Dan Hawkins and the Power of Positive Thinking
A 12-step guide to understanding the University of Colorado's popular—and peculiar—head football coach.
8) Have Fun
At the end of a practice this spring, Hawkins had one of his oversized linebackers field a punt. If the player caught the ball—and it turns out he did—the defense was freed from wind sprints. At another practice, Hawkins rolled out a Wheel of Fortune spinner, which gave players a chance to cut to the front of the dinner line or to win a postpractice ride up the hill to the locker room on a golf cart. I felt a vibe on the Colorado practice fields that I've never associated with football. As the team gathered for the first time this year, I was struck by the smiles on most players' faces. One wide receiver skipped across the field, whooping and waving his arms. Football is a brutal sport, and the competition for starting jobs at a school like Colorado is Darwinian. Yet on that first day of practice I wrote these words in my notebook: Colorado has got to be the happiest football team in America.
"Even back at Willamette, nobody ever had a better time playing football than my guys," Hawkins said at Valor Christian High School. "I bet if you find anyone who played for me there, they'll tell you they had a great time."
Brian Greer played for Hawkins at Willamette. "I had a great time," he says when I reach him by phone in Salem, Oregon. "One day when we were practicing for the playoffs, it was freezing outside. And everybody was freezing and were kind of moaning and griping about it. He comes out in short shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, hollering and hooting and getting everybody fired up. He made it a fun atmosphere."
9) Make People Feel Important
Journalists love Dan Hawkins. Not only is he insanely quotable, not only is he possibly the funniest coach in all of football, he's also, notably, empathic. When he talks to newspaper reporters, he tailors his quotes, saying a football problem he's trying to solve is like "being on deadline and your editor is breathing over your shoulder and then your computer freezes up." He tweaks those quotes when he addresses television reporters: "It's like when you're on a remote shoot and your cameraman is sick and your battery dies and you forgot to bring a spare." He talked to Valor parents about the challenges of raising kids. One morning when I was with him he talked to the tellers at Wells Fargo bank about working the windows at 5 p.m. on a Friday when the line of customers snakes out the door.
"You do what you can to make people feel important," Hawkins once told me.
I saw it myself. One weeknight before Easter, after practice, Hawkins attended Holy Thursday mass with Misti. First he had to shower and change his clothes, so I got to the church before he did, and sat with a friend who was there alone. When Hawkins arrived, a couple of minutes after mass started, he joined Misti closer to the lectern. I didn't think he saw me.
There is a point in a Catholic mass where the congregation is asked to shake hands in a show of peace. I shook the hand of my friend, the hands of the parishioners in my immediate area, and then turned my attention back to the altar. Only after everything had quieted down did I notice Hawkins walking toward me, back several rows and across an aisle. He looked me in the eye and smiled. "Peace, brother," he said when he shook my hand. It was a simple little thing, and I know I'm supposed to be dispassionate and objective, but it was a really cool gesture. I felt important, yes.
10) Leave a Legacy
"Some guys might decide that it's a little too tough, or it's a little too hard, it's a little too demanding."
If you don't already recognize these words, go to YouTube right now. Search for Dan Hawkins; the clip will come right up. At least one listen to the Hawkins Rant, as it's known, is essential to understanding the man. Hawkins could win a couple of national championships at Colorado. He could go on to coach Notre Dame, a position he has coveted because of his Catholic faith, and restore the Irish to prominence. He could inherit the Denver Broncos top job from Mike Shanahan and achieve his coaching dream of winning a Super Bowl. Whatever happens, however good, the words on his tombstone are set.
"I'll give you a little example. I got an anonymous letter from a parent. It said, 'You know we're just kinda bummed out this year that the boys only get two weeks off before they start their summer conditioning program. You know, normally they get three.' Well, we gave 'em a week at the start of the semester rather than at the end, but here's my point, OK...."
What follows is quoted on black T-shirts sold on University Hill. It has aired on ESPN countless times, and on Jim Rome's radio program even more often. One afternoon this spring, I heard Hawkins' infamous words echo across the practice bubble. A trio of visitors had prodded him to repeat the Rant, and he delivered the goods, to their delight. It is delightful. Talking to him in his office about his dad or his two daughters or his first head-coaching job, we'd stumble upon something that would get him worked up. His normally slow, low voice would rise from a gravel pit. There'd be a sharp spike in volume, making the hairs on my neck vibrate. He'd deliver a small point about commitment or practice or values or excellence, but my mind would already be tripped over to the Rant. I'd be braced, ready for him to say it again, and kind of hoping he would.
"It's Division I football! It's the Big 12! It ain't intramurals! You got two weeks after finals! You got a week at July Fourth! And you got a week before camp starts! That's a month! That's probably more vacation than you guys get!"
Hawkins delivered his Rant at a 2007 press briefing on National Signing Day, the February holiday when high school recruits commit to their colleges. His audience was the beat writers from the Post and the Rocky and a couple of other papers, working stiffs he sees all year long. "That's probably more vacation than you guys get" is probably my favorite line, for what it conveys. He's always relating to his audience. He's presenting his point so the reporters can identify.
"And we're a little bummed out that we don't get three weeks? Go play intramurals, brother. Go play intramurals."
11) Be Abnormal
I'd been in the football War Room with Hawkins, attending a meeting with his assistants. It was time for the next meeting. Hawkins' day is highly structured. It moves, much like a football practice, in regimented increments. As we left for the auditorium downstairs, Hawkins handed me a blue plastic bottle of water. "Try this," he said. "It'll change your life."
