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Film Room #4: Going Beyond

I hope you enjoy another installment of our Film Room series. Though we are 3 weeks into the 2014 season, this edition chronicles their 2013 championship year. Our continued thanks go out to Coach for sharing his story. Go Cougars!

“Our first year in the NCAA was like being a toddler learning to walk consistently. We kept falling down, yet were eager to try again. Getting up was frustrating, but we wanted to move forward. It was harder than we imagined, in part because we didn’t yet know what we didn’t know.” (Victor Santa Cruz, head football coach, Azusa Pacific University)

The Azusa State University (APU) Cougars rode a steady wave of success at the end of the 2012 season, winning their last four games. Hoping to carry the momentum into 2013, coach Santa Cruz and his squad focused on maintaining a clearer outlook of what it means to succeed both on and off the field.

“I saw that we were no longer that toddler learning to walk, but we were still growing—like a young adult learning our way. We were acquiring wisdom about certain daily tasks, and discovering the role that humility played in the bigger picture.”

The opportunity to gain humility not only came through the previous season’s losses, but also the wins. (Read Entering the Film Room, The Slide Under Pressure, and The Turnaround for a picture of APU’s 2012 season.) Coach Santa Cruz explains, “When the tide turned for the better, it was an in-your-face reminder that at any moment things could turn back the other way, especially if we slipped into old, self-defeating patterns.”

After all, the Cougars didn’t suddenly start winning because of lucky bounces or close calls. Instead, it came after they recommitted to focusing on people, while seeing perceived failures as challenges and opportunities.

“The most important thing we did during 2012 was move beyond the Xs and Os, and focus on one other,” coach says.

Carrying over into a new season

It’s one thing for a group of returning players and coaches to carry the lessons of a previous season into the next. Bringing new players and personalities into the mix is another matter. Knowing this, coach and his staff share APU’s people-driven philosophy with new players early in the recruiting process, laying the groundwork so they know and understand the environment they’re about to enter.

“We have player turnover the same as every football program,” coach says. “The question for us is, how can we create a cohesive mindset that carries over from year to year.”

The answer begins by focusing on the unique qualities each player brings as a person—going beyond their individual skill set or football IQ. Indeed, it has as much to do with their emotional awareness and development as human beings as anything else.

The truth for many D-II players is that the college gridiron represents the highest level of competition they’ll reach. While some will go on to the pros, be it the NFL, Arena League or elsewhere, the average professional football career lasts less than four years.

“If you’re 26-years-old and done playing football,” coach Santa Cruz says, “you’ve got a lot of life to live. While they’re here, we want them to gain the personal strengths and skills they’ll need to answer the ‘what now?’ question.”

What it looks like when it clicks

“We do all the things a typical football program does,” coach Santa Cruz reiterates. “We study the playbook, watch film, hit the weights, and make sure we’re meeting the school’s academic standards. At the same time, our guys explore this bigger piece—whether you call it emotional intelligence or awareness. We’re bringing our guys into the fold of a more well-rounded, whole-person philosophy.”

Still, from an outside perspective, college football teams are typically judged on a week-to-week basis. Fall Saturdays put nervous energy, bursts of adrenaline, tension and jaw-dropping athleticism on display in front of thousands of fans rooting for long runs, big stops, and victories. It can be a pressure cooker, no matter which sideline you’re on.

Midway through the 2013 season, the Cougars found themselves at 3-2, looking to separate from the pack and plant their stake into the D-II ground. It had been nearly a year since their surprise 2012 homecoming win, and they found themselves once again playing in front of the homecoming crowd. Unfortunately, they were down 23-3 at halftime.

“We were getting embarrassed,” coach Santa Cruz says bluntly. “The fans were heading for the gates. The old me, if you will, would have tried to grab the game by the horns and wrestle it toward what I wanted.” In this former reality, stressful situations were fertile ground for coach Santa Cruz to switch into a command-and-control approach to coaching—often punctuated with anger. He hadn’t yet gained the confidence in his players, nor had he truly began tapping into their personal reserves of self-awareness.

“This year, things went differently,” he says. At the half, he and his staff followed a new script, one that stayed flexible to the situation.

“I could hear conflict in everyone’s voice,” he says. “But we didn’t let the conflict get on top of us. Instead, we stayed on top of the moment. I told our guys we had one of two options—blame each other, or fix things as a group.”

What followed was the type of experience all coaches dream of.

“I shared a story about a previous squad rallying from a huge deficit, then reminded them that our only way through was to take it play-by-play. And then, our team leaders stepped up and reiterated this belief. It’s one thing to hear a coach give a pep talk, but it’s something different when it comes from your teammates.”

To say the Cougars owned the second half is an understatement. Their offense exploded, while their defense began to dominate. The result was their most important victory of the year, a 44-38 win that not only enthralled the fans that faithfully remained, but, in many ways, solidified the vision they’d been working toward since the previous year. The Cougars would go on to win their next six games as well, ending the season with a 10-2 record, their best since 2004.

“We knew we had the resources to be successful,” coach Santa Cruz says. “The reason we were able to finally break through had to do with the ability to speak life into our players, and let their intrinsic talents shine.”

For coach and his team, success continues to lie beyond the game itself. In fact, football in his view is a means through which players can uncover and realize their core values.

“It’s an honor to coach these guys during what can be seen as the most transformational time in a young man’s life,” coach says. “We’re here to help them discover fundamental principles that go way beyond football. We don’t want to miss this moment.”