We live in a day and age where the primary and, often, the only way that a coach is measured is by wins and losses. Alumni and faithful fans often turn a blind eye to serious issues of conduct if that means they will see wins on the field, conference championships and national acclaim. These boosters want to puff their chests about their school’s success, and so a few bad acts will not stand in the way of their “glory.”
That may be “success” at a lot of schools, but at Crown College the expectations are that players are ethical, godly men first, and football players second. The desire is that the team’s players move from being boys to mature men who understand what being a good father, husband, employee, and citizen is all about. They expect the coaches to teach that form of ethics within the framework of building a program that the school and its faithful can be proud of.
To accommodate that it takes a special kind of coach. It takes a guy who is already modeling that behavior in his own life. A guy who has seen his own shortcomings and molded himself to overcome those areas where he is lacking and become a man that people can be proud to call friend, husband, dad, or coach. It takes John Auer.
Twenty years ago Coach Auer became a member of the St. Cloud State football coaching staff. He had always envisioned himself as a high school coach, but the college ranks soon became appealing to him. After five years with the Huskies, Coach Auer was offered the position as head coach at Crown College. The choice was a no-brainer.
The Crown College Coach took over the program looking to do more than talk Xs and Os with his players. He wanted to really help young men reach a level of excellence as players, as men and, most importantly, as followers of Christ.
“Growth in their faith is the No. 1 priority here, and holding true to who they are in terms of beliefs and ethics. No. 2 is their work ethic. I always talk about that they’re here in their academics to find a job, and how they move forward is how they work. There have been many people who have gone through jobs and moved their way up who have never once asked to move their way forward in the company. They just did things the right way and went above and beyond, and so they were moved up into higher positions of responsibility and leadership. If you have those two things it is going to take you a long way in life, and if you take these four years and make the most out of them, it is going to take you a long way in the next 40 years of your life and make them a lot more enjoyable.”
To reach his players, Coach Auer found that he has had to reinvent himself in the way that he had approached players since he first started as a coach. Many studies point out that the so-called “Millennials” are very distrustful of all forms of institutions, and so the Vince Lombardi or Woody Hayes way of telling a player to do something and they just do it are virtually over. This is not lost on the Crown Coach.
“The biggest thing is that the kids have changed from when I first started. It was different when I began at St. Cloud. Today you have to develop a relationship with all kids that goes on and off the field. If you do that they will be fine with how you coach them, but if you don’t take a personal interest in who they are as a person, they are going to have a tough time with you. From a coaching stand point, 20 years ago that wasn’t the case, kids would just listen to you, but today there needs to be that relationship that shows that you care about them.”
The students have changed and the Coach has changed with them. He has gone out of his way to build the kind of relationships with his players that is needed to get through to them, and has seen this as an intentional way to reach his players. Coach Auer isn’t following that old model of one-size fits all. He knows that this does not work with today’s football player (and may have never really worked that well), but instead sees that he needs to do the things that shows each player that he cares about them as a player, and more importantly as a brother in Christ.
“When you have a road game and you are there the day before and you go out to meals, you have to be intentional about who you go to sit with and eat. You have be intentional about who you spend time with. So go and spend time with that backup left guard or go sit with the third team safety, someone you wouldn’t normally spend as much time with. That is one key, and the other is to find something that allows you to relate to each guy. Find something that you have in common, whether that is where they played at or their major. Try to find something that you have in common that you can have a daily conversation about.”
Do not get the wrong impression here. This is not a façade by the Coach to get in the good graces of his players so they will listen to him. Coach Auer made a decision a long time ago that his program was going to be run in a way that he could be proud of, and that his players could be proud to be a part of. He wanted them to know that they were cared about and that Christ was the center of how he coached.
“A big thing is just basic faith as far as wanting to do things for Him. We want how we coach and how we prepare are looked upon as something to be proud of as a person of faith. I want to be the same guy no matter when you are looking at me, and I am not going to be screaming or cussing a guy out. That is not a part of who I am going to be.”
