Randy Awrey Drawing the Best from Players, Self at Concordia-Chicago

Before coming to Concordia-Chicago, Head Football Coach Randy Awrey had already established an impressive resume, not only in the way that he had turned programs around, but also in the life lessons that he had taught his players. He is now focused on this kind of transformation with the Cougars, as the Coach continues building a program on the principles that lead to success.

Introducing Randy Awrey

For fans of B-rated Sci-Fi movies, there is a scene in Starship Troopers where the lieutenant says, “I have one rule: everyone fights, no one quits.” The truth is that people, especially leaders, like to make things a whole lot more complicated than they need to be.

The more rules that one has the less likely that anyone is to follow them. This is why it is essential to focus on the things that really matter, because when you do that you are much more likely to get the conduct and commitment that you are looking for, because a few good rules or policies that a person successfully follows will spill over into their overall conduct.

While many will see the merit in this idea, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense on a football field. In a sport where what is considered a catch has to be clearly defined or where there are no less than four pages in many rule books that explain what is a proper uniform, it seems counter-culture for anyone who has been in the sport for nearly 60 years to not be a rules lover.

However, if you knew Concordia-Chicago Head Football Coach Rick Awrey you would totally get it. This is a coach focused on teaching his team one simple rule, knowing that if his players truly embrace this, he will not only draw the best from them, but that they will in turn get the best from him as well, thus turning the Cougars into a powerhouse in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC).

Building Teammates and Friends of a Lifetime

Football has been in the blood of Randy Awrey for nearly 60 years. He loved the sport growing up, and had the advantage of playing alongside Steve Mariucci, who would become one of the most successful coaches in San Francisco 49ers history, now an analyst on the NFL network. Mariucci would be his quarterback all the way through college.

Soon to be famous friends also included Tom Izzo, who has won a National Championship at Michigan State and is one of the most respected college basketball coaches in the country.  The three were in the same backfield in high school, with Mariucci as the quarterback and the other two as running backs. All three would go onto Northern Michigan, where Mariucci and Awrey won a national title in 1975. Randy Awrey was named the MVP of the title game, scoring the winning touchdown on a 68 yard scamper. Izzo also attended Northern Michigan, but played basketball for the Wildcats.

Having an opportunity spend much of the early years of his life with the two soon to be legends was transforming for Coach Awrey in more ways than he can describe.

“I had the opportunity to spend much of my life growing with the two guys I consider to be like my big brothers. They taught me a lot of things. I was the oldest boy in my family and my parents knew nothing about athletics. I am one year younger, so watching them growing up, then we went to college together, with them a year ahead of me, I learned so much from them. They really made a huge impact on my life.”

Following in His Brothers Footsteps.

Tom Izzo and Steve Mariucci knew even in high school that coaching was the pathway they wanted to follow, but that was not the case for Randy Awrey. He was not sure what he wanted to do after he left Northern Michigan, but found the opportunity to stay around the game he loved made it a no-brainer of sorts to choose coaching as his career path.

“While I was playing football, the college education and the experience of all the excitement and fun of football, it just absorbed me and it became my passion. I wanted to continue doing it.”

After completing his degree, the Coach became a graduate assistant at Northern Michigan, which would eventually lead to positions as an assistant coach. He spent time working at Westwood High School and St. Lawrence University, and would later be inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame at St. Lawrence, as well as at his alma mater.

It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

In 1990, Randy Awrey received his first opportunity to be the head coach, taking over Kentucky Wesleyan University. The school had resurrected their program a few years before the Coach arrived, and was called upon to help it move to the next level.

The first three years with him at the helm, the Panthers competed at the Division-III level. The Coach led them to a combined record of 5-25. The next season, they moved up to the Division-II ranks and finished 6-4, the first winning season since the football program was reinstituted.

In 1994, Coach Awrey was named as the head coach of the Lakeland University Muskies, the team he will lead the Cougars against on Saturday. This was a struggling program, and in two seasons he led them to a winning record (6-3-1). In 1997, the Muskies earned the best record in school history, going 10-0. In his five seasons at the school, Lakeland went 35-14-1.

In 1999, the Coach moved to Saginaw Valley State, moving back to Division-II football. He would remain at the school nine years where he posted a 76-27 record. That included going 12-1 in 2003 when the team went undefeated in the regular season and advanced to the Division-II quarterfinals.

In 2008, Coach Awrey returned to his alma mater, where he would serve as the defensive coordinator. He would remain there for four seasons, before spending a year as the defensive coordinator at Marietta College.

A Choice for the Benefit of the Whole Family

In January of 2013, Randy Awrey became the 17th head football coach in Concordia-Chicago history. He had a great deal of success wherever he had gone and knew that he could have success with the Cougars. However, the opportunity to lead a team was not the only reason for taking the job .

“My two youngest sons – one was wanting to work on a Master’s degree and the other one was a good Division III football player. By taking this job, it allowed both of my sons to come here. So, my one son came here and got his Master’s degree in clinical psychology and worked as a graduate assistant with me for a couple of years. My other son was here for three years and got his college degree in communications, he found his wife here, and later got married. At this place, it allowed our family to stay together, it allowed me to be in a setting that is faith-based, which is becoming very important to me in allowing me to share my faith in a small college atmosphere; to make a difference in these guys lives.”

