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7,000 coaches spend title week together. Here’s what I learned there

Nine takeaways from my first trip to the American Football Coaching Association convention.

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AFCA coaches convention

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — While you watched Alabama claim another national championship in dramatic fashion, odds are at least one coach or staffer from your college football team (and many from the high school ranks) was within 5 miles of me.

The industry descended on the Queen City for four days. Tucked between bowl season and the recruiting dead period that precedes the push to National Signing Day, the convention is as important to a coach’s calendar as an install practice is during fall camp.

This is the first time I’ve attended (colleague Steven Godfrey also went and has been going for several years now), and this is what I learned.

1. This is a shacket and windbreaker fashion show.

My company pays me to have some marginal expertise about college football. Apparently, I am woefully inadequate at this task because I feel like I can’t recognize any team logos.

I’m not talking about the FBS programs. I’m talking about the teams from across the country that you don’t see on ESPN. It doesn’t help that all the Nike stuff looks the same. Imagine hundreds of men wearing this exact long sleeve in varying colors:

Florida v South Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But if you didn’t opt for the shacket, are you underdressed or overdressed?

Penn State’s James Franklin is one coach who isn’t wearing a shacket. He’s in a suit, blitzing through the lobby, glad-handing people like he’s running for political office.

2. Not everyone has a job at AFCA, and looking for a new one is a tricky exercise.

One staffer whose program is in transition isn’t sure he’ll be retained, and his dilemma has to deal with shacket fashion. His quandary was whether to wear the threads of the team he’s still technically employed by while actively searching for employment at the convention.

If you aren’t in team-issue gear, will you be taken seriously by older coaches? If you are, will people assume you are in a settled situation?

I got drinks with a group of graduate assistants from a Power 5 program. They’re all right around my age, and we’re all in the same station of our careers — the beginning. Over beers, they swap stories from their recent playing days, but they’re looking to learn from those who have come before them.

Multiple coaches talk about coming to AFCA the first time not knowing anyone and then coming back in Year 2 with more meetings than they can fit into the week. Some guys have piled into hotel rooms on the floor while others sleep in beds.

3. Coaches network just like you and me.

When I told friends who don’t work in sports media what I was doing in Charlotte this week, plenty of people expressed surprise.

“There’s a convention ... for coaches?”

While there are breakout sessions and keynote speakers, there’s also a lot of standing around, shaking hands, and trading business cards. Meeting one person leads to two.

But about that job hunt. There are seven corkboards front and back with resumes and business cards all over them. Sometimes you have to get creative to get noticed.

The lobby has business cards scattered across the floor. It’s unclear if they spilled from someone’s pocket or are a viral marketing strategy I hadn’t thought of.

Besides the job hunt, there’s plenty of reconnecting and catching up. If you coach in Florida and your buddy coaches in Washington, when else are you going to get a chance to see him?

4. The convention had some controversy.

Former Baylor coach Art Briles was scheduled to speak on the third day. The AFCA’s director spoke about the decision:

“It’s our responsibility to educate coaches,” Berry told The Athletic. “Certainly one of the things Coach Briles experienced, and one of the things I believe he’s going to share, is there are some things that happened and he can share an experience no one else can with our group, so that we can avoid issues down the road.

“While there are things you know in theory, the reality is you’re going to gain more from someone who experienced it, that knows what to look for.”

The move wasn’t well-received by many, including Brenda Tracy, an activist and member of the NCAA’s Commission to Combat Sexual Violence. She spoke at the convention in 2017 and received a standing ovation:

By Sunday evening, Briles’ speech was canceled:

Berry elaborated on why Briles’ speech was canceled:

“He was ready to basically talk openly about what happened, and he wanted to do it with his coaching buddies. He wanted to do it with guys who are his brethren, so to speak, his profession and say, ‘Here’s what you need to look out for. Here’s where I had a problem.’”

Recently fired Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez did speak as the outgoing president of AFCA (his one-year term was up). Rodriguez was fired after an investigation by an outside law firm into workplace misconduct and a hostile environment. Rodriguez denied the allegations during his speech in front of the coaches:

It’s been a crazy week for me. I didn’t even know if I was going to come to the convention. My wife, my kids, my staff, Todd (Berry), and friends said, ‘Coach, you need to go. You have to go.’ I’m glad I did. My commitment to the AFCA, to the profession, my gratitude to folks here and the people involved in the game of football is unparalleled. I’ve always felt we’re part of the greatest profession in the world, the greatest sport. With this comes great responsibility.

5. There is a level of camaraderie beyond what you might expect.

In a similar vein to a police officer or a firefighter, it’s a point of pride to be part of a fraternity.

At one level, sure, it’s just football. But Memphis coach Mike Norvell’s hour-long keynote had nothing to do with Xs and Os and much more to do with life skills and the fatherly persona that coaches embrace.

6. The food vendors were, uhh, not prepared.

On Sunday night, a group of attendees wiped an Uptown Charlotte bar out of beer. Thankfully, I left before the place was tapped out, but I did not end up so lucky when it came to the convention center’s Bojangles, which ran out of chicken. In North Carolina, that’s practically a sin.

At least the oft-visited convention center Starbucks had the caffeine we all needed.

7. Coaches can learn a lot of ball here.

Coaches foster a public image of complete secrecy. While that might be the case on a game week, it’s not during the offseason, when guys swap practice tips and scheme stuff. There’s a white board that anyone can walk up to, just to draw something up.

Sessions on the strategic use of the vertical passing game, defending different personnel groups, and the evolution of the run game are some of the learning opportunities. There’s an extensive library of books and DVDs for drills.

There’s a 20-yard patch of field turf, for a “skills and drills” session by different coaches.

Wake Forest wide receivers coach Kevin Higgins showed how he teaches a slant route, using wideouts from nearby Charlotte University. He coaches the footwork, hand play, and hips to create separation. The route might look simple on your TV, but plenty goes into teaching it to a freshman.

According to Higgins, out of the break, a receiver shouldn’t run upfield immediately. If the QB’s throw is on time and in the right place, it will take the receiver upfield. A flat track out of the break prevents a DB from recovering to hook the upfield arm and reach around to deflect the pass. Make sure you catch the ball and tuck it in your arm that’s closer to the QB. Doing so with your outside arm makes it easier to strip.

8. Like anywhere else, there are people who want money.

This is FieldTurf’s booth.

There are automated tackling dummies ...

... branded chairs ...

... uniforms ....

... pads ...

... statues or whatever ...

... specialty helmets ...

... headsets ...

... and much more.

Custom lockers, film equipment that connects to the cloud in real time from the camera, towel distributors, weight equipment, concussion helmets, and performance socks. If you can name something that’d help a football program run, it was on sale.

9. Coaching is both exactly like every other industry and nothing like any other.

The tenets of networking and meeting people and hoping like hell for your big break are the same as in a middle management sales job. But an insurance guy can’t underwrite policies in front of thousands of people on a fall Saturday.

Coaches get into this for plenty of reasons, but they work in a world of their own.