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1) Make an Impression
I’m in Highlands Ranch, at Valor Christian High School, attending the groundbreaking ceremony for a new football stadium. For the past half hour I’ve been touring the construction site, eating hot dogs and popcorn, and contemplating why a small prep school needs a 4,300-square-foot weight room under its football grandstand. I’ve driven down here from Boulder not so much for the free food but to see Dan Hawkins, the head coach of the University of Colorado football team and today’s featured speaker.
It’s a late-winter afternoon. Although the sun still shines, I pull up the collar on my coat to ward off a chill. Hawkins is supposed to speak in the Valor gym in an hour. I decide to head inside early to warm up.
I spot a guy in the parking lot, talking on a cell phone, wearing a gray blazer and a black turtleneck. He has shaggy hair, a preposterously oversized head, and eyes concealed by black shades. He sees me and waves. It’s Hawkins, and I’m surprised he recognizes me. I met him only once, and then only briefly. He slaps me on the back before I can reintroduce myself. “I know you, dude.”
A week earlier I’d stopped by the CU athletic department to see if I could maybe, possibly, hang around Hawkins for a while. Permission is not a given with these requests. I expected to jump through hoops of bureaucracy before I could proceed, if I could proceed at all. Yet within three minutes I was standing in Hawkins’ office, talking to the coach directly.
“I understand how everybody wants to know all they can about Rob Lowe and these celebrities in the public eye,” he said then, questioning my interest in him. “I’m just your average cat on the street. I lie around on my couch and scratch my balls just like everyone else.”
Now we walk across the Valor campus together. A wind cuts across the quad, making me shiver. I say something about the low temperature.
“Cold?” he quips. “This ain’t cold.”
I tell him that I’m from Miami, and although I’ve been in Colorado for a year I still haven’t adjusted to the climate. He looks at me but doesn’t say anything. I can’t tell if he’s processing my words or if maybe I’m boring him. His gaze drifts from me, past the campus, to a horizon of subdivisions and shopping centers. We take a couple more steps toward the gym.
“I think of myself as indigenous,” he says finally. “When people ask where I’m from, I like to say I’m from Earth.”
2) Know Where You Came From
Dan Hawkins, the 23rd head coach in Colorado football history, actually hails from Bieber, California, a place that, to be certain, is on Earth. More specifically, Bieber is in the northeast corner of California, near the Nevada and Oregon state lines. But there’s not much actually there, no town to speak of, only the intersection of a couple roads. There are no stop lights, Hawkins says. The lone grocery store is the size of a Conoco mart.
“I call it the Dust Bowl,” says Misti Hawkins, Dan’s wife.
Hawkins was the sixth generation of his family born into the Big Valley, in which Bieber is located. His father, Norman, was a logger. Money was often tight; the family lived in trailers and sometimes cashed food stamps at that tiny grocery store. No member of the Hawkins family ever went to college, save one aunt who attended Chico State. Yet Dan, the second of three brothers, always harbored aspirations beyond Bieber. All of those aspirations centered on football. He slept with a football instead of a teddy bear. He wept when NFL Films compared a Washington Redskins drive to Paul Revere’s famous ride. He wrote letters to Dick Butkus asking how he could join him in the NFL.
“He doesn’t have a hobby,” says Norman Hawkins, who still lives in California. “You know everybody has got a hobby of some kind, but that guy doesn’t. It’s football. It’s football. It’s football. He doesn’t collect nothing. It’s football, strictly.”
Because he wanted to play football, Dan Hawkins enrolled at Siskiyous, a junior college in Weed, California, and then at the University of California-Davis, becoming the first person from his high school to play football at a four-year college. He was a fullback for Davis, a powerhouse program at the Division II level. Over the summer he’d return to Bieber to saw logs in the mill.
“It was hard, hard work throwing boards all summer long,” Hawkins recalls. “A lot of guys were always chiding me, saying, ‘Oh you’ll come back. Everybody always ends up coming back.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘I ain’t coming back. I am not coming back.'”
When it became clear Hawkins wasn’t going to make it to the NFL as a player, he landed a succession of coaching jobs, first at UC-Davis, then at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, then at Siskiyous, then at Sonoma State University. It was a tough life: He and Misti were raising four kids, including Cody Hawkins, now a quarterback at CU. They couldn’t pay all the bills every month. Dan eventually took the head coaching slot at Willamette University in Oregon, which is now a Division III school. In 1998, he accepted an assistant coaching position at Boise State University, and within two years became head coach. Over five seasons as head coach in Boise, he compiled one of the best records in Division I-A. This year, Hawkins enters his third season at Colorado. His contract, which was recently extended until 2012, pays him more than $1 million a year.
