In his fourth season as the head football coach at Aurora University, Rick Ponx has built a character in this team which has the Spartans on a pathway that has made them one of the best programs in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference.
Introducing Rick Ponx
Will Rogers once said, “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.” It is the decisions that we make behind closed doors that represent what our character is and what kind of person that each of us is.
A lot of things can shape our character. The experiences that occur in each of our lives, our parents, friends, family, teachers, and others we come in contact, the movies and shows we watch, and that music we listen to all play a part in developing the kind of person that each of us has become.
However, we are never a finished product. Our character can and will change in thousands of ways as we grow older, and this is one of the reasons why parents send their children off to a college or university each year. They are not only hoping that their son or daughter will receive an excellent education, but that the professors, coaches, students, and administrators that their child encounters will help to build character in them which will lead them to be more successful at the institution as well as once they leave and head out into the “real” world.
While many professors are focused only on the education side and many coaches are only worried about how well the young man or woman performs so that they can win, there is one coach who is more concerned with the character of his players. A coach who has determined that if he is going to do anything in the four years that he has a young man as a player, it is going to be to educate him in such a way that the young man a truly great man of character. That man is Aurora University head football coach Rick Ponx.
The Character of an Educator
It is not surprising that Rick Ponx views himself as more than just a coach. As a college student, he envisioned that he would be an educator himself and chose that path, not only wanting to teach young minds about history and its relation to them, but to coach as well and make connections with his players.
“I’ve always wanted to be an educator. I’ve been a teacher, a coach my entire life. I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I started as a history teacher, got into coaching through some guys that I played with when I was at Elmhurst College. It was what I saw myself doing. ”
Coach Ponx envisioned that he would remain at the high school level, but his experiences changed him and it was not long afterward that a new career pathway was set.
“I initially wanted to just go and get a master’s degree and get an athletic director job at the high school level but, once I started coaching college, the schematics, the chess game that you’re playing every Saturday, and the level of coaching where I was at, I really enjoyed that part of it. I had an opportunity to stay with it and I’ve been doing it now for 31 years.”
History the Draw, Opportunity the Clincher
Rick Ponx built an impressive resume in his first 27 years in coaching. He was a coach or coordinator at such schools as Northern Ohio University and Northern Central College, helping Northern Ohio to reach the national playoffs in 1999 and 2000.
Teams performed well under his tutelage, but the educator side of the Coach was always on display. Coach Ponx has spoken and helped teach at clinics and camps across the country, including providing his insights at the IHSA Football Coaches Clinic in 2015. He even earned that master’s degree he sought early on in life (from Bowling Green University).
In December 2013, the job of head football coach became available at Aurora. Mark Walsh retired and Coach Ponx knew he was ready to put his skills and talents to a new challenge. He soon discovered that Aurora University was the perfect fit for him.
“The history here, if you go back to when they restarted the program in the mid-80s, Jim Scott and his coaching staff stayed together and built a powerhouse. Aurora was or has experienced success back in the late 80s mid-90s and into the 2000s they were a successful program. So, when the position opened up here, I knew somebody on staff, I saw the vision that the school had, that the president had, and I liked where it was going. I thought I could be successful here if I got in and really started to recruit and work hard.”
Returning the Spartans to Glory
When Rick Ponx took over at Aurora University, the Spartans were coming off a tough season. The year 2013 was their first in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC), and they did not fare well, going 3-7. That was their second season out of three where they had this identical record, and he was well aware that he had his work cut out for him. However, he also knew that the Spartans had a history of great success, even recently, as they had been 7-3 as recent as 2011.
Aurora provided the Coach with a lot of great opportunities for success, but it started with the fact that he knew that he would attract an elite group of students because of the education that was provided at the school. While it is true that a winning football program will draw some, these young men are looking to get an education that will give them a greater chance at success once they graduate. Aurora is that kind of institution.
“That’s the whole reason that you’re going on to play is to get your education. If the school fits what you’re looking for academically, socially, then football is the icing on the cake. That’s really the way I’ve always approached it. If you’re here for the right reasons, you’re going to stay here. If you’re coming here just to play football that can end in a heartbeat and then would you still be at that school at that point, is that the place you would still want to get your education, your degree at.”
Putting the Right Pieces in Place
One of the most underappreciated parts of any head coach is the assistants that he hires. Not only are they the ones who implement much of the coach’s vision, but they are the ones who interact with the players the most. They are a second dad, a brother, counselor, and mentor just to name a few roles because they are the ones who have the greatest amount of contact with the players.
When Rick Ponx became the head coach of the Spartans in December 2013, he knew that he had a golden opportunity to build a program with his unique vision, but he also had the chance to hire assistant coaches who were great educators, mentors, and men of character. This became the focus of the hiring process.
