9 things ADs look for when hiring coaches

If you are a high school football coach hoping to level up to get your first head coaching job, or even a sitting head man looking to make a move to another situation, you may be wondering what athletics directors most commonly look for when weighing candidates that have applied to an open position.

WHAT DO ATHLETIC DIRECTORS CONSIDER WHEN HIRING A HEAD COACH?

Each athletics director will have his or her own criteria, which can be shaped by multiple factors including the school's history, location, and expectations, the athletics director's own experience, the budget, and many other considerations. Prospective head coaches also need to keep in mind that the athletics director is not the only person or group you will have to impress in order to land the job – there are others such as the school board, the principal, and boosters. Yet the athletics director surely keeps a play role in the search process and is someone that needs to a) notice you and b) like what you could bring to the program.

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I spent hours polling athletics directors and picking their brains on what they look for when assessing football coaching candidates. Here is what I found out to help you in your journey toward your dream coaching job:

1. A QUALITY RESUME

Yeah, we know: the coaching industry is all about connections. If you have one (or more than one) to a particular job, then you may already have a head start on other applicants. If so, that's great.

Here's some truth, though: Without a prior connection or relationship, your resume is the first time you will be “introducing” yourself to an athletics director. That means your resume needs to accurately and effectively represent your track record and what you can bring to a program. On top of that, your resume needs to be put together in a way that makes it stand out in both in look and content.

Some athletics directors are going to weigh resumes more heavily than others, whether it's at the outset of the search or at some point later.

Put yourself in the AD's shoes: if you received a boring resume that was plain-looking and littered with grammatical errors, what would you do with it? You would either stop reading or throw it in the trash can. For instance: I spoke with one AD who heavily considers resumes from the get-go, and here's how he put it:

“It really and truly is about the resume because it’s that first piece of information. It’s going to go in one or two piles based on what that resume looks like.”

Don't let your resume go in the trash pile. What type of message does it send to an athletics director about your ability to run a program if you send over a messy, disorganized resume? SPOILER: Not a good one. When it comes to putting together your resume, the starting point is to make sure it is clean and accentuates your abilities and accomplishments, but it goes far beyond that.

“The first thing I ask for is a cover letter and a resume,” another AD said. “The cover letter is to see how intelligent they are, how they can write. I can gauge their intelligence and competency based on how they write a cover letter. The resume is important as well, just looking to see how well they can organize their thoughts.”

You may have some questions as to how to build a winning coaching resume. Good news: we have a free guide here on TheCoachBridge.com that you should find helpful. Check it out here! 

2. CHARACTER MATTERS

In the course of all my conversations with athletics directors and traits they search for in candidates, it was astonishing how few brought up Xs and Os. Yet, all of them brought up character.

“Anytime you put somebody in front of a student athlete, you have to make sure that you’re getting the best possible person,” one AD told TheCoachBridge. “I'm the person that has to stand up there and answer for it if we don’t hire the best possible person. If I don’t have a great feel based on people I talk to, we don't bring that person in.”

Athletics directors, school boards, and human resources representatives are going to want to steer clear of candidates with a poor reputation; that can only cause them headaches in the future. On your resume and in your interview, make sure that you highlight positive traits that you bring from a character aspect just as much as you highlight your on-field accomplishments.

It's also important to have people in your corner that can vouch for your character. Which leads us to the next point…

3. STRONG REFERENCES

This should go without saying, but it's happened before, so here goes: make sure your references can actually vouch for you.

More than one athletics director has told me stories about a candidate listing a big-name position coach at a major program as a reference. The ADs would call the reference, and that reference either could not recall the candidate or knew very little about their actual abilities.

If you just worked a college camp one summer years ago with a coach and he otherwise doesn't know you from Adam, that coach is not a reference.

One way to nip this in the bud right away: in addition to listing your references on your resume, reach out to some of them and see if they would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation. You can then include those in your resume packet that you present when applying for jobs.

For someone to qualify as a reference that could help you land a head coaching job, make sure it is someone you have worked directly with or under for a prolonged period of time, and that the person that can accurately speak to your abilities as a coach, teacher, and/or community member.

Sure, it certainly helps if your references are well-known, successful people. Another tip: if you have any references with strong connections to the job you're applying for – current employees there, a colleague of the athletics director, someone that's worked at the school in the past – then that's an added bonus.

4. STABILITY IN WORK HISTORY

This may matter more to certain athletics directors and can be shaped by their own past experiences in coaching or hiring coaches, but it is something that certain ADs will consider, particularly with schools that can afford to be more “choosy.”

“I don't care if a guy has Dabo, Steve Spurrier, or Nick Saban as a reference,” one veteran athletics director told me. “If he's been at 20 schools, what does it say about his ability to put down roots? I don't care if he's worked at Lowe's for five years. Has he been somewhere and stayed?”

The fact is, some ADs are going to look at your resume and see whether or not you are a “job hopper.” If you are, perhaps there's a reason – a good one! – for it. If you have moved up – position coach to coordinator, better pay, family situation – then your moves have sound reasoning and explanations behind them. If you have a bunch of lateral moves on your resume or have been fired from several jobs, it's going to sound the alarm.

An athletics director is going to want to see consistency in performance, just like you would want to see from your own players.

5. MANAGEMENT SKILLS

When looking for a head football coach, an athletics director with his or her pick of candidates is going to be looking for the whole package.

That means that a lot of good “football coaches” may fall by the wayside, because so much more goes into it. A defensive line coach at the high school level, for example, is going to be responsible for his room of players. A head coach is responsible for every player on the team, must “coach” his own staff, be able to effectively handle parents, work with the booster club, speak with media, and a litany of other daily tasks that often have little to do with actual coaching.

Said one athletics director who spoke with TheCoachBridge: “So much of being a head coach is not about football, it's about a program. Understanding logistics, the management side of things. Those things cause me more headaches than the coaching of the sport. One of the things I look for and especially in football is a willingness to coach people versus coaching offense or defense.”

Here's a story for you: a high school head coach met a media member for lunch one day to give that media representative more information on college prospects for his team. While at lunch, he assisted that media member in rounding up a sponsorship for the organization's coverage. And, just prior to that lunch meeting, the coach had personally traveled to a local bank and secured a $1,000 donation to the football program's booster club.

A day in the life of a head coach.

“I could not care less how knowledgeable you are on offense and defense,” that same AD told me. “Managing money, managing equipment, keeping inventory, knowing the rules, managing people. If you can't manage fundraising, parents, equipment, if you can't pass that, we won't get to football.”

By the way, that coach I mentioned earlier? He was soon hired to a job that he wanted by the athletics director quoted here.

6. FLEXIBILITY

No, not your ability to bend down and touch your toes – a lot of coaches would be in trouble if so!

What we mean here is your ability to adapt to your surroundings, your demographics, the personalities you work with, and your roster. This is high school, not college or the pros. You're not drafting players, and you are going to inherit a team each and every year.

This is precisely why you may find some coaches that seem brilliant in terms of Xs and Os on the white board not translating that to wins on the field. Perhaps it's not about what you can do, but about what your players can do.

An athletics director relayed an interesting story to me that captures this perfectly. He observed that a head coach within his state was an alleged “guru” with a particular offensive system. The problem was that the coach was force-feeding this system to a team that, quite frankly, did not have the proper personnel to run it. A few adjustments would have likely led to a few more wins.

The best coach is not the person who knows “the most” about football because those little Xs and Os on the white board turn into actual people on Friday nights.

If you have experience in different systems or examples of how you have adjusted or altered your play-calling, philosophies, or overall management in different situations, then highlight that on your resume. Do some research on the program you're trying to join, and have a plan for how you can tweak things based on that unique situation to maximize the on-field results. Point to your past work as evidence that you are the person to do it.

7. TECHNOLOGICAL KNOW-HOW

This will be more important to athletics directors than others. During some of our conversations with ADs, we were surprised to hear that there are high school coaches that struggle with Microsoft Excel, for instance. It's a fairly common practice nowadays for computer proficiency to be expected, but it's still a good idea for everyone involved in the hiring process to know that you are skilled in those areas.

A couple recommendations here: if you are not totally comfortable with the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint), then learn it. Don't let it be a strike against you. There are video resources online that you can use, and often times there are in-person classes offered locally.

For those that are already proficient on a computer, that's great. Make sure it's noted – just don't spend a ton of time on it on your resume – and make sure it stands out in a unique way. For example, you may be proficient in Microsoft Excel and that's a box that an athletics director can check when going through your resume. But what if you also took an online course Excel through a company like Udemy? Note that on your resume! It shows initiative.

8. ACADEMIC AND ADMINISTRATIVE CREDENTIALS

It certainly does not hurt your chances in terms of going after a head job to have a top-notch resume in the classroom. This is important for breaking into the coaching profession in general, as physical education slots at high schools are limited and often reserved for head coaches or high level assistants. Thus, some out-of-college aspiring coaches need to go get a teaching certification and cut their teeth as, say, a science teacher first.

Back to the focus of this piece: to maximize your chances at a quality head coaching job in an often-crowded field, do not leave any questions or gaps in your resume. Make sure you accentuate any classroom accomplishments.

Being certified as a teacher is significant, and it's not a bad idea to go out and get some type of administrative certification, either. So much of being a head football coach is administration and management, not just drawing up plays and teaching techniques.

“You're highly unlikely to be a head coach nowadays without being certified,” one athletics director told us. “If you want to go be a head coach or AD, get an administrative certificate. If you have a PhD in coaching, that doesn't mean anything to me. If you have a Master's in administration, you have some wherewithal about you.”

Another resume tip: when listing your teaching experience, do not be redundant or boring. Instead, tell the reader about some initiatives that you uniquely provided inside the classroom.

Your resume should not just say you were “responsible for teaching students” – that's obvious.What type of impact did you make, and how did you make that impact? Be specific.

9. COMMUNITY TIES

This could aid your cause for some programs, but could be integral at others. Having helpful connections – a teacher at the school,a coach you know who formerly worked with the athletics director – can make a substantial difference in getting you an interview or providing a quality reference. The more ties you have to a place, the better, although that's one of many considerations.

Yet in smaller, tight-knit communities, this can be a key difference and can provide a point of separation even if other candidates may look better “on paper.”

One athletics director from such a community relayed an interesting story to us at TheCoachBridge. The program hired an older, well-established, and successful head coach from a different state to come in and run the program. Truth be told, the new coach simply did not connect with the players. He was an “outsider” who simply did not translate to the new situation. It does not mean that coach's prior successes were a fluke, it just did not work out at the new place. Fit matters.

The school subsequently tabbed the school's junior varsity coach, who happened to be a native of the community and a “lifer”, to take over. As JV coach, his team had lost just one game in three seasons. He took over and within three years, the program had its first state championship.

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

I'm a sports media professional with over 13 years of experience, having built lasting relationships across the athletics and coaching industry. I'm here to help you reach your goals!

Hey, I'm Chris Clark!

Hey, I'm Chris Clark!

I’m a sports media professional with over 11 years of experience, and I started TheCoachBridge.com to help athletics coaches level up in the industry and reach their personal and professional goals!

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