By Jeff Greenberg
The chatter begins late in the season, and it starts to reach a fever pitch right around the end of November. All of the talking heads, as well as fans, start to bring it up more and more. There’s even a name for this topic of conversation; the “coaching carousel.”
Every year the coaching carousel comes and goes. Fans celebrate it in some cases, but they never know or even think about the other side of the equation. All of the focus is on the program and the new coaching staff. What gets lost in all of that are the families involved in the coaching change.
When a program decides to change head coaches, it doesn’t just affect one person. In reality it has a major affect on the lives of dozens of people. It completely changes the lives of the coaches and their families. Some folks will say, “It’s just business, it’s not personal.” A coach understands what they’ve signed up for and understands the pressure and expectations that go along with the job. But it’s personal to the families because their lives are turned upside-down.
When the bright lights, cameras and microphones are focused on the new head coach, what happens to the departing coaches and their families? Where are they when the introductory press conference is happening in the building they just left? Simply put, the answer is probably different for every coach who goes through a coaching change.
Over the next few weeks we will explore that in our series, “Coaching Life Series: A Coaching Change.” The series will include different college football coaches and their stories of how they and their families answer the questions above. It’s a peak behind the curtain of what really happens during the coaching carousel.
The first coach in this series is Colorado Offensive Line Coach, Chris Kapilovic. Kapilovic began his college coaching career 18 years ago after coaching in high school and serving as a graduate assistant coach at Kansas. He has made stops at Alabama State, Missouri State, Southern Mississippi and most recently at the University of North Carolina, where he was the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach.
As you can see above, Kapilovic has coached at multiple schools. He and his wife, like almost every single coach in college football, have made moves before. When the decision was made to make a coaching change at North Carolina, it was time for them to enter the coaching carousel process after spending 7 seasons in Chapel Hill. Kapilovic joined Head Coach Mel Tucker’s staff at Colorado on December 13, 2018. Here’s our conversation about what that process was like for Kapilovic and his family, both professionally for him and personally for the family.
When the coaching change was made, what were the first thoughts racing through your mind on your drive home? – “It’s a tough deal. Honestly, you feel like you let a lot of people down. There’s disappointment with a season like the one we had last year where we lost so many close games that could have gone our way. So, you do feel some guilt for the players, the other coaches and the true fans at North Carolina that just wanted to see us win. You feel like you’re losing a family. I look at my players like they’re my sons. I’ll never forget them, and I’ll follow them and stay in touch with them for the rest of my life. The people you work with every day are like your family and you actually spend more time with them than you do your own family. There’s a personal feeling of loss there knowing that the extended family you’ve enjoyed during your time there is breaking up. Saying goodbye is emotional. Then, you’re also worried about how your own family will respond. How will your kids react if they hear about it at school or read about it? So, I was focused on making sure my wife and kids were ok. Next the logistical side of everything enters your mind and you start going over in your head scenarios to make sure that your family is taken care of if you don’t find a job. Essentially your mind is swirling with all of these thoughts on that drive home. Before you even have a chance to take a breath and see what’s out there your mind is running in every direction. But then you see your family, and you take that breath. A job is just a job, but it’s your family that sustains you.”
After you take that breath, and hit the reset button, how fast does the process of finding that next job begin? – “Actually, I immediately started looking. I wasn’t panicked or anything like that, but in our profession, timing is everything and there’s a certain window when all of the hiring takes place. I started to look, and I was fortunate to have a lot of people proactively reach out to me right away which calms your nerves and helps find a place to start the process. I reached out to the people I trust in the business and sought their advice as I organized my thoughts and put a plan together. It’s such a dominoes type of environment because your watching how all of the jobs are opening up as staffs move around. You’re researching what each situation really looks like at each school you’re hearing about. Again, we weren’t panicked because we’ve been smart with our money and we didn’t ever want to be in a situation where we were forced into taking a job just to take a job. I wanted to find the right situation for my family. It’s important to me that the place we live is somewhere that my family can enjoy and thrive in. That was my driver in this search.”
When those phone calls started coming in did that help calm those nerves and feel good to be in demand? – “It did. I was grateful to have the options I did because nothing is ever guaranteed in this profession. But it really allowed me to prioritize everything that was best for my family and would be a great situation for me to work in.”
What were the main factors that matched those priorities and led you to choose the Colorado job over your other offers? – “On the professional side of the equation you look at who the head coach is, what’s his staff like? What are the chances of being successful at that school? Is it a staff that’s been there for a few years? Ideally, I really wanted to get in on the front-end with a new staff and be a part of the building process. Right away, the first comment I made to my wife, Fiona, was, “Man, out of all of the jobs that look to be opening up, I really would love the Colorado job over any of these other jobs.” At the time I didn’t even know who they were hiring as their head coach. But the job and the opportunity were appealing to us personally and professionally. We were just ecstatic when that opportunity became a real option for us.”
