How the NCAA Champion Forum shaped four of the College Football Playoff's top assistants
A couple things you should know about the man who helps coordinate the Clemson offense. Here’s one: Tony Elliott, winner of the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, is an engineering major who once worked for tire giant Michelin.
Here’s another: He’s a product of the NCAA’s Champion Forum, a professional development program aimed at helping move promising minority candidates up the coaching ladder.
So is Oklahoma assistant defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks.
And Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
And Alabama assistant Bobby Williams.
Four men, four teams, and all of them a little busy at the moment getting ready for the playoffs. This week is a pretty good advertisement for the value of the Forum.
“Knowing that they came to us, knowing they learned something, knowing they’re growing as a coach and succeeding at such a high level, it’s great to see them,” Curtis Hollomon, the NCAA’s director of leadership development, was saying the other day. “We’re excited for them and all that they achieve, and the small part we played to help them prepare.”
Which begs a question about the Champion Forum. What is it?
This year's NCAA Champion's Forum Coaches I will be working with pic.twitter.com/QJAlGWec8M— Charley Casserly (@CharleyCasserly) June 14, 2017
Hollomon: “It’s an opportunity for them to take a deep dive into what it takes to prepare for a head coaching position. And also to better understand what a current head coach does on a day-to-day basis.”
“What we tend to see is, you’ve got these high-performing coaches in whatever position they’re in, and the game of football and teaching the game is what they know. They really get a perspective of everything that has nothing to do with X’s and O’s that goes into running a program.”
“They start to take a head coach/CEO type of mindset. Because what we really talk to them about is, you’re the CEO of football, and understanding all that that encompasses; truthfully, what you’re getting yourself into.”
So, promising candidates are nominated and invited to the program each spring. And that’s when Charley Casserly goes to work.
Charley Casserly? You might remember him as general manager for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, and NFL television analyst. A true football lifer. But something else about him . . .
“I went to Springfield College, which is renowned for developing teachers and coaches. That’s all I ever wanted to do, was to teach and coach. I kind of got sidetracked when I went into the NFL and became a general manager. Obviously, I was very fortunate to have that career and loved it. But my passion has always been helping people. So when I got this opportunity, I embraced it. It’s part of my DNA.”
Casserly is one of the guiding lights of the program. The boots on the ground, so to speak. He researches the coaches, visits their schools, talks to their bosses and their colleagues, interviews each of them several times. “What I’m trying to do is figure out where they are, and what things need to be done for them to take the next step,” he said.
A three-day seminar pulls in speakers from nearly every platform of the college football universe, to discuss every issue from academics to administration to fund raising. But it’s more than just a seminar.
The attendees are asked to a do a project. “Every great coach I’ve been around is a self-starter,” Casserly said. “They’re always doing more than they were asked to do. You want to be a head coach and you’re a coordinator? What’s your plan on the other side of the ball?”
They’re asked to prepare a coaching manual to address any scenario, just the thing they’d need if they were interviewing for a head coaching job. “Urban Meyer told me it took him four years to write his book before he went in to interview at Bowling Green,” Casserly said.
There are mock interviews. Reviews. Follow-ups. Evaluations. Recommendations. Anything, everything to help them understand where they want to go, and how to get there.
Hollomon: “What we’re doing is giving them a view into their self-awareness, what they think of themselves and what other people think about them.
“It sounds like a three-day program, but it’s a life-time program, once you’ve been a part of it.”
Casserly: “The eye-opening part to the coaches in the seminar is the amount of responsibilities and time commitment they have outside of coaching football. They’re the face of the program, and now they begin to learn there’s a lot more than just coaching football.
“It’s amazing, when I present this program to the coaches and ADs at the schools, I can’t tell how many times the head coach has said to me, `I wish I had this. I wish I did this thing. I’d have been a lot more prepared.’ So, basically, the tool we’re giving them is putting them ahead of people they’re competing against. It’s kind of a hidden tool.”
Right, Tony Elliott?
“It really, really challenged me that if I do desire to ever have a chance to become a head coach, I’ve got a lot of work to do. There are a lot of things I need to learn that have nothing to do with X’s and O’s. It really caught me by surprise, that coming from being a position coach or coordinator and becoming a head coach is like becoming a CEO of a corporation. So, you’ve got to have the vision, you’ve got to have the knowledge, you’ve got to have the ability to have the right people in place to help you be successful.”
Elliott’s road is more unusual than most, with more tragedy than any child should have – losing his mother in a traffic accident when he was nine. The family was on the way to church, and Tony was in the back seat. He survived to grow up and excel in academics and football, which led him to Clemson, where he was team captain and an engineering major.
Now look at him in 2017, with a chance at another national championship with the Tigers and the newest Broyles Award winner.
“It means the world to me,” he said. “For me, coaching was never my first passion. I never even thought I would be in the coaching profession. I thought I was going to be an engineer and I did that for a couple of years. I took a leap of faith, so really it was confirmation for me from the man above that He continues to direct my path. It was less about me than the man above, and the people around me.”
And the Champion Forum in all this?
“I think it’s critical. If you’re a position coach, if you’re a coordinator, all you’re focused on is being the best you can be at your job. To become a head coach, there are a lot more things you have to be prepared for. Your day-to-day work as a coordinator does not prepare you for what you have to be ready for.”
Now he – and Cooks and Tucker and Williams – are more prepared than ever when the next chance comes. Only, they have a few other things on their minds right now.