By Keith Mills
Thank you, Joe Ehrmann.
“I often say the most competitive sport in America is parenting — sitting in the stands competing with each other for a better seat in the bleachers of life based on one child’s performance. These parents have forgotten the pure, unadulterated pleasure of their own play as children — if they ever felt it.”
And for this:
“Every team has a common purpose, performance goals, and objectives. In addition, every team has a mutually accountable work ethic and is built on the trust, respect, and integrity of every team member. It is the perfect venue to help boys and girls become men and women. Why do I coach? I coach to build my players’ capacity and competency to build and maintain relationships. Why do I coach? I coach to teach my players how to commit to their hearts, minds, bodies and spirits to the cause of the team.”
And for this:
“I began the InSideOut coaching process by recalling and trying to understand the experiences, feelings, attitudes and behaviors of coaches and adults who impacted my life. Some experiences were easy to recall, others more difficult, and some extremely painful. I knew that to change the way I was coaching, I had to make some sense of the way I had been coached.”
Ehrmann is certainly no stranger to anyone who has coached or is connected to high school sports in the Baltimore area, or at least, he shouldn’t be. He’s just about to begin his 15th year as the defensive coordinator under head coach Biff Poggi at Gilman, one of the premier football programs in the country.
Parade Magazine calls Ehrmann “The Most Important Coach in America.”
Of course that is subjective, though there’s no disputing the enormous impact he has had on his players at Gilman, parents, administrators, teachers and fellow coaches around the country.
Now he has written a book, “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives.” It’s part memoir, part blueprint and part challenge for any coach who puts wins and losses ahead of the welfare and emotional and physical development of his or her players.
It’s a must-read for any coach at any level, and any parent whose boy or girl is just now picking up a baseball bat or lacrosse stick, or any young man or woman who is playing basketball or soccer in high school and college.
He wrote it with his wife, Paula, and Gregory Jordan. It’s clearly Ehrmann’s coaching philosophy, one cultivated through a lifetime of playing football, basketball and baseball as a boy in upstate New York and then reaching the highest level of professional football as a young man here in Baltimore.
“The cornerstone of my purpose statement is ‘to help boys become men,’ ” he wrote. “This became the focus of my coaching. I had been waylaid on my quest to become a man by false cultural messages and poor role models of manhood. I wanted to coach players in their transition from boyhood to manhood and redefine manhood.”
Ehrmann grew up in Buffalo and writes openly about a father that abused him physically and verbally. Ehrmann was mean and nasty on the Riverside High football field and was soon a heavily recruited defensive tackle. He went to Syracuse, where he played football for Ben Schwartzwalder and lacrosse for Roy Simmons Jr. Both are Hall of Famers and both had a major impact on a young Ehrmann, but in different ways.
At Syracuse, Ehrmann was an All-American in football and the Baltimore Colts made him the 10th overall pick during the 1973 NFL draft. He joined John Dutton, Mike Barnes and Fred Cook on the famed Sack Pack and helped the Colts win three-straight division championships.
Despite moving on to the Lions and ultimately the USFL, Ehrmann never really left Baltimore. He raised his four children with Paula, whom he met after one of the most famous football games in Colts history: the last game of the 1975 regular season, a 34-21 win against the New England Patriots, which clinched the team’s first postseason berth since it won Super Bowl V in 1971.
Back then Ehrmann was the self-admitted life of the party, who spent almost as much time in Fells Point during the 1970s as he did in opposing backfields. And then he got married; lost his brother; became a father to Alison, Esther, Barney and Joey; graduated from seminary school; became a minister and helped opened the first Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore.
He also met Biff Poggi.
Ehrmann and Poggi share the same vision, a mantra they call “Building Men For Others.” It is a philosophy based not so much on the final score, but on relationships, love, respect, masculinity and service to others, things that are rarely discussed at all in high school, much less on the football field.
Football, obviously, is what brings the players and coaches together, but far more than football is taught at a school that has had as much success the last 15 years as any team in the state.
That philosophy also became the theme of the wildly successful book Jeffrey Marx wrote in 2004 called “Season of Life,” a New York Times best seller about the Gilman football team.
Joining Poggi and Ehrmann on the Gilman coaching staff that year were Stan White, Ehrmann’s teammate with the Colts, whose son Stan Jr. was the area’s 2002 Defensive Player of the Year; Keith Kormanik; Johnny Foreman; Tim Holley; and Sherm Bristow.
Most of the staff is still together, including Poggi and Ehrmann, the former college all-star and NFL Pro Bowler who has taken his coaching message to a national level.
In addition to InSideOut Coaching, Ehrmann and Paula are co-founders of Coach For America, which looks to inspire change through sports and coaching.
“The credo of American coaching seems to be that competition exists to prove superiority, to project a greater mastery of strength, and to celebrate dominance, power, and control over others,” Ehrmann wrote. “Too many coaches see competition as a way to compensate for their own insecurities and inadequacies.”
Ehrmann puts coaches in two categories: the transactional coach and the transformational coach. He’s not shy in sharing which he prefers and which he does not.
Simmons, according to Ehrmann, was the perfect transformational coach. Schwartzwalder was not.
“The transformational coach realizes the power of the coaching platform to inspire, motivate, and produce positive change in his or her followers,” Ehrmann wrote. “Transactional coaches lead through negotiation, inducement, manipulation, and threats to achieve a desired productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.
“I bought wholeheartedly into three sports myths: acceptance, status and performance-based identity. It wasn’t until I met Coach Simmons that I realized that a coach has a unique platform from which to beat back those myths and build self-esteem, character, and virtue in young athletes.
“From Ben Schwartzwalder I learned the difference between transactional and transformational coaching. I learned that when narcissism replaces other-centered coaching, teams can fracture into separate cliques. I also learned the consequences of remaining silent before injustices. From Coach Simmons I learned to look from the ground to the sky. I learned to appreciate the beauty, aesthetics, and spirituality of sports. I coach outside the box the way my mentor did with dignity, integrity, and respect. …
“I started to ask men and women I met this question: When you were younger, what person made the biggest difference in your life? The answer as invariably someone who mentored, taught, advised, affirmed, or inspired. That person was often a coach. Then I asked some probing questions. Who do you aspire to be as a coach? On what do you base your coaching philosophy?”
Roy Simmons Jr. inherited the Syracuse lacrosse program from his dad, Roy Sr., in 1971 and coached one of the great dynasties in all of college sports, leading the Orangemen to five of their 11 NCAA championships. He remains a coaching icon in the eyes of Ehrmann, though he is not alone.
“From Ed Abramoski (the former trainer of the Buffalo Bills),” Ehrmann wrote, “I learned the power of affirmation and resilience a coach can provide to his players. I coach the way I do to affirm and help players discover and identify unique gifts and talents that often go unnoticed and underdeveloped. I coach with affirmation to build up my players’ positive self-concepts and resