A while back Terry Pettit (who I interviewed for Volleyball Coaching Wizards), wrote an article outlining what he looks for in a head coach candidate, which is also included in his second book, A Fresh Season. Terry mostly works with colleges and universities, so that is the focus perspective. I think the points he makes are pretty universal, though.
Top of the list, head coach experience
The very first thing Terry mentions on his list of what he looks for is prior experience as a head coach. His point is that until you are head coach you don’t really have final decision-making responsibility. That is a very different sort of thing that being an assistant coach. It is really the difference between being the leader and a follower.
Fellow Wizards interviewee Mick Haley has a very similar point of view. When I asked him in his interview what his career advice would be for developing coaches he specifically recommended getting some kind of head coach experience. He called the experience of having the decision-making responsibility key to a coach’s development.
By the way, what Mick said applies even to those aiming for assistant coaching positions. You will be a much more effectively assistant if you know what it’s like to be head coach. You are better able to anticipate the head coach’s needs.
Make sure it’s a good fit
The second big thing Terry talks about is the need for there to be a good fit for both sides. This is crucial. If the fit isn’t there, things simply aren’t going to work out well. I can tell you that from personal experience. It was pretty clear to me relatively early on in my time coaching at Svedala that it wasn’t a great long-term fit. Predictably, things didn’t work out there.
Of course, judging fit is not always the easiest thing in the world. You for sure should do your research about the school or club. That will at least give you a basic sense for whether the broad structure is a fit. That means the type of institution and its philosophy, the location, the academic standards, and the other things you can judge at least to a degree from outside.
The trickier part is trying to gauge the more internal aspects of fit. What are the ambitions of the organization. What is the management style of the Athletic Director? How is the administrative and financial support? Is it a collegial staff? These, and other fit type questions are only likely to come to light during the interview process. You’ll probably have to ask some questions of your own to get the best sense for it.
Terry’s third factor is the coach’s character. To quote, “I will not forward a candidate who has a history of bending rules, physically or mentally abusing athletes, or not interacting with peers in a professional manner.” I don’t think I need to add much to that, really.
A collaborative leader
Fourth on the list is that a head coach should work well with others. Terry focuses on assistant coaches, but I would add in anyone else associated with the program. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to running a team. Just as they would with a starting lineup, a good coach looks to use their staff in a way that highlights their strengths.
Curiosity above all else
While Terry puts curiosity last on his list, he calls it the most important trait he looks for in head coaching candidates. I might have used the word “reflective” instead, based on what he seems to be getting at here. It’s all about evaluating things, positively and negatively, and using your assessments to further yourself and your program. He describes someone who is basically always looking for ways to learn.
Terry has outlined the broad framework for what he considers a good head coaching position candidate. I generally agree with it. These are the higher level things you’ll want to get right. Of course, there are also finer details that become more or less relevant based on the position(s) you’re pursuing. Some of this relates to fit, as note above.
Some of it, though, is just technical and managerial skills you can develop. For example, most university head coach jobs require a master’s degree. High school jobs very often require first aid certification. Some jobs involve a fair bit of fund raising. Many positions require you to regularly interact with the media. You’ll want to do research into the requirements of the sorts of job you’re after to find out exactly what you need on your resume to make yourself a legitimate candidate.