Syracuse University Magazine

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Q & A: Joe Ehrmann '73

Transformational Coach

Joe Ehrmann grew up in Buffalo thinking success on the football field would be enough in life. He certainly had his share: All-America defensive tackle at Syracuse; first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Colts; a decade-long career in the NFL, including Pro Bowl honors. But all that success did not satisfy him. A minister, author, speaker, and coach, he has devoted himself to helping others become successful. Ehrmann is co-founder with his wife, Paula, of Coach for America, an organization dedicated to tranforming the lives of at-risk youth through sports and coaching. On a visit to Syracuse in September, Ehrmann had a full dance card: promoting his new book, InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives (Simon and Schuster); sharing a speaking engagement at Syracuse Stage with his SU lacrosse coach Roy Simmons Jr. '59; and seeing his son Joey play outside linebacker for the Demon Deacons in the SU-Wake Forest game in the Dome. SU Magazine associate editor David Marc caught up with Ehrmann at daybreak for a cup of coffee and some Q&A. InSideOut Coaching 

You’re quite well known in Syracuse and elsewhere for your achievements on the field, but what have you been doing with the rest of your life?

I had started taking some seminary courses while I was still playing football, and when I retired from pro football I went to seminary. Paula and I moved into one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore and started a kind of street ministry called The Door. We were dealing with street-level issues—food, home evictions—in a very distressed community. We created school programs for kids locked inside urban systems that really didn’t have the resources to allow those children to maximize who and what they were. We learned a lot. If you wanted to paint a picture of poverty in this country, you’d have to paint a picture of a child. We saw that ghettos in America are manmade—constructed on bad public policy and prejudice, and designed to deny people access. We also could see that if ghettos were constructed by people, they could be deconstructed by people. So we spent years working on housing and economic development, fighting systemic racism. The most important conclusion I drew was that the greatest crisis in America—a crisis you’ll find at the foundation of just about every social problem—is a crisis of masculinity: What does it mean to be a man? That question is at the foundation of just about every social problem. It affects the young men in the alley who are locked into a system that doesn’t provide the resources to allow them to reach their greatest human potential, and it also affects the men in the boardroom who are so defined by their power they build their lives around defending it, instead of sharing it in order to effect change in lives of others. In short, I believe we can bring about social change through the development of boys and girls into healthy men and women, and I’m convinced that sports is one of the best venues in American life in which to do this.  Sports are the secular religion of this society. When you look at the history of sports in America, you see the millions of immigrants who got off boats as strangers and were integrated into this culture by sports. I wanted to bring about social change by reaching young men whose potential was imprisoned, so I started developing my own coaching philosophy and implementing it.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who taught at the Maxwell School, attempted early in his career to draw a relationship between a lack of masculine role models and a cycle of social dysfunction and poverty. Are you saying that a coach-athlete relationship can provide some of the things missing from a young man’s life in the absence of a father?

The things you learn in sports are self-discipline, self-mastery, and overcoming self-imposed limitations. It’s up to the coach to teach those skills in a way that makes them transferable to life. In the end, it’s really not about sports. Sports are a venue for developing positive concepts into real abilities that serve young people in making their way in the world. It’s about creating an internal picture of yourself. You will move toward that image and become the image that you perceive of yourself. If you’re going to change the behavior of young people, you have to change some core beliefs. Young African American kids in this country need to understand the roles that politics, racial assumptions, and economics have played in the formation of their communities and in the shaping of the people around them. They have to be able to differentiate themselves as individuals who are capable of growing beyond the culture they grew up in.

How do you define masculinity?

There are two capacities in my definition of masculinity. The first is the ability to engage in fulfilling relationships. Being a man is having the capacity to love and to be loved, and yet “Be a man!” can be the three scariest words that a lot of boys ever hear. “Be a man!” almost always means to stop acting emotionally, to stop with the tears. Expressing emotion is considered a sign of masculine failure. Boys are taught to separate their hearts from their heads. When you become so disconnected that you can’t understand your own feelings and emotions, you’ll never be able to understand the feelings and emotions of other human beings. If you don’t have a vocabulary that gives you the freedom to express your emotions, you won’t understand how your words and actions impact another human being. Without an understanding of yourself, including your emotional self, you’ll never understand others. This disconnection from emotion has created what I call “empathy deficit disorder” in this country. It’s a precondition for bullying, dating abuse, gender violence, and violence in America in the many other forms it takes.

The second capacity necessary for masculinity is the ability to commit to a cause. You want to know that you can look back at what you’ve done and see that you’ve made some kind of a difference—you’ve left some kind of mark, some kind of imprint you can be proud of. To do that, you’ve got to identify a cause that is bigger than who and what you are. You need a transcendent cause so you can get up every day with more concerns than your own wants. If masculinity is about relationships with others and commitment to a cause, then what better opportunity is there to learn masculinity than by being part of a team? A team is nothing more than a set of relationships for a cause. It has common purpose, performance goals, and objectives; it depends on a work ethic; and it’s always built on the mutual trust, respect, and integrity of every team member. A coach has the opportunity to help young people commit heart, body, and soul to a team, and so it is an ideal setting to develop masculinity.

Do some boys resent this as a kind of intrusion into their lives by a stranger? I wonder if some of them say, “Leave me alone, you’re not my father.”

Frankly, I find most kids starving for this. I’m careful not to present myself as a father or a substitute for a father. What boys have to understand is that when you don’t have a dad, that’s not about you. If your dad walked away, it’s because of his own issues. He missed out on an incredible opportunity to have you for a son. The problem for many young children is they are egocentric; they think everything is about them. “Oh, if I had only been a better kid or a better athlete…my dad would have stayed connected to me.” Kids have to be told the truth. It’s just not their fault.

In your book, you describe two types of coaches: transactional and transformational. Can you explain the distinction? 

Transactional coaches use the coaching platform to meet their own needs. They focus on external motivation of players. A transactional coach figures out a player’s self-identified needs—it could be more playing time or more praise—and if the kid meets the coach’s needs by performing well, the coach will then meet the perceived needs of the player. It’s a quid pro quo.  Coaching is a powerful platform, which transactional coaches can turn into a dangerous platform. Transformational coaches understand the power of the platform, but their main intent is to change the arc of a young person’s life in a positive way. A transformational coach looks a young kid in the eye and affirms that player’s inherent value and potential. The goal is to launch the kid forward into life. Transformational coaches don’t lose sight of sports as a means to a greater end. If I had the power, I would change the word “coach” to “mentor.” I think of Doug Marrone [’91] that way: “SU’s head football mentor.”

Who is the coach that had the most positive effect on you?

I played on the SU lacrosse team for just one season, but the most transformational coach I ever had was my lacrosse coach, Roy Simmons Jr. He saw something in me I couldn’t see in myself. He showed us the beauty of lacrosse, teaching us its roots in Native American spirituality and the quest for self-transcendence. He taught us lacrosse is more than a game. It’s a means of honoring the Great Creator and moving beyond self-fixation to connect to others and to larger traditions and opportunities. He took his teams beyond the playing field to art museums and even to Lockerbie. Roy Junior sat at the table and watched Roy Senior become a trusted advisor to people like Jim Brown [’57], Ernie Davis [’62], and John Mackey [’63] at crucial moments in their lives. He learned from his dad. Now it’s wonderful to see generations of players bringing their kids to meet him. I’ve had many coaches and teachers, yet I think I learned more from him in that one year than from any of the others.

Note: Roy Simmons Sr. ’25 captained two SU national lacrosse championship teams and served as Orange head coach in men’s lacrosse (1931-70) and boxing (1925-55).

Photo by Leo H. Lubow