Hawkins finished his miserable first season 2-10. Last year his Buffs improved to six wins and a bowl game invitation, and his last recruiting class included Darrell Scott, a Californian considered the best running back prospect in the country. Things are trending upward, but the Buffs are playing nonconference games this year against national powers West Virginia and Florida State. Then there are Big 12 games against Nebraska and Texas, along with resurgent Kansas and Missouri. The odds of another bowl game are slim. But as the old athletic chestnut goes: If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Hawkins’ clear, simple goal at Colorado is to be national champion.
“If you knew where he came from, and to reach that level where he’s at?” asks Norman Hawkins. “I’ll be right honest with you: His first game at Colorado, my wife and I, we was up in that suite up there? There’s all that hoopla, and Ralphie running? When I seen Dan standing in the middle of it, I had to cry.”
3) Be Honest
Dan Hawkins says the sort of things you can’t say because they’re not PC.
“This is the sort of thing you can’t say because it’s not PC,” Hawkins tells me as we’re walking back to the locker room after a spring practice. He’d been talking to Kyle Ringo of the Camera about the graduation rates of schools playing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. One of the schools, University of Kentucky, graduates just 23 percent of its players. The rate is one percentage point lower at University of Connecticut, a basketball power. Graduation rates at most football programs aren’t nearly so bad. Colorado’s football graduation rate, for instance, is 68 percent.
“Why is basketball so much lower?” Ringo asked.
“You know why,” Hawkins replied. “You know exactly why.”
I thought I knew what he was getting at, but I needed to ask the question directly. As we walked up the hill to the Dal Ward Athletic Center and the coaches’ locker room, I asked Hawkins to please clarify.
“It’s because the players who arrive at college unprepared to work are largely black, and most of the players who play basketball are what? Black, right?”
When I contacted Hawkins later to confirm his quote, he was concerned. “I do not remember saying it exactly like that. Anyone who would read that statement would get a totally false perception of who I am or what my meaning is.” Hawkins went on: “Clearly, like I believe I said to you at one time, I identify with many of our students of color. Coming from where I came from, I know how hard it is for first-generation students to make it. When you have no experience and very few role models to follow it is hard. That is why I think many students of color struggle.”
At his speech to the students of Valor Christian, Hawkins managed to quote Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Mahatma Gandhi, and John Wooden on the need to enjoy the process because the process is all there is. “According to a survey I just read, 70 percent of people in society, if given a chance to lie, cheat, or steal, they will,” he told the Valor crowd, setting up his reference to the Indian spiritual leader. “Gandhi lived by the ultimate truth: Tell the truth. Tell the truth all the time.”
Sometimes when I’d ask Hawkins a question he’d cringe, making visible the battle between his desire to tell the truth and his knowledge that an honest answer might not look so hot in print. Eventually, inevitably, he would answer the question.
4) Be Open to Supernatural Experiences
“I’ve had some very mystical, weird things happen in my life,” Hawkins told me after practice one evening. We’d been talking about religion, about how he’d converted to Catholicism before marrying Misti, and how he goes to church most Sundays because it’s a good thing to do as a family, and because the core lessons of his faith, “that it’s not all about you, that it’s not all about what you want,” mirror the lessons he tries to teach his players.
My ears pricked up at the words “mystical” and “weird.” When I asked him to elaborate, he did that cringing thing. He didn’t answer, but a couple of days later he shared this story:
“So I’m at Willamette. This is no kidding. I had this dream that we were up in this mountain lake. It was really, really blue, I mean really blue. And we were trying to catch these marlin. And these big marlin were jumping that were really blue.”
Marlin? The saltwater game fish?
“Yeah, marlin, in this mountain lake. And so I remember talking to my coaches at Willamette. I said, ‘Man I had this dream. It was unbelievable how blue it was.’ It really stuck out in my mind. And [one of the coaches] goes, ‘That means something, Hawk. I don’t know what that means, but that means something.’
“So then I had this gal who, she wasn’t exactly homeless, but she was out there a little bit and living a tough life. And I used to spend some time with those people, not necessarily her, but when I’d go to the Willamette games I was always struck by how the stadium and the field was all fenced off from the park it was in, where she lived. They have all these people coming in [to the stadium] with smiles on their faces and joy, and outside the gates were these lost people, for lack of a better term. So I used to go to the park early. I’d give ’em each a hot dog and a Coke. It always struck me: joy and sadness right next to each other, side by side.
