Coaching Management, 14.4, April 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1404/qacarthel.htm
It’s not unusual for a coach fresh off winning his school’s first conference title to move on to greener pastures. This usually means taking over a more established program or stepping up to the next level. But for Don Carthel, it meant moving to an actual pasture. Just weeks after leading his Eastern New Mexico University football team to the 1990 Lone Star Conference title, Carthel left coaching to spend more time with his children and tend to the family ranch in Friona, Texas.
When his children, both accomplished athletes, finished their playing days, he wanted to return to college coaching. But he was repeatedly turned down, often told he’d been out of the game too long. In 2004, he turned to arena football, leading the Amarillo Dusters to a championship in the now-defunct Intense Football League.
Then in April 2005, West Texas A&M University offered Carthel its head coaching job. He jumped at the chance and picked up right where he’d left off 14 years before. After winning a total of seven games over the previous four seasons, the Buffaloes shocked the Lone Star Conference by going 10-1 in the regular season, winning the LSC title for the first time since 1986, and soaring as high as seventh in the NCAA Division II rankings.
In this interview, Carthel discusses his decisions to leave coaching and then return, coaching against his son, and helping assistant coaches start their careers.
CM: Why did you decide to leave coaching 15 years ago?
Carthel: I really enjoyed what I was doing except for the time I was missing with my two kids, Colby and Courtney. I’m all or nothing when I do something—on Friday nights as a college coach, I had team meetings, watched film, and pretty much put my players to bed. I wasn’t going to sacrifice those responsibilities to see my son or daughter play football or basketball. I decided that I had to give up coaching in order to really watch and enjoy their high school careers. I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing now, but I don’t regret leaving.
Coaching never really left my blood, though. I’d find high school players and send recruiting lists to my friends still in college coaching. I was asked to coach a Division II all-star game—the Snow Bowl, in Fargo, N.D. [now the Cactus Bowl in Kingsville, Texas]. It was a college all-star game for players hoping to be drafted. Then, after Colby finished playing at San Angelo State, he took a coaching job at Abilene Christian, and they asked me to be a volunteer coach on Saturdays. I’d drive 280 miles every weekend—more if they were playing out of town. I did that for four years to get my coaching fix. Then the Dusters asked me to be their coach and general manager.
What did you take out of your experience with the Dusters?
This past year at WT, we had a great offense and a porous defense, but I was used to high-scoring games from arena football. The coaching philosophy I used in arena football—taking chances with on-side kicks and two-point plays, and doing anything and everything to outscore the opponent—was pretty valuable. Managing the clock wisely in the last two minutes is of great importance in arena football, and I think I’ve been able to carry that over to the college game.
Did you think about coaching in high school when colleges were turning you down?
No. I did three years of high school coaching, and I enjoyed it. But I was president of the school board at Friona when I was farming and ranching, and I saw how some parents treat high school coaches. I wasn’t too interested in getting back into those situations.
Having been president of your local school board, what advice would you give coaches as they deal with board members and administrators?
I think as long as they treat kids right—the way that they would want a coach to treat their son or daughter—they won’t have problems with parents, or at least not with their school board members and principals. It’s especially important that they have a good relationship with their principal.
How do you cope with the long hours on the road recruiting?
Believe it or not, I enjoy it. I love meeting people, going places, finding good restaurants. But it’s seasonal. A couple of months recruiting is like harvest time on the farm: You work from sunup to sundown, though in this case you’re not even sleeping at home. You’re usually in a motel Monday through Friday, at least.
What did you do to turn the team around this year?
The first thing was to put together a coaching staff of good men who treat the players well. We show players that we’re interested in their lives, not just their football skills. I think if you treat players that way, they’ll respond well, and good team morale and chemistry will follow.
Plus, our community was hungry for a winner. When they saw the heart and the passion that our kids played with, they responded. We led the nation in average attendance with more than 13,000 per game and set a league record with 22,993 at one of our games. Having that type of excitement and interest from the community made our players play that much harder.
What brought the fans out?
Number one, we were winning. Number two was the way we were winning. Our defense was flying around, creating turnovers, and our offense scored a lot of points and threw the ball all over the place. We led the nation in passing this year and were in the top 10 nationally in scoring and turnover ratio. The combination of that type of offense and some very exciting finishes—in six wins we were behind in the third quarter, and in three we won on the last play of the game—made us fun to watch, and I think the fans appreciated that and kept coming back.
Did you play that kind of game earlier in your coaching career?
No. We use the same Air Raid offense that Texas Tech is running. It’s very exciting, very explosive, and our guys bought into it. The team had been running this offense for two years prior to my coming here, but for whatever reason they just weren’t able to finish a game or put a lot of points on the board. Everything just kind of fell into place this year. We had some good receivers and a very good quarterback who hadn’t played much for three years but played extremely well this season.
Your team made the Division II playoffs for the first time, earning the top seed in the Southwest region, where you lost to Pittsburg State. What did you tell your team after that loss?
Of all the colleges that play football, there’s only one that’s happy at the end of the year. And right now, it’s the University of Texas in Division I-A, and at our level, Grand Valley State. Everybody else falls by the wayside sooner or later. So you’ve got to look at the whole season. Thank the players for their effort and don’t dwell on the one game or the one loss. To the players who are coming back, we said, “Let’s learn from this opportunity and make sure we’re prepared to make a better run for the national championship next year.”
Do you encounter many athletes who think that they should be playing in Division I?
That is the type of athlete we’re trying to get. We’re looking for players who Division I schools flirted with and then backed away from at the last minute. We come in and try to pick their spirits up, tell them how good they are, and offer them a partial scholarship. We also seek Division I transfers who didn’t make it at that level for whatever reason. We bring them in and show them they’re great athletes who just need an opportunity or a fresh start in a new environment.
What was it like to coach against Colby?
My son and I have always talked on the phone quite a bit, for 30 minutes or an hour at a time. My wife will be on the phone with us, but after about five minutes, she’ll say, “Well, I’ll let y’all talk football. It seems like that’s all you’re going to do, anyway.” This year it was quite different because after five minutes or so I was the one saying, “I’m gonna let y’all talk,” because I didn’t want to spill any beans about my strategies or recruits or anything like that. Our phone bill was way down, and my wife enjoyed talking more to our son this year.
We both rooted for each other every week but one. That’s the one we both wanted to win. It was all business—there wasn’t any chitchat. [West Texas A&M defeated Abilene Christian, 40-24.]
How do you help assistant coaches maintain family life while being dedicated to coaching?
I try to make it as enjoyable for them as it was for me as an assistant. So I give them advice, visit with them often, and give them a lot of responsibility within their areas.
A lot of these guys are student coaches or graduate assistants. Once they get their degree, it’s time for them to get a full-time job and start providing for their families. I thoroughly enjoy being a part of young coaches’ lives, helping each one develop his philosophies as he starts his coaching career.
If a person enjoys athletics and enjoys being around people, you couldn’t find a better profession than coaching because of the highs and lows and the excitement of being part of a high school or a college program like I’ve been involved with. You can’t go wrong in a career like this.