The Cougars job was incredibly enticing for other reasons as well. The program had a lot of success, going 10-1 in 2012, their fourth straight season of at least eight wins, but was going to be undergoing a dramatic transition, including moving to a newly formed conference. The Coach was undaunted.

“This is a great atmosphere. It was going to be a challenge, but there are great people here and I knew that this was a great fit.”

Developing a Philosophy that Defines the Program

Player conduct policies and team rules are the kinds of things you see in many college football programs. In fact, the vast majority of programs are run this way. This can include a requirement that all players make their beds each day or that all players must be at least 15 minutes early to all team meetings.

The purpose is to create a greater sense of disciple, a commitment to do the small things that can lead to greater success on and off the field, and they can be highly effective. However, for Randy Awrey, he had just one rule for his team. Something that was more of a philosophy than a rule.

“The number one thing is that I just tell them I only have one rule. Our priorities are faith, family, education, their team, and then themselves. With that in mind, you’re going to be a champion in everything, on the football field, off the football field.”

Coach Awrey has found through his many successful years in coaching that the more complicated that things become, the more likely that the real priorities will be lost.

“We tell players in recruiting, we tell them in the first day of camp, and we use it throughout camp so that the kids know what we expect. You can’t make a lot of rules. When you have a lot of rules, it gets to be too much red tape. It paints you into a corner; it makes things too complicated. Now, when there is a problem, I can simply look at that player and ask, ‘Where were your priorities? Were you making choices that were good ones?’”

The focus starts with the idea that faith is the priority in the life of every person. While not pushing that any of his players become a Christian, faith has become a key component for Coach Awrey, and a sense of spirituality is something that he wants all of his players to embrace.

“This thing goes into my original philosophy that everything you do in life is to help people, to lead people to Jesus. I’m not a Bible thumper kind of person, you wouldn’t call me that. I’m a little rougher around the edges as likely we all are, but I think that when you stress doing the right thing, you stress the importance of having faith in your life, it makes a huge difference. I don’t know how people can live without it, but when you have faith in your life it gives you purpose, it gives you direction.”

It is more than just about wanting his players to embrace faith. The Coach sees that this is part of the college experience and would be remiss if he did not help his players to discover this very important part of each one of us.

“Colleges are supposed to make you a more well-rounded individual, so I want to try to introduce them to everything, including faith. I want to teach them spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, every which way you can think.”

A Perfect Model of Family

While faith is essential, family also plays a significant role in the success of any program that Coach Randy Awrey has been associated with. Part of his reason for coming to Concordia University-Chicago was because of his two sons, but the football program has now become an essential part of the whole family. This last Saturday’s game was a prime example of how committed the Awrey family are to the Cougars.

“My family is a football family. This past weekend, for example, both of my sons who live in Chicago, one is married, one has a steady girlfriend, they’re all at the game. My wife is there at the game taking pictures. I have a sister-in-law who drove six hours with her husband to watch the game. My brother drove an hour and a half to watch the game. My other two children watch it on the video on the Internet and then call me after the game to talk about it. I have a sister in upper Michigan who does the same thing, one in the lower part of Michigan who does the same thing. It’s crazy to think how blessed I am to have a whole family who stops for three hours Saturday afternoon to watch what I’m doing. That kind of shows how awesome my life has been. I don’t think you can do this job without the support of your family.”

Of course, the essential reasons that any young man goes to college is to gain an education. Concordia affords one of the best in the nation. This is important to Coach Awrey, because he has great expectations for his players.

“My expectations are for them to go out and carry the things that they learned here out into the work world, into their family world, into whatever they choose to do in their life and hopefully we’ve made a difference that will be positive, that will make the rest of their families, their kids and their kid’s kids better off because that young man was in this program.”

What It’s All About

A few years ago, Randy Awrey was asked by someone what he would like written on his tombstone. His answer was “He always gave his best.” This is important to the Coach because he knows that we can never be perfect, but we can control our effort.

“None of us can be No. 1 all the time, but if your wife, your kids, the kids in the program and the people you work alongside can say, ‘That man always gave his best,’ that’s one heck of a thing to be remembered by. So, if I could give something to a young man that could help them move forward I would say that as long as you’re giving it everything you’ve got, that’s all you can do.”

Wanting to be his best has meant so much to him because Coach Awrey wants the very best for his players. He is honored that he has played some small part in their success, and cherishes those moments when he hears or reads how well they are doing.

“I love watching a success story. Watching a young man who overcomes an injury, watching a young man who comes to you and his girlfriend just break up with him, and he goes on and he is doing really good in school. Four years later, he finds another girl and it winds up they’re going to get married and he is as happy as can be. Watching 10 years from now somebody sending you a note, saying, ‘Hey Coach, we’re having a baby and we just wanted to let you know.’ Somebody saying thank you for something. Those are the little things, but they’re huge. Those are the rewards, those are the things that I hold dear to my heart.”

On Saturday, Lakeland University will honor the 20th anniversary of the 10-0 Muskies team, choosing to wait until Concordia-Chicago was there so that Coach Awrey could be a part of the celebration. It is not surprising that the school and those who were part of the program would want to do it this way, considering the impact that he had on them when he led the program. A truly classy thing to do to honor the Coach, something that anyone would expect from someone who has been touched by Randy Awrey.

By Robert Pannier