“But anyhow, so she actually brings me this gift basket. There was nothing new in there, just some things that she had found, but God bless her it was straight from the heart. And inside that basket was a little blue Boise State football that she had found. And not too long after that I get this phone call from Dirk Koetter, who had the head coach job at Boise.”
Boise State plays on an artificial-turf field colored blue. Really, really blue.
5) Strive for Balance
“The number one priority in my life is my family, and always has been,” Hawkins told me one morning in his office. “You go to some of these personal-development seminars and they have you write down how many hours a day you spend doing this and that, driving or watching TV or whatever. Everyone says they put family first, but it’s always last on the list of what they spend their hours on. But I always say you have to be able to include that somewhere in there. Carve out time for a family. They’ve got to be in that pie somewhere.”
Hawkins had told me he’d arrive at work that morning between 7:00 and 7:30. I hustled to get to the Dal Ward Center a few minutes before the hour, only to find his white GMC Yukon Denali already parked in his reserved spot. I put my hand on the hood: ice cold. I found him in his office, hunched over his laptop. He usually sits on a leather couch instead of at his desk, the computer resting on a glass coffee table. That morning, behind him and visible through picture windows, the rising sun bounced off the bleachers of Folsom Field. He’d been there for two hours already.
Balance. Hawkins said the word a hundred times in the weeks I hung around him. He tells his assistant coaches to go watch their kids play baseball or soccer, that if they miss a piano recital they have only themselves to blame. On his blog he wrote about a trip to Red Rocks with his wife to see ABBA during football season. “I can say I’m not much of an ABBA guy, but my wife is. You stay married for 25 years by making sacrifices for each other,” he wrote. “Life, marriage, or football—it’s all the same.”
For as much as Hawkins talks about balance, it doesn’t seem to come to him naturally. He describes himself as “a football monk.” After taking the Colorado job in 2006, he arrived from Boise months before the rest of his family. Until they moved down, he slept in his office, showering in the locker room. The first time I met Misti I told her I’d just spent the whole day with her husband. “Oh lucky you,” she said sarcastically. “I wish I could spend a whole day with him.”
At the midpoint of his first season at CU, the Buffs, who had lost five straight games, hosted the Baylor Bears, who also held a losing record. Several members of Hawkins’ extended family traveled to Boulder to attend the game, and to stay at the Hawkins’ house in Lafayette. Colorado lost to Baylor by one field goal, in triple overtime. By midnight Hawkins still hadn’t come home. Misti recalled their text message exchange:
“Where are you?” she wrote.
“At the office.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to get this thing fixed.”
When Misti woke up the next morning, Hawkins still wasn’t home. It was the first night he’d spent at the office since they were married.
“Where are you?” she texted, again.
“At the office.”
“OK. I’m on my way.”
“Oh no, don’t come down here.”
Misti didn’t text him back. Fifteen minutes later, outside the Dal Ward Center, she pounded on the locked front door. Another text:
“Come open the door for me.”
What Misti said to him when he opened the door was not said in anger, she recalls. Soon after that morning, she remodeled their basement, hanging football memorabilia on the walls, installing a flat-screen TV, and asking the tech guys from CU to wire the video system Hawkins uses on campus so he could study game film at home. She wants him to be able to do his work. But she insists he do it at their house.
“Don’t ever, ever do that again,” she said when he unlocked the Dal Ward front door. “I understand that you feel bad, but don’t ever not come home.”
6) Make a Difference
On a Wednesday night in April, the Colorado women’s basketball team hosted Marquette in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament. The game was largely meaningless, an exhibition between two teams that had failed to qualify for the NCAA championship tournament. Dan Hawkins sat in the crowd next to Misti. Late in the first half, during a time-out, Hawkins joined the cheerleaders on the court, tossing free T-shirts into the crowd.
“Wasn’t that great?” asked sociology professor Joanne Belknap after the game. “I was so happy about that. You never saw Gary Barnett doing something like that.”
Barnett was Hawkins’ predecessor. By the last years of Barnett’s tour, the program had lost its way. Mike Bohn, who became the athletic director three years ago, told me about a lack of teamwork, trust, and focus. The football team underperformed on the field. Off the field, a series of scandals contaminated the entire campus. Three women claimed to be raped at a party for football recruits. In all, nine allegations of sexual assault by football players and recruits surfaced between 1997 and 2004. (No charges were ever prosecuted; one woman said she didn’t file charges because she was intimidated by Barnett.) Members of the football program were also accused of entertaining recruits with alcohol, strippers, and call girls.
