EAST LANSING, Mich. – The Michigan State club football team might be not be playing for scholarships and potential pro careers, but that doesn't mean the 11 coaches dedicate anything less than everything to the success, on and off the field, to its players.
“I’m the type of person that when I’m in, I’m all in,” said head coach and defensive coordinator Chris Pickney. “You’re either all in or you’re all out. Once I dedicate myself, there’s no in between or halving it. It is just the way I was raised.”
Coaches and players travel to John M. Patriarche Park, located on Alton St., every Tuesday and Thursday for practice from 6:45 p.m. to 9 p.m., well after the sun has set. Players mentally harden themselves as they put on their full pads and their green and white helmets with the Spartan block “S” on the side for a tough day of practice before they go through their warm-ups in the brisk fall air. The coaches assemble in their warmest Spartan gear to prepare for one of their eight games this season. Every player huddles together as they break it down before they split into their respective position group for the first half of practice.
“3, 2, 1, Spartans!”
Wide receivers make their sharpest cuts and then turn their head to find the ball. Corners and safeties try to glue themselves to their targets. Linebackers take turns laying out the dummy wearing a T-shirt of their upcoming opponent. Defensive linemen stay as low as possible as they try to swim past their blocker. The team reunites for another breakdown before they switch to the freshly cut baseball field across the tiny parking lot to run full on practice.
“3, 2, 1, Break!”
Quarterbacks shout “set, hut!” with a little rasp in their voice as they call for the snap after they have survived the field and made the correct audible. The voices of the many coaches are heard congruently with that of the players.
“Matt! Great throw! That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” said offensive coordinator William Jackson. “Keep it up!”
Pickney came to Michigan State as defensive coordinator for the team’s successful 4-1 inaugural season in
2015 after leading Oakland University to a NCFA championship and an undefeated season in 2014. Pickney was joined by Mitchell Brooks, his wide receiver coach at Oakland, for Michigan State’s first season of club football. The two have been reunited with another friend from OU, coach William Jackson. Brooks also serves as assistant head coach and wide receiver coach, while Jackson is the offensive coordinator for the Spartans.
The most remarkable part of the team structure is that all of the coaches are volunteers and travel from across the state. Coaches commute and sometimes even carpool from Novi, Detroit, and even Alma. All their mean at least an hour’s drive one way to every practice.
“It’s pretty remarkable that these 11 guys choose to donate their time when they live about an hour and a half away,” said junior Kinesiology major and safety Lucas Mayo, who is also one of the team captains. “It’s made us better as a team to have individual skill position coaches.”
Not only do the coaches spend a lot of time on their commutes for practice, but they also spend their little free time on specific formations and situational plays.
“We have a new offensive coordinator this year and it is probably the most elaborate offensive I’ve ever been in and that’s saying a lot for someone who doesn’t get paid to do it,” said senior History Education major and quarterback Vinny Costanzo. “He puts in a lot of effort and time into game planning and really giving our offense an identity.”
Players can see and even feel the effort the coaches exude as if it is something tangible. They use it as motivation to work even harder.
“I think the amount of effort and care they put in makes me want to work harder for them,” said Costanzo.
This is not a volunteering job for these coaches. They are dedicated because this is a second family to them. They treat these players as if they are their own sons. Many of the coaches already have children, but this family has 46 brothers.
“I love these guys like they are my own sons,” said Pickney.
Mentoring and leading
The coaches care about their players’ development as young men and connect through heart-to-heart moments akin to father-son bonding. They pass on knowledge and valuable life lessons they have learned through their cheerful, stressful, and sometimes even tragic life experiences. They only see each other twice a week for practice and once a weekend for the games, but make the most out of the time.
“Our coaches really get to know our players throughout the season and they treat us as their second family. They do it for us as much as they do it for themselves,” junior Horticulture major and safety Eric Savad, who is also the vice president of the Michigan State Club Football team, said.
According to Pickney, a real sign of success for him as a coach is when he is able to connect to a player outside of football and make a difference in their life.
“Anyone can coach the X and Os, but when you make a difference in someone’s life, that’s when you succeed,” Pinckney said. “I want these guys to win in football and in life. As long as I help them grow as young men and productive members of society, I think we did our job.”
Pickney, a father of three, equated the job to that of a parent. He believes it is important for the coaches to set good examples for the players.
“It starts with us,” said Pickney. “While we are out there coaching these young men, we are the parents so we try to exhibit positive behavior and something they can grasp and hold onto.”
Pickney has even introduced a motivational phrase he uses with his daughters as the team motto. “Be Better Than Yesterday” can be seen on the back of many of the coaches’ shirts and on almost every Facebook post by the team.
“Every day we come out to practice we’re trying to improve on what we did last time,” said Mayo. “We don’t want to stay the same and we want to move forward.”
Costanzo believes the coaches demonstrate values that will set the players up for success after their playing careers end.
In the meantime, Savad said the team owes a major part of the programs successful start to their coaches’ hard work and dedication.
“This is coaching staff is as important to this team as all of our players,” said Savad. “Our players have the athletics to win, but not necessarily the knowhow. Our coaches, as personal, educational and inspiring as they are, keep us going. They’re part of the reason why we can claim so much success so early in our program’s lifespan.”