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April 27, 2018 • Athletic Administration

Relationships can launch your sports career

The old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” That goes too far in diminishing the value of our personal knowledge and experiences, but it makes a legitimate point: Relationships matter.

Memphis head football coach Mike Norvell was among the featured speakers at the American Football Coaches Association Convention earlier this year. He talked about team culture, commitment and goal setting, but he also told a great story about how a personal relationship guided him down a path that led him to the helm of a Division I football program. It went like this:

A football coach watches players in action

Norvell had just transferred from Louisiana Tech to play wide receiver at Central Arkansas. It was one of his first days on the practice field when he noticed a man standing off to the side, quietly observing the team’s workout. Norvell noted the oddity, but his intrigue grew when he returned to practice the next day.

There was the same man. Same spot.

During a water break, Norvell’s curiosity finally got the best of him. He approached the man, extended his hand and introduced himself. The man’s name was Don Struebing, a former Central Arkansas offensive lineman who, in 2016, was inducted into the university’s hall of fame. He coached high school football and returned to campus from time to time to watch practices.

That’s all it took. Norvell and Struebing began chatting after practices and talking football. They built a relationship over Norvell’s remaining years as a player, and it continued through his time as a graduate assistant at Central Arkansas.

Norvell’s break came the day Struebing received a phone call from Gus Malzahn, who then was the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Tulsa. Malzahn, who knew Struebing from his high school coaching days in Arkansas, had a vacancy on his staff. He asked Struebing if he knew anyone who could fill it.

Struebing had someone in mind. It was the one player who bothered to introduce himself to a stranger on the sidelines. It was the college wide receiver who took the time and effort to build a relationship with local high school coach. It was Norvell.

Norvell would go on to coach wide receivers at Tulsa and, after stops at Pittsburgh and Arizona State, he would land his first head coaching job at Memphis at just 34 years old. Malzahn, of course, would later end up at Auburn, where during his first season the Tigers lost in the national championship game.

I often hear coaches describe the profession as a fraternity, and Norvell’s story illustrates that characterization — one coach helping another. But it also carries another valuable lesson: Invest the time to build relationships. Introduce yourself to strangers at conferences, shake their hands, look them in the eyes, learn about their experiences while sharing your own.

Above all, make an impression. You never know where it might lead you.


Kevin Hoffman is the editorial director of Coach & Athletic Director. He can be reached at [email protected].


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