Knox College Coach Damon Tomeo Using PAST to Build Bright Future
There is an old adage that says that if we do no learn from the past we are destined to repeat it. The inference is that if one does not take a hard look at the mistakes they made before then they are destined to make those same mistakes again. This is most likely true, but there is also the idea that taking one’s successes from the past helps that person to build for the future, and no one understands this better than Knox College Head Football Coach Damon Tomeo.
Coach Tomeo comes from one of the most interesting backgrounds a football coach can imagine. Born to two hard-working, blue-collar workers, the Coach grew up in an impoverished community in East Los Angeles where he understood that those who worked hard every day were people that were to be respected, he just wanted a different pathway for himself. “I was scared of going out into the real world and having a real job,” he jokes.
Tomeo chose to attend college to become a teacher and coach, and so he attended one of the most rigorous academic institutions in the country – Pomona College. At Pomona he starred on the football field, playing for the school for four years. Upon graduation he went on to earn his master’s degree in education administration from the University of Redlands, where he also served as a football assistant coach.
He began a journey that has seen him coach at every level of collegiate football as well as the high school level. This included stints at Division-I Arizona, Division-II Minnesota State–Moorhead and Colorado State-Pueblo, and Division-III schools Redlands, California Lutheran and Pomona-Pitzer. His success at each of those levels has been remarkable. In fact, three key players from last season’s Division-II champions, CSU-Pueblo, were recruited by Coach Tomeo when he was at the university.
At virtually every stop players have excelled under his tutelage. At MSU-Moorhead the school had two All-Americans that he coached and set 40 school records. Four players earned all-conference honors at CSU-Pueblo and the defenses he helped coach led the conference in scoring defense, interceptions and red zone defense, among other areas.
More than just succeed on the field and in recruiting (In 2011, he set a school record at Pomona for the most early commits), the Coach has always taught young men to excel in the classroom as well. He preached to his players the importance of remaining balanced in all that they do; that being overly committed in one area could actually hamper their growth in other areas, both as players and men.
“You want the students to understand that they are at the institution for more than just football. At the same time you understand that they want to play football and succeed, so teaching them the keys to making good decisions and prioritizing in the right way is important for them to succeed as men.”
In 2012, after 15 years of coaching, the Athletic Director at Knox College, Chad Eisele, encouraged Damon Tomeo to apply for the vacant position at his school. “I knew the athletic director here, and he asked me if I would consider the job and apply for it. At the time, out of respect for him and knowing what a great opportunity it was, I did,” he recalls.
The position was offered to Coach Tomeo, and he saw this as the perfect situation for him to begin his head coaching career. “We got through the process and realized that they wanted to build something the right way. There are tremendous people here, with a great community, and great leadership, and we felt that there was a potential here that most wouldn’t see; it was going to take some time to build, but it was with people worth building it and they were supportive of the program.”
With such an outstanding support system behind him, Coach Tomeo worked to create a set of core values that he had developed from his 15-year career. The focus was to get his players to buy into the culture that he was creating and let the play on the field take care of itself.
“To me being a team and a family is No. 1, and establishing that culture that we are going to build a team that cares about each other and helps each other out; that we are going to build it with family values. We are going to support, care, and hold each other accountable. This is a tough time in a young man’s life. From 18-23 there is a lot going on. You have the academic component, and this is a neat opportunity to us as coaches to really be able to support them and help them into adulthood and prepare them for their careers and set them up for the rest of their lives.”
The Prairie Fire Coach took what he had learned and developed from his past to develop a PAST for his players. Namely patience, accountability, sacrifice and trust. These were the fundamentals he wanted his players to get here because, as the Coach puts it, “If they leave here understanding those things and being able to apply them to their lives then I feel like we have done our job.”
PATIENCE – His process begins with getting his players to understand that change comes over time. Actually this is a message that he continually preaches, even to the alumni and administration.
“It’s a microwave society we live in, where I put popcorn in the microwave and 50 seconds later I can eat. We can’t wait for anything. So just teaching them that life takes patience and that good things come from having patience. We are going to get there, and we are improving as a team, but this is going to take time and, when we are patient, we can see that success develop and build something that will sustain itself.”