“There was always such a huge wall between academics and athletics,” says Belknap, who was one of Barnett’s most vocal critics. “Dan Hawkins and Mike Bohn have torn down that wall, and are building a community on campus.”
Katie Hnida was the public face of the CU football scandal. A kicker, and the first female to play for the Buffaloes, she claimed her teammates exposed themselves to her, threw footballs at her head, and grabbed her breasts in the huddle. One player, she said, came up from behind and rubbed his erect penis against her. After transferring to New Mexico, where she became the first woman to score in a Division I-A football game, she claimed that before she left Colorado a Buffs player had raped her. (No charges have ever been brought against any CU football players.)
When her rape and harassment charges first surfaced in 2004, Gary Barnett addressed reporters. “It was obvious Katie was not very good,” Barnett said. “She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability. You can be 90 years old, but if you can go out and play, they’ll respect you. Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There’s no other way to say it. She couldn’t kick the ball through the uprights.”
Barnett’s tone deafness (what did her skill level have to do with anything?) prompted his suspension. His Hnida quotes remain the defining sound bite of his tenure.
Although Hnida was the first woman to score in Division I-A, she was not the first female college football player to ever score. That honor goes to Liz Heaston, who briefly kicked for her small liberal-arts college, in 1997. Heaston was a soccer player. When the football team failed to find a reliable kicker, and with the players on the men’s soccer team unavailable because of scheduling conflicts, the school’s football coach asked her to try out. The coach said it wasn’t a gimmick, that he was simply desperate, and that he thought she could help the team. She kicked two extra points in a 27-0 win.
“Everyone was very supportive,” Heaston has said. “Having a coaching staff invite you to come out and play is a lot easier. You’re not trying to break through other people’s prejudices. The support was there from the top down.”
The school was Willamette. The coach was Dan Hawkins.
7) Provide Inspiration
One afternoon before a spring practice, I watched CU assistant coach Eric Kiesau lead a meeting of the wide receivers. Kiesau played video from an earlier practice, showing where players tipped off cornerbacks by dipping their shoulders too soon, or telegraphed patterns with sloppy footwork. There had been a page added to the playbook that day, and Kiesau went over the new information, asking questions to ensure each kid had the details down. Dan Hawkins sat in the back of the room, leaning forward the whole time, his hands cupped around his mouth. He only made a couple of quick comments.
“There are 20 of us on the staff, and I can go to lunch with any of them and we’ll get along,” Kiesau told me. “I can’t say that about any other staff I’ve been on. And that all starts from him as the head coach. He hires good, quality assistant coaches, and then he gives them control.”
At a speech at FlatIron Crossing mall, someone asked Hawkins how much of his job is devoted to football, to drawing up plays and testing them out and breaking down defenses. Only about 25 percent, he said. Most of Hawkins’ time is spent working the culture. He lunches with the sociology department. He writes congratulatory notes to professors in the physics department. He lobbies for upgrades to the football facilities, and carpet bombs his players with inspiring text messages about a 100-year-old guy who ran a marathon, or about another guy who rowed a small boat from Namibia to Antigua. “Nothing better than a text message,” Hawkins told me. “Cause with a text message—bam!—it hits them right in their pockets, right away.”
Hawkins quotes Nelson Mandela in the mass text messages he sends his team. I’ve heard him also reference Martin Luther King Jr., Phil Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Crazy Horse. The quotes are gleaned from books that Hawkins reads obsessively. Books are stacked in his bedroom and in his office; on one visit I saw copies of A Joseph Campbell Companion, Take the Risk by Ben Carson, and a biography of Denzel Washington. He talks about books at the dinner table, and can’t pass a Barnes & Noble without buying four or five more.
Almost all of the books are self-help, or at least motivating. Hawkins is not a Renaissance man trying to learn about, say, pirates, as Texas Tech coach Mike Leach did one summer. Hawkins is more focused. He mines books almost exclusively for inspiration, for some nugget he can pass on to his coaches or his players.
“He really likes to fine-tune himself,” says his son Cody Hawkins. “He’s on a constant search to make himself better and make people around himself better. I think he just kind of knows he’s got to keep doing things the right way, and he’s always polishing the sword.”
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.”