So how does the coach reach his players in this way? It is a good question because many appear to still be using those old methods and are still having some success. That is not the Coach Auer way, however. He is taking an intentional approach to teaching his players that life doesn’t start when they leave college. They are making choices now, and those choices will affect the rest of their lives. He is showing them that it is these four years that is preparing them for the next 40, and they have responded to his approach, not only on the field but in the classroom as well.
That vision has started by entrusting them to see that their conduct earns them the level of respect they are receiving. It also is about demonstrating to them that you don’t have to have a title, like captain, to have influence. The manner in which you carry yourself will allow others to see what kind of person you really are.
“Respect is earned. You could be a senior but if you are not doing things the right way the respect is not there. However you could be a freshman and if you are doing things the right way people will listen to you. We have a leadership council, and that has two members from each class on it, that way each class is represented. We have captains and a leadership group, but we want guys to understand that the next level of leadership, the guys who are just below the captains, they are the most important. The guys on the team look at the captains and believe they are supposed to act that way, but if your next eight to ten guys act appropriately and set a good example, those are the people that other guys look at and think, ‘If they are doing it, then I should probably be doing it as well.’”
Coach Auer has earned the respect of his players because he has modeled the very things he expects from them. The program is built around what he calls “The Pillars Book,” the foundation of what is expected of a Storm player. The pillars are in place to set the standard, but the Coach understands that the message about how to act cannot just come from him.
“We also let our leadership group lead and teach each other about what is expected here. Sometimes it is good to have another voice that explains to them that they need to take ownership for their own behavior.”
What is inspiring about John Auer is that this is a man with 20 years of coaching experience at the collegiate level, yet he is not afraid to admit that he needs to change at times too. He molded his style to accommodate the manner in which the new generation expects to be treated, but he has also opened himself to want to hear from his players on how he can make the team and their experience a better one.
“I always tell the guys that I have never played on my own football team. I don’t know what it is like to play for me, so I don’t know what they need to individually do be able to play for me. I also need them to tell me what things they like and what things I need to change throughout this process to make their experience better.”
It is that humble approach to accepting that sometimes 18-year-olds may have ideas that are better than his that makes him so special. Most cannot envision a professor who would tell his or her class that they would like the class’ input on how to make their instructionbetter. Instead, most think that they are some kind of guru who invented knowledge.
That is not the Coach Auer way at all. He gets that if he is going to be a better coach, a better man himself, he has to be willing to listen and change as he expects his players to do. He has to be intentional in his approach to modeling these pillars.
John Auer fully understands that it is not easy to be a college student today. People mess up, and his players make mistakes at times as well. He gets that because he has lived that himself but, he acknowledges, sometimes his wife, Kristen, needs to give him a little reminder.
“Sometimes I go home to my wife and I will be frustrated and I will say ‘I can’t believe what this guy did,” and she will say, “You know when you were his age you were twice as bad?” It’s about remembering the things I screwed up on in college and trying to help them so that they don’t do those same things. That is what motivates me to want to coach at the college level. These guys are 18-22 years old and they are still trying to figure it out, and I need to keep in mind that they are still trying to figure it out, just as I was at that age. As long as you take that approach to guide them and help them along, they are going to do whatever they can to work for you and they will listen to you and follow you. It takes time to care about kids. I do care and I want them to know that. I don’t want this to be about just football.”
During his time at Crown College the Storm has had success. They have played in two UMAC championships and he has taken a program that had just 29 players in his first season and increased it to 73, a nearly 200 percent increase. He has been the most successful football coach in school history, and is proving that his approach to his players and his desire to build these special relationships has made him a success on and off the field.
In a day and age where we are seeing more headlines about player conduct off the field than we are about their play on, one coach is teaching his players the right way to play the game, and the righter way to be men. Crown Coach John Auer may never have national championships or Coach of the Year honors, but each year a group of players walks across a stage to receive a diploma and then goes off into the world to start their lives. No one truly knows how well they will fare, but there is one thing for sure. If they become even half the men that their coach is, the world has a very bright future.
By Robert Pannier