He was joking. He'd handed me something called AquaVybe, "a premium bio-energetic drinking water infused with 72 essential trace minerals derived from Power Organics Krystal Salt from the Himalayan mountains." Companies give Hawkins free stuff all the time, hoping for his endorsement, or at least to be able to claim their products are used by the University of Colorado football team. "Three water companies have approached me and said, 'If you don't drink this, you're done,'" Hawkins told me. I don't expect to see AquaVybe on the Folsom Field sidelines anytime soon.
Which is what makes Scott Sharp Armstrong's involvement with the team all the more remarkable. Armstrong is a self-invented "life coach." "Let Scott Armstrong Show YOU How to Live the Life You Were Born For," is the opening line on the Web page of the Boulder Coaching Academy. Before the 2007 season, Armstrong cold-called Hawkins at the Dal Ward Center, pitching his services as a way for the Buffaloes to "break through self-limiting boundaries," to "learn how to 'Dream Big,'" and to "design [lives] that tickle [their] soul[s]."
Hawkins talks a lot about being different. It's a staple of his stump speech, which I heard first at Valor High, then heard again several times in the weeks that followed. Be different. Don't just be a carbon-based life form existing until you die. Don't have an average job or an average marriage. "Being an average person is really easy to do," he says. "Mammals want to get into a comfort zone. They want to know exactly where to get dinner or a haircut. Reinvention requires courage and the guts to think a little different."
Hawkins' relationship with Armstrong —who's known around Dal Ward as Coach Armstrong—shows Hawkins' willingness to take risks, to be, as he says, abnormal. During spring training last season, Hawkins let Armstrong meet with the players and coaches once a week. This spring, Armstrong met with the team twice a week.
I sat in on one of the sessions. In the Dal Ward auditorium, the entire team and all the coaches flipped through Best Affirmations Workbook: A 30-Day Guide to Actively Creating the Life You Want. It was time for Day Four: The Power of Smiling. Frowning takes more energy than smiling, Armstrong declared, standing in front of the team. Smiling more will attract far more success to our lives, he added.
He talked about a trip he took with his wife to Mexico. After the porter had brought their bags to their room, Armstrong had given the man his business card, which looks like a fake million-dollar bill. He then handed us our own fake bills, telling us to hand them to our girlfriends or wives. "They'll get a big kick out of 'em," he said.
It was a tough room. While some of the players and coaches followed Armstrong closely, others snickered. When we acted out the day's exercise: closing our eyes and smiling for 60 seconds, the malevolent vibe—emanating from roughly a quarter of the players—made me wince. After that exercise we again closed our eyes to listen to the theme song from Chariots of Fire.
"I think Scott kinda knows it seems really cheesy," Cody Hawkins told me. "Even for me. You're sitting around with a bunch of 18-year-old guys listening to a song that all these parody movies make fun of, with fat girls running on the beach or whatever. I'll be sitting next to my best friend, and we'll have just seen this funny movie, and now we're listening to Chariots of Fire, trying to relax while our legs are touching."
The hostility in the room is probably unavoidable, Cody says. A lot of the guys on the team come from tough backgrounds, and have a hard time dropping their defenses. After the session, in the locker room where the coaches dress for practice, Hawkins admitted not everybody's going to glean something from a life coach. "I just throw it all out there, hoping some of it sticks." Josh Smith, a wide receiver on the team, subsequently added his endorsement: "I don't know how most guys take it, but I know that it's just positive. To have a good team you got to have everybody positive."
The sharpest criticism of Hawkins I've heard is that he is a used car salesman, a mere motivational speaker. Sometimes, I'll admit, it seems like he's trying to change the culture of his program through sheer optimism. He says things are turning around. He says he's running a tighter ship. Meanwhile, by June, eight of Hawkins' players had been arrested or cited by police for crimes as serious as armed robbery. Former star linebacker Jordon Dizon was charged with driving under the influence less than a week before the NFL draft. Former quarterback Bernard Jackson and safety Lionel Harris were jailed on multiple felony charges after a University Hill home invasion. Linebacker Jake Duren was kicked off the team after his arrest for punching through a car window. Hawkins called the string of arrests sad and embarrassing.
"I always feel like I'm a little bit on trial to some degree, because I'm supposed to stand up and defend my program," Hawkins told the Camera this summer, as the arrests continued to mount. "But I know what's going on, and the people in our program know what's going on."
12) Stay Consistent
The first time I saw Dan Hawkins give a speech, at Valor Christian High, he talked about "excellence." "That's our style," he said. "That's our philosophy. I want our kids to sing our songs and do our dance."
The last time I saw Hawkins he was standing on a 40-yard line at Folsom Field. The Spring Game had just ended, and Hawkins was giving a radio interview. It was a glorious day. More fans had turned out for the annual intra-squad scrimmage than ever before. A warm sunshine reflected off the snow that still powdered the Flatirons. I wanted to ask Hawkins about his one main point. What was the one thing he was striving for with the Wheel of Fortune spinner at practice and the motivational speakers and the endless hours of film study and the T-shirt tossing at women's basketball games and the inspirational text messages he sends en masse to his team?
"Excellence," he told me after the radio interview wrapped up. And that was it. I waited for him to elaborate, but he turned to two fans who'd asked him to sign the brims of their baseball hats. While scribbling his name with a silver Sharpie, Hawkins gave me just one more word, the same word repeated: "Excellence."