After five games into the 2021-22 NFL season the Las Vegas Raiders fired head coach John Gruden. In relief, Coach Rich Bisaccia, then the special team’s coordinator, was elevated into the interim head coach role for the remainder of the season.
With over 40 years of experience as a coach, Bisaccia had never been a head coach at any level. He inherited a team that was going through several challenges and a storm of internal distractions including the coaching change and players being arrested. With determination, arduous work, and straight-out luck, Bisaccia did what few NFL interim head coaches have ever done – he led the team to a playoff birth.
At the end of the season, despite unwavering support from his players, fans, and media alike to become the acting head coach, the Raiders did not retain him for the role and decided on a different candidate. I tell this story because it outlines a typical interim experience in professional sports and although the path of the interim role can vary depending on the organization or level of play, they all share a common tale.
Interim roles, by definition, are temporary positions that an organization implements for a duration of time while there is a vacancy in an existing position. Typically, because the matter is time sensitive, the organization may hire/promote from within the organization for interim roles to quickly fill the vacancy. The length of interim positions can vary from weeks to months or even years but is usually based on the organization hiring someone new, or when the original employee returns from leave and reclaims their position. In the end, based on the organizations plan for the position and your performance, you either retain the role in a permanent fashion or you do not and often it is the latter.
This past year, I found myself in this very position heading into the 2021-22 competitive year when York University Athletics asked me to function as the Interim Head Strength and Conditioning Coach. When informed of the opportunity, I immediately seized it as any aspiring coach would do. The year has now come and gone, and I have realized that the interim role is a unique position that most people may not have an opportunity to fulfil in their professional careers.
The purpose of this article is to 1) discuss the challenges and realities faced when being in an interim position and lessons learned from these challenges, and 2) discuss factors that helped me find success in this role during the year.
CHALLENGES and LESSONS
1. All good things eventually end – Interim roles are just sooner than later.
The immediate thought after promotion into an interim role is often excitement, enthusiasm, eagerness, and anticipation. Rightfully so, considering you have reached a new milestone in your career. However, after the initial wave of elation wears off, you begin to recognize that your time in this role is finite. This feeling can be challenging to deal with when asked to lead a department or team and can be discouraging to know that your impact and vision will be short lived. What can you even accomplish in the short term that will be impactful and why even attempt to make any lasting change if this is coming to an end?
Lesson: The Interim role is not necessarily about providing progression or advancement to your program, it is more about providing stability. The focus should revolve around the timeline of the position and not too far into the future. Look for opportunities to have impact on day-to-day problems that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the operation.
2. You are not them and they are not you, but if you can, try to be both.
When replacing someone, you must inherit the relationships, methods, and protocols they created in their role with others. With this comes expectations from surrounding staff to continue with the systems and methods with which they are familiar. You may hear “Before we used to do things like this” or “last time this happened we just did this.” You want to implement your own style and methods, but that is not what is familiar to those around you, they may not want to incorporate it which can create friction between parties. This can create feelings of frustration within you trying to continually express that you are not the previous staff member, they are not you and although you do things similarly, you may want to try other methods.
Lesson: Listen, acknowledge, and accept that the previous staff member had a way of doing things before you. Be willing to mold your ideas to incorporate these concepts, it can help smooth relationships and keep all parties happy.
3. Who are you and why are you telling me what to do?
When you are in an interim position, it is known by those around you that your position is not permanent. Often you are giving directions and requests to staff who were previously your equal prior to your promotion. With your position being temporary and experience potentially limited, why should those around you respect and listen to your opinions and feedback? When these situations arise, it can be easy to hold back opinions, ideas, and feedback to others in fear that your staff or administration may not receive it well, or even at all.
Lesson: Even though you are temporary, for the time being you are in the role for a reason. Do not shy away, be confident to give feedback to your staff and administration based on your observations and experiences.
4. Here is your new hat… but make sure to keep wearing your old one too.
Promotions to managerial or executive roles come with additional responsibility. However, in interim positions, you may have to retain the obligations you held previously in addition to the new responsibilities. This situation can be overwhelming and create a situation in which you spread yourself too thin. In turn, the quality of your work may begin to degrade and over time may lead to ‘burn out’.