In the coaching world, your network is everything. Many times, coaches stay within their “coaching tree.” With this job you’re branching out into a new network. Are their nerves that come that or is it exciting to grow that network? – “It’s definitely exciting for me. I’d be lying if I said you didn’t feel all the emotions of excitement, but the anxiety of the unknown as well. Kind of like a kid starting at a new school for the first time. The exciting part is knowing you always have your network that got you here, and then now, working for Coach Tucker, you’re entering another network that includes one of the best ever to do this job in Nick Saban. So that part gets you excited. But nothing is given in this profession. Starting a new job comes with you having to prove your worth. I had to learn the new system and learn the vision that the head coach and the coordinator had for our offense. Trust is everything and you have to prove to the people you work for that they can trust and depend on you to do your job a high level. So, after working for a head coach for 11 years that had that trust and belief in you, and then entering an entirely new situation, I think it’s only natural to have some anxiety of the unknown that comes with that change.”
When you arrived in Boulder you had to do two things right away in getting to know your players, but also getting to know your new “family,” the guys on staff you were going to work with at Colorado. How did you approach those tasks? – “The priority is to first meet with the head coach and your coordinator to get their vision and find that “starting point,” so to speak. But the process of building your relationships with your players in incredibly important and has to start immediately. They just lost their coach and you’re the new guy in front of the room. So, getting to know them and what makes them tick, what is important to them, becomes your priority.”
Are you the type of coach that watches a ton of film on players that you’re inheriting to form your opinions of the guys in your room, or do you prefer to give them a chance to show you in person what they’re all about as players? – “It’s a little of both because usually there might be a graduate assistant that can give you an idea of who the guys are in your room. It can help find a place to start in getting to know what and who you’re working with. But I truly want to base my opinions on what I see in person from the first moment I meet them. See what they’re like in meetings. Seeing what their effort is like in winter conditioning. Ultimately, I make my evaluations off of how they perform in the spring. The film helps determine maybe where you start with them, but their own actions and performance in practice really do determine where we go with them moving forward.”
You mentioned something fans lose sight of many times, in that in most cases coaches spend more time with their “coaching family” than they do their actual family. How has that process been for you guys in getting to know the new staff and their families? – “Interesting enough, we knew one member of the staff in Jay Johnson and his wife. We worked together at Kansas 18 years ago and stayed in touch. We actually bought one of their houses at a previous stop when they were moving on to another job. So, it was full circle in that respect and it’s great to be coaching together again. This is a great group of guys on the staff. Everybody has been so welcoming to us. We’ve been able to build some bonds quickly and that always helps the transition process.”
All of that is important but one major next step is seeing how a new staff molds together when the ball kicks off for real in a game. How has that process played out? – “You’re absolutely right. It’s not just learning how the players will practice and how they’ll react and perform on game day. When you join a new staff all of you have to learn how you’ll run practices and how you’ll react to the millions of situations you encounter as coaches in a game. It’s all new and it takes time to get it all going in the right direction together. It’s all a bunch of firsts for everybody.”
What was it like in the first game against an in-state rival, at the Broncos’ stadium running out behind Ralphie? – “It was incredible. Walking into that stadium and just feeling the excitement and the passion from our crowd. Our crowd dominated that stadium. Then Ralphie runs out, the place is going crazy and it just gives you goosebumps. It’s that moment when you think to yourself, “How lucky am I right now to be here doing what I love to do?” Then you go out and win the game to make it a perfect night.
At that moment you probably thought that would be hard to beat. Then you follow it up with your first home game in Boulder, against Nebraska and a sell-out crowd. Describe that atmosphere and the come-from-behind win. – “Man, just to be a part of something like that game was incredible. People had been talking about this game since the first day we set foot on campus. The stadium was packed. We had a ton of big-time recruits there. The atmosphere was just electric. Folsom is just such a cool setting for a game. Now I’ll admit, the first half didn’t make me feel good. But we turned it around and next thing you know the crowd is storming the field. You look around and there’s players crying, there’s parents crying. It was Mel’s first win at home, and it was against a hated rival. What a day. You couldn’t have written a better script for it.”
One thing is clear when you’re a college football coach. Any time you go through a coaching change it can be a stressful time period for you and your family. Sometimes it doesn’t work out exactly how you’d like. But at other times, like it did for Kapilovic, it can end up working out exactly how you hoped it would work out. It can be a promising fresh start for you and your family.