“I wanted somebody who understands the Division-III philosophy, who embraces the Division-III philosophy. The guys who are involved in this program have played or been involved with Division-III. I’ve got two NFL coaches, but one of the important parts for me with them is that they embrace the Division-III philosophy. They didn’t want to jump in and be in Division-I or in the NFL. They like having a relationship with the families, a relationship with the kids more than just you’re here to play football and if you’re not playing football then I don’t need you. That’s the exact opposite of what we do here. We want coaches who can embrace that philosophy.
Football is arguably the most physically and mentally challenging sport on the planet. It takes a lot of determination, grit, and character to want to battle and work at practice, in the weight room, and on game day each week hoping that at the end of a Saturday afternoon that your team will be the one who has more points on the scoreboard.
For generations, coaches like Bear Bryant, Knute Rockne, and Chuck Knoll barked out orders to players, and they followed to the letter. However, today’s players are much different. They want to know why they are doing this drill, training in this manner, and doing this play at this point in the game. It takes a whole different kind of coach to be able to reach the players of today. It truly takes an educator, which is right up the alley of Rick Ponx and his coaching staff.
“I tell my coaches all the time to not be afraid of the question why. You better have a reason for the student. If they’re asking you why then that means that they’re engaged, they’re listening to what you’re telling them, they’re asking you whether it’s drills, whether it’s internships, it doesn’t matter. If they’re asking you questions and want to know why that’s a good thing. You, as a coach, need to have an answer for them. This is why we do this drill, this is why I had you involved in community service, this is why you should go to class. Whatever it is, that’s a good thing.”
The Coach is truly embracing the educator part of his job. He understands that when the players feel a part of the process, then they will give their utmost each week and the results on Saturday will represent that buy in.
“We’re not here to just tell them to do it this way, to get in line, and these are your marching orders. We’re here to teach them how to think and so when they’re engaged from that perspective I think you’re getting them to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing something. Once an athlete understands why we do things on the football field or on the baseball field or wherever you’re at, I think you got a much better athlete and a much better chance to achieve success on the scoreboard.”
A Program Built on Character
The schematics, the chess match may have drawn Rick Ponx into coaching but, as the head coach at Aurora University, he knows that he has an awesome responsibility. Not only are players looking for an opportunity to grow, but parents are hoping that he and his staff will help to make their sons men of great character. This has become the most important lesson of all for the Coach.
“I want them to understand the lessons, the character building, the character skills they can carry with them the rest of their life, that it will never, ever hurt them. If they work on their character skills, if they work on giving back to the community, if they’re respectful and appreciative of those around them, being disciplined, working hard, what they can achieve. We have basically 20 character skills that we talk about, whether they be moral character skills or performance character skills, those are the same skills that your employer is going to look for, that your wife is going to look for, that your community wants.
“If they can take that from this program and look back and say that being a part of it for the last four years has helped to change their life or their outlook on life, then it’s worth it. We have done our jobs. The funny thing is that the more that we work on these character skills, the better we get at it, the more we win.”
Helping to develop character skills that will make his players more successful in life is what drives Coach Ponx and, to accommodate that goal, the Coach knows that his players must know that he has love and concern for them. This is why the relationships he has developed have become essential toward reaching a high level of success.
“You have to get involved in their lives. That’s why we do this. I tell my kids here all the time that it’s not about winning, it’s about developing people 20 years from now. So when you look back and when they’re good fathers, good husbands, they’re making a difference in their church, they’re making a difference in their community, that’s how I want to be judged. I think the kids will realize later in their lives that’s how they want to be judged. Make the world a better place because you’re in it.”
The Proof Is in the Pudding
The world is a whole lot better place these days at Aurora University. In his three plus seasons with the team, the Spartans, under Rick Ponx, have gone from 1-9 in 2014 to 6-4 last season, winning a share of the NACC title. They are 5-3 this season and have a chance for a second consecutive conference championship.
Most coaches would be basking in the glory of having this kind of success, but for Coach Ponx, his success is measured by a whole different set of standards.
“I cherish getting a wedding invitation in the mail from a kid who graduated five years ago, getting a text message from players that reach out and say, ‘Hey, great win this weekend.’ That kind of connection with players where you step back and you look and say, ‘Hey, this has definitely been worth it.’ Players that reach back to you and say ‘Hey, I get it, I didn’t get it 15 years ago, or 10 years ago when you were trying to teach it to me, but I understand what you were saying now. It makes sense now.’ I see them raising their families with the same discipline, with the same enthusiasm, the same encouraging love that we use in our program. That makes it all worth it.”
Because of his vision and commitment to helping develop men of great character, players and their parents have the confidence that when these young men head into their communities, they are going to be positive role models who will become great husbands, fathers, employees, managers, and neighbors. Thanks to Aurora University head football coach Rick Ponx these men are going to be difference makers wherever they go. There is no doubt that with the lessons they have learned, these young men will help to change the character of a nation for the better.
Featured Image Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune
By Robert Pannier