The Art of Interviewing

MED0000192I have interviewed probably 30-40 times in my career as a strength coach. As I write this, I am in interview mode again as congress abruptly ended the THOR3 Special Forces support program. We were assured by our leadership this was fully funded for three years (we were only 18 months into this contract . . . !!) .

Interviewing is done different everywhere, but is actually very similar in my experience. The keys are knowing yourself, your philosophy, doing your homework, being competent and confident, understating the deal breakers for you and finally, being a fun guy. After all, how is a strength and conditioning coach measured? I have asked several administrators this question over the years and yet to have a good answer. It is usually is he a good guy/girl, easy to dance with and no complaints. If so, you get an 85 and are retained. Remember, having a job is the new raise . . . !!!

The Phone Interview

This is either level one of the interview process, or the institution is not investing or won’t spend any money in the process. Either of these is a red flag if you’re above entry level. The institution does not value the position or is underfunded in terms of this program in my experience.

I have had some experiences in interviewing on the phone. Years ago when Tubby Smith went to Kentucky as the basketball coach. I was at Baylor University. After 2 presidents, 3 A.D.’s, two football coaches, two basketball coaches in the men and women’s programs, it was time to look! One of our new football coaches got me in and I got a phone call. This was just before the world wide web took off mind you. The interview was going along well enough until the end. The assistant doing the interview told me “I just have one more question”. I said sure and he asked, “Is your wife BLACK?” I began to chuckle at his smooth delivery and replied “No, but she is willing to learn.” Taken aback, he stammered around, thanked me, hung up and that was the last I ever heard from him.

Also at Baylor, Dennis Franchione went to Texas A&M and his record with strength coaches and testing was legendary. (Coach Fran demanded everyone go up in every lift at least 5 pound every test or the strength coach was made miserable). He was in the process of running one of my best friends and one of the best strength coaches in the business off. (Mike Clark – currently with the Chicago Bears). An assistant coach called to interview me. The process went well until the end. (Notice the pattern . . . the last 5 minutes of any interview or personnel review process is where the real issue is presented). This guy asks me “How many guys do you have benching over 500?” I chuckled and responded “Every one that benched over 300 when they got here, haven’t been injured and been in the program for over three years.” Perplexed he was, as the silence set in. I told him 6-8 like always. We train for fitness, playing low and injury prevention before I even think about bench press. I told him that I knew of Fran and I was not going to have bogus testing in my program and besides, he had one of the best coaches in the business right there who was a good friend of mine. He thanked me for my frankness and honesty and I never heard from him again, either.

Those are two of the worst examples of boorish interview questions and behavior. Both of those situations told you something. One, bad place to work and two, the first place wanted a minority and the coach was too lazy to do his homework and the second place wanted a guy that made up numbers.

Good phone interviews include standard questions such as your strengths and weaknesses, philosophy, types of exercises and lifts, handling conflict with players, coaches, staff and administration. Many times questions will be asked in terms of “tell me of a situation where . . . and how did you handle it?” Another line of typical questioning is “why do you want to come to . . . . ?” or “What can you bring to State U that will make us better?”

Any of these phone interview questions is normal. The better the questions and deeper the thought process that went into framing them before the interview, the more the interview person is interested in either hiring a competent coach or one that will stay and not cause problems. Remember, being able to give good phone is important!!

The Personal Interview

This is where you get the job in the first 30 seconds! Are you old enough? Not too old? Are you big enough? Mean looking enough? Are you female or male enough? avoiding-common-misconceptions-about-the-interviewing-process_1152_510931_0_14064727_500Are you of enough color? This is level one. You can lose it along the way if you demand accountability and the coach is a player’s coach. You can lose it along the way if you are a science guy and they want a yell, scream “energy” guy. You can lose it along the way if everyone love’s you except one guy! The great coach at Oklahoma, Jerry Schmidt once told me of his discussions with Lou Holtz when Jerry was at Notre Dame. Jerry wanted to squat the players and coach Holtz was against it – adamantly against it. Jerry felt squatting was critical as a cornerstone of his program. After several discussions, coach Holtz grew weary and told Jerry “Fine! You want to squat them, SQUAT THEM!! But if ONE KID misses ONE REP of practice and he says it is cause of squats, YOU’RE FIRED!” Notre Dame never squatted under coach Holtz. The rest of the story – they were National Champions in 1989. Moral of the story – EVERYTHING is negotiable!

