Four falls and half a summer ago, I had an epiphany.
After interviews with Josh Gibson, the new coach of a team that won five games in two the two years prior, plus watching practices and talking with players, I sat down and wrote the season preview for the 2014 Pleasant Grove Hawks.
Extra time and effort went into this because something had piqued my interest. Arriving home late, I explained to Beautiful Blonde Bride that I was dealing with something of consequence.
“It will take a few years,” I told her, “but Josh Gibson is going to win a state championship at Pleasant Grove.”
That I saw this coming does not mean I am smart; it just means I was paying attention. Prescience of this sort comes to us after we assume responsibility for managing processes and people. Enough years of burying oneself in the minutiae of things, and one begins to recognize patterns that lead to predictable results.
Over the years, I’ve tried to analyze and explain a wide array of topics, including a lot of football. Mix in nearly two decades in the classroom and my theories about what makes for highly functional teams and effective teacher-leaders had begun to synthesize
To be sure, the young coach’s energy, passion, and ambition were refreshing and delightful, but it was how he went about his business that virtually checked off all my boxes. If something – a business, a classroom, a sports team – is successful, it is because someone purposefully and consistently sets and enforces standards, and nurtures calculated risk-taking. In turn, a culture of mutual respect and accountability emerges.
So it is with Josh Gibson and the Pleasant Grove Hawks, and it is not just on the football field. Not only have the players bought in; so, too, have the coaches, who are given the respect and freedom to reach for the top. In almost every sport, a winning culture allows youngsters to grow, to achieve and, as a result, to win.
A question teachers hear in a job interview is, “What is your theory of education?” In the summer of 2014, I paraphrased that question and was immediately given a list of four core values that guide coach Gibson.
- Relationships: At some point during his or her first semester on the job, a teacher hears, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That’s where Gibson and his staff start work.
“We’re going to develop relationships with these kids where we love them and they look at us as father figures,” he said.
This is a time-intensive endeavor. I hear Gibson and his staff talk to their players about girlfriends, study habits, core moral beliefs, and the coaches listen to the kids. I studiously avoid eavesdropping private communications, but I see many a conversation between an animated youngster and a coach nodding his head and making eye contact.
- Discipline: This isn’t about putting a bunch of rules on the wall, though Hawk athletics has some clear, non-negotiable ones. Rather, this is about creating a highly structured environment, which kids – even adolescents – crave. Every practice is planned. Every contingency has guidelines. “I think we turn over every stone,” Gibson said.
3. Belief: Not hope, belief. “Belief comes when the kids put in a ton of work. We teach them that the more work they put in, the better the return on their investment.”
Off-season conditioning, participating in non-curricular activities, such as 7-on-7 football in the summer, playing pick-up basketball and volleyball games all summer, playing select ball – all are de rigueur at Pleasant Grove if you want to get into the game.
- Growth: Champions are not born; they reach their goals one step at a time. “We focus on the growth of the individual,” Gibson said. “That’s why we’re here in education, to help kids grow. Every time they take a step forward, we celebrate that growth and encourage them to take the next. That’s why we keep getting better and better each week of the playoffs.”
These values reverberate throughout this special football team. Go read our stories on the various components, the linemen, the linebackers, the secondary, and the skill players, and you will hear the players echoe of every one of these values.
“No one outworks us,” is an oft-repeated quote. “Our trust in each other helps us get through adversity,” is another. “The coaches are like our dads,” is still another. So is their commitment to one another. Frankly, I have never seen such an unselfish group of youngsters.
A season such as the one the 2017 Hawks are having is a gift to be treasured. In truth, no one can guarantee what will happen at Cowboy Stadium Friday afternoon, but I can assure you that when that bus crosses back into the city limits it will be filled with young men – future educators, doctors, lawyers, professionals of all stripes – who will be better husbands, fathers and citizens because of what they have learned the past four years.
In that sense, we all win.