guess I got to the point where that’s their problem and not mine. If you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody. You got to do you to a certain extent and I tell my coaching classes, “you have to coach within your personality.” Not every personality should be coaching, it’s not something everybody can do or should do. Just like not everybody has the personality to sit in a closet and be an accountant all day. Certain people have certain callings for what they're supposed to do. I think what I would change, I would be prone to giving more praise for things that kids do right. Some of that, though, is you have to kind of know them. If you give them too much praise in the moment and they get satisfied, they may think they already got it solved. It’s a tough tightrope to walk.
What one trait makes a good leader? What is the most important one?
Caring and passion, actually giving a damn about other people, wanting to build relationships I think are the biggest things. The difference between a servant leader and just another leader is that the servant leader is about the people they are leading. A regular leader is about themselves and what they are getting out of it. Caring about the people in your organization or whatever it is and wanting them to be as successful as possible I think is the biggest trait. That again goes back to relationship building and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not a Pollyannish type of leadership; it’s a more caring type of leadership.
What is your best definition of a servant leader and servant leadership?
You can Google servant leadership definition and you’ll get 45 different answers on the internet. To me a servant leader is leading for the sake of the people they’re leading and not for their own selfish sake. If I were to cut it into one sentence that’s what I would say.
What aspects of servant leadership do you incorporate into your coaching methods?
I think it almost goes back to an attitude that hopefully the athletes pick up on that I’m not there to see how many games I can win, it’s how good we can perform and it goes back to it isn’t just about winning, it’s about the excellence part. To me it’s about the process, it’s about the performance. John Wooden, who won 10 national championships in basketball at UCLA, never talked about winning to his team. He talked about process, he talked about performance, he talked about improvement. If you do those things, the winning takes care of itself, unless the other team just has better players than you and if that's the case, then you're probably not gonna win anyway. So I think that’s kind of the route.”
What are some goals at your servant leadership position that you are taking over at Ripon College?
The ultimate goal of the servant leadership program is for students to use servant leadership in their daily life at Ripon College and beyond. So when you graduate, you can bring servant leadership into the world and have leaders caring about their followers and wanting them to succeed as well. Being a servant leader will help you in business because you will have employees wanting to work for you and help you make a lot of money. You're going to have enormous employee benefits, which will help everyone work harder.
Do you see any similarities between fatherhood and coaching?
I think fatherhood is a lot like coaching because I see a lot of parents trying to be their kids' friends instead of their leader, so you lose that aspect of a father figure. Parenthood is summed up by love and discipline.
Please check out our podcast featuring a brief excerpt from our interview with Rick Coles.