My experience includes going into Oklahoma State for a marathon process that went from boarding a plane at 5:30 in the morning to arriving back home at 9:00 at night. I met every coach. Coach Eddie Sutton did a GREAT job interviewing me. He sat still and asked a question every 3-4 minutes whether he had to or not!! The silence went on for 1-2 minutes at a time! The questions were well thought out. For example “Can you make a kid quicker?” “Can you make a kid shoot better?” “Can you keep them healthy?” “Do you train 5’s like 1’s and 2’s?” He was awesome. Since I knew my stuff and was competent and confident, the pauses did not bother me. Coach Simmons, head football coach was another matter. Coach Simmons was being recruited by Les Miles at lunch as coach Miles tried to convince him I was the guy. Simmons was bored. Later when I met the team leaders and taught them the system, coach Simmons took a nap in the back. Granted, I was not what he wanted (he wanted an “energy” guy). When I returned, my mentor stated, “When the other two finalists are black, you’re going to come in second son”. THIS IS NOT RACIST for those wanting to pick a fight. It is REALIST. Coach Simmons wanted a minority energy guy. I did not fit that bill. I was the token interview like the NFL rule on the hiring process. It did not bother me either way and coach Simmons got what he wanted.

I interviewed with a very high profile hockey coach in New York. During the interview he asked me if I could coach “stinky Russians?” I told him I’d coached women, children, country kids from rural Texas and black kids from the 5th ward of Houston and I could coach anyone. He liked that answer. You have to be ready for the curve ball. Answer it from your gut. You may not get the job, but there is a reason for that. If you lie, you may be a bad fit and get the job and HATE EVERY MINUTE of it!

I had left Missouri in January 1989 to be the assistant at the University of Southern California. Russ Ball, another mentor and friend left in March of 1989 to become the assistant at the Kansas City Chiefs so the head position was open. I applied knowing the job as I had left it was a bad job. Since 1982 Russ and I had coached almost every athlete; filmed every football practice and game; painted the locker rooms, meeting rooms and weight room and worked 6 or 7 days a week year round and as the assistant when I left, I was making 13k+ with NO benefits!! But, it was a head job and maybe the new A.D. (he had been the assistant) and new football staff things would change. I arrived the night before and was to interview at 8:30 with a committee. My pick up was at 8:00. Finally, at 8:15 my pick up person arrived. No sorry, just a “you ready?” and we were off to meet. (This was someone I had previously worked with . . . ?!?) Upon arrival I was to meet with the women’s basketball coach, the women’s track coach, two of the new football staff, an administrator and maybe one other at 8:30. Since we started late, I walked into the room at 8:28. NO ONE WAS THERE! The track and basketball coach were not coming because “they know Robb”. Men’s track and basketball were not interested in the process. The administrator came in at 8:35, the assistant football coach at 8:40 and said the head coach was on his way as they had just finished their morning run. Needless to say, the process was over in my head. Bad job. Have situational awareness! Recognize what is going on around you. Are people prompt? Are they engaged? Are there follow up questions? Are they leaning into the interview or slouched back on their phones? Moral of the story – 12 months later Mike Clark left for Texas A&M and I was the head coach at the University of Southern California.

Finally – network!! Every day – NETWORK!! I just did my job, I was not a network guy. BIG MISTAKE!! The people that may hire you MUST hear from you every month. Out of sight, out of mind. Who is going to hire you in 10 – 15 – 20 years?!? IF you knew that, you’d buy lottery tickets, win and NOT be a strength coach!! In the 80’s was a good guy and friend that was an assistant AD at Mizzou. Never in a million years did I think he would first lead Mizzou back to prominence in football by hiring Larry Smith and then Gary Pinkell! Joe Castigleone left Mizzou to lead the athletic department of the University of Oklahoma!!! An assistant basketball coach at the University of Southern California was very quiet and in charge of day-to-day stuff with the players. Just a guy I thought. . . . Paul Hewitt could get players to do the right thing the right way and went on to become the head coach at Georgia Tech University.

Good luck to you! I hope this helps! Learn from my mistakes. Learn to interview. Practice interviewing. Network. But above all, if you are a coach – coach, learn, teach and lead every day.


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