Lesson: Evaluate all the new responsibilities that accompany the interim role. Decide which responsibilities from your old role you can reassign to your staff. Communicate with your staff the responsibilities and see whose abilities can cover these without adding too much to their plate. Lastly, when you give them the responsibility and communicate the standard, trust they will get it done and leave them to it.
5. What can you add without subtracting?
Anticipating the start of the role, you begin to visualize and plan all the aspects of the program you want to create. However, with a fixed duration of your stay the more you add into the program the more potential for confusion and distraction for coaches, athletes, and other staff members. Major changes in the processes and protocols embedded in the program can in turn drastically take away from the effectiveness of the overall program in the short term.
Lesson: Do not throw the baby out with the bath water. Try to identify problems on a micro level whether in the standard operating procedures or protocols currently in place. Attempt to improve these smaller level problems to allow the program to run more effectively without taking away from the big picture of what is happening.
6. Before you know it, the job is not about writing programs anymore
Everyone loves to write programs and deliver quality training to achieve athletic development and improvement. However, a part of any management position is determining the organization of the program as a whole and how it will run. This can encompass scheduling, staffing, hiring, purchasing, budgeting etc. Without having experience in a management role these tasks can quickly take you away from your programming/coaching and put you behind a computer all day crunching numbers and making calendars. Even after investing time and resources into planning you can still make the wrong call on things, and have it blow up in your face leaving you scrambling to fix it after the fact.
Lesson: Ask for help and feedback when uncertain. What has worked before and how can you adopt those practices into your programs? When you decide on something, stick to it, and let it run its course. Not everything will be perfect, but you must go through this process to learn what works and what does not.
WHAT HELPED THE MOST THIS YEAR?
1. Ask those who have experience in the role for advice.
Prior to starting the interim role, I reached out to other coaches to get advice on the situation and best practices when it came to being in a head coach role. After talking to a couple of dozen coaches from across the country, I learned lessons that I could apply immediately into my new role. Learning is a repetitive process of successes and failures over time, but, in this role, I knew I did not have time to learn over time and felt pressure to perform from the start. Learning from others and listening to their experiences provided me an opportunity to hit the ground running by applying their suggestions immediately.
2. Invest in staff.
The best advice I received was to prioritize my staff’s improvement and success over my own as their successes would in turn become my success. Look at what the people around you need to perform their jobs at the highest level and make every attempt to provide that to them.
3. Communicate your expectations.
Whether I liked it or not, I led a team, and whether they liked it or not, they had to listen and respond to my direction. Everyone on a team/staff has a role in the process and it is imperative that everyone does their role at their best ability. However, during your interim role there will be instability and uncertainty in the team. Think critically about everyone’s role, determine your own expectations of them, how you want to see their role performed and then communicate that to them.
4. Place emphasis on the product over anything else.
New experiences/opportunities will bring unforeseen situations, for the good or for the bad. You must do your best to deal with these unfamiliar situations but in the end, you must always prioritize what you can control. By nature of the position, others will measure your success as an interim based on the day- to- day and not the long-term. Therefore, it was critical this year to have consistent, high-quality programming, coaching, and sessions to create an exceptional training experience for the athletes. It is often overlooked, but by focusing on the product, most other issues you face in the role will resolve themselves.
Growing up I played football, however, when I made the jump to university sport, I learned more about the game in one day of training camp then I did in the previous decade. I learned that you improve the fastest, not in the shallow end, but when thrown into the ocean to fend for yourself — you either swim or you do not. This year, although not finished, has been an incredible whirlwind of difficulties, failures, and successes, but most importantly, improvement. For those who may serve in an interim role in the future, I offer the following advice:
1) Be a Leader. For as much technical knowledge you have, the administration did not choose you to be an interim only based on your technical knowledge. They chose you for your leadership ability, so lead.
2) Learn and grow. It will not be perfect but squeeze every lesson from this role and by the end be better compared to when you started. Be grateful for the pressure because it is with that pressure that you can make lasting progress in your ability.
3) Enjoy the role. It is an absolute privilege to be in the position you are in, enjoy every minute of it.
In finishing, I must thank Sam Eyles-Frayne and Andrea Prieur for giving me an opportunity to be the Interim Head Strength and Conditioning coach at York University. Without their help and mentorship, I would not have had the ability to step into, and fulfil, the role I did this year.