ACCOUNTABILITY – Including in those core values is accountability. The Coach explains that every person on that field has a role and when they take the field, whether in the locker room, practice, or during games, they need to be responsible for doing the things that help their teammates.
“I tell them that they have to do their job; they need to maintain their focus out there. One guy not paying attention can be the difference in the game, and so they need to realize that they are accountable to 10 other guys on every play. That is true in the classroom as well. If they are not preforming there then they risk being on the team, they risk succeeding in life.”
SACRIFICE – Anyone who tells you that football is an easy sport to play is either not in touch with reality or a person who is playing it wrong. This is one of the most grueling activities a person can opt to do, and success requires a great deal of sacrifice. Improving this team was going to take a lot of this and Coach Tomeo has continually made this message clear to his team.
“Anything worth doing is going to take sacrifice to get there. There is no easy fixes when you’re near the bottom. You are going to have to work hard to get there, and you are going to have to sacrifice.”
TRUST – When a new coach comes into a program, especially one where success has been lacking, there has to be a lot of trust that this coach can be the difference. A lot of coaches prior to him arriving have probably made others believe that they were the answer, yet there is the new coach. Getting the school, the alumni, the administration and the players to believe that things are going to be a lot different requires trust, something that Coach Damon Tomeo acknowledges may be the most essential ingredient of all in developing a PAST at Knox College.
“The most important one is trust. You got to have trust. You got to trust the coaches, you got to trust your teammates, you got to trust yourself, and the more we are seeing that trust the more the program is moving forward.”
The Knox College Prairie Fire are starting to see the results that comes from developing a core based on the PAST. They won one game in his first season, and two in his second, a number they have already reached this season. That may not seem like a huge difference, but there are numbers that really tell a story of how this team is on the upswing.
Last season’s team allowed better than 32 points per game, but this season the Prairie Fire have reduced that number to less than 20 so far. They have increased their scoring by four points per game and in pass defense they are the No. 1 team in the Midwest Conference early on this season. The little steps are proving to have big results and as they enter their contest versus Macalester College, at 2-1, there is little doubt that with Coach Tomeo at the helm that they are on their way to bigger and better things.
Greater success on the field is finding that it is creating buzz in the oddest ways. Last weekend wide receiver Illir Emini made an amazing catch that became ESPN Sportscenter’s Play of the Day (see video below). The school was the talk of the country, at least for a day, and this is the kind of thing that comes from buying into a belief that the PAST can lead to a brighter future.
One of the more interesting aspects of this whole transformation is the personal one that has occurred in Coach Tomeo. He, at one point, had to look back into his own past to see how he needed to create a PAST for his future. While a great leader on the field, the coach acknowledges that there was a time in his past that his life was out of balance, and that he needed to make some changes in his own core values if he was going to be the kind of man he was truly seeking to be. Now he uses those experiences to teach the young men in his program that they, too, need to seek balance.
“I’ve learned to balance my personal life with my professional life. Early on in my career I was out of balance in my personal life. The balance for me is really the key. I integrate my family life right into my professional life. You’re constantly going to have competing priorities, and my daughter and my wife understand that. As I’ve learned to balance that better I believe it has allowed me to support the student-athlete better, but it has allowed the student-athlete to see that being a family man, a dad, a husband, and those relationships are also important, and they get to see that all the time. They get to interact with my wife, all the other coaches’ wives are around, my kids are around. I think it has just made me a better person having more balance in my life.”
Balance is a necessity that he teaches and has been doing so with great success. His players are not only playing better on the field, but they are performing in the classroom as well. In his two years as Head Coach of the program all of his players who were seniors graduated, and every one of them found jobs within a month of graduation. Some of his players this season already have jobs for next year when they graduate. It is the great benefit of being a student at Knox College and of having a coach who values his players’ academic success as much as he does their play on the field.
It is true that those who do not learn from their past are destined to repeat it. However, there is also something to be said from learning from one’s past and succeeding from it. Coach Damon Tomeo has taken his past experiences and made improvements in areas that needed transformation, while developing a set of core values that are making a real difference for his players and for the Knox College Prairie Fire as a whole. He has taught his players and the college as a whole that the PAST can truly lead to a brighter future, and that future is a lot closer than they may think.
By Robert Pannier