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Coaching in the Balance

by Joe Reinsch

Football coaches take risks. They’re known for it. They make a living off it, and a few make a great deal of money doing it.

Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz faced one of those risky decisions during the Cougars’ 2011 first-round playoff game against Ottawa University: fourth and four at the Ottawa 31-yard line. With a 15-point lead midway through the third quarter, Santa Cruz rolled the dice with his offense, and the gamble paid off.

Freshman running back Terrel Watson battled for five tough yards, extending the drive with a first down. Six plays later, after a fake field goal on a fourth and 12 netted 22 yards and set up a pair of running plays, the Cougars scored again for the three touchdown lead and eventual 49-26 win.

A week later, however, in the quarterfinals at Carroll College, the Cougars suffered a variety of misfortunes on fourth down in a heartbreaking 17-14 loss, proving that victory eludes even the most driven coaches and players. For some, that drive to win overshadows everything and demands significant personal sacrifices. Work weeks average 100 hours. Enjoying a meal with your family during the season becomes the rare luxury. Focus on personal health fades because it equals time taken away from discovering the next breakthrough that could make the difference between winning and losing.

After four months of practicing to prepare for regular-season and playoff games, coaches shift into recruiting season, followed by spring practice and summer conditioning. In addition, APU’s coaching staff must focus on new NCAA rules and recruiting guidelines as they enter Division II’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference as a football-only member in fall 2012 (Pacific West Conference in all other sports).

The lifestyle certainly takes its toll, even on the most accomplished coaches. At age 45, Urban Meyer resigned from the University of Florida due to health concerns, while Michigan State University’s Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack at age 54 shortly after his team’s upset of the University of Notre Dame in 2010.

Santa Cruz decided there was a better way. He sought a balanced approach to pursue a winning coaching career without sacrificing being a good Christian, husband, and father. He and assistant coach Brian Willmer developed a philosophy of coaching that fosters success on the field alongside happiness off the field. “We defined ‘winning work’ and found a way to become successful at it instead of just being busy,” explained Santa Cruz. “Those first four years were dark, growing years, but through it all, something really special unfolded.”

After his first four seasons yielded just one winning record, Santa Cruz earned NAIA Independent Coach of the Year honors the past two as the Cougars made back-to-back playoff appearances in 2010 and 2011. These accomplishments certainly lend validation to his balanced approach, not to mention the quality of the time Azusa Pacific’s coaches spend with their families. “Taking Sunday as a day of rest renews Victor,” said his wife, Jamie. “He doesn’t get burned out, which is important to him because his passion is also his profession. The time Victor spends with us gives him perspective and really shows his family that his world isn’t so small that it only includes football.”

In the world of Azusa Pacific football, life comes first and priorities make sense. Make no mistake, Santa Cruz and the rest of his coaching staff are no less competitive than their peers on the opposing sideline. They’ve simply taken advantage of technology and the scarce commodity of time within an organized framework that provides all the information they need at the time they need it. “Instead of adding hours to our workday, we’ve become more creative with the time we do have,” said Santa Cruz. “Putting constraints and parameters on our work hours helped us become more efficient, not less productive.”

Walk into the APU football offices during a typical game week, and you’ll find a group of men focused on a common goal. What you won’t find are those same coaches spinning their wheels deep into the night while life moves on without them. Willmer often breaks down game film late at night utilizing cloud technology from home—after saying prayers and tucking in his kids. “Being strategic with my time helps me find balance with my family,” said Willmer. “If I have to stay up later at home to spend that time with my kids while they’re still awake, it’s worth it. They don’t care about the wins and losses, all they care about is whether I’m there for them.”

That example impacts their student athletes as well. Just ask John van den Raadt ’12, the Cougars’ four-year starting quarterback who developed into the top dual-threat quarterback in Azusa Pacific history. “As a Christian, it means a lot to see our coaches act out their faith by taking Sundays off to be with their families,” said van den Raadt. “They don’t waste time in the office stressing about plays. If anything, that Sunday away helps them to get balance by putting football on the back burner until the next day. It’s a huge testament to their character and skill.”

Forget fourth and four at the Ottawa 31-yard line—Santa Cruz took a big risk when he put his young coaching career on the line for this philosophy. By doing so, he shaped an entire program dedicated to building champions while pursuing championships. “I hope that when I’m older, I can say that our model was a real breakthrough not only for my marriage, my kids, and my walk with the Lord, but also for the coaching industry as well,” said Santa Cruz. “We wanted to come up with a method that shows coaches how to win and build up men at the same time, so that building men produces winning instead of hoping that winning would produce men.”

Originally published in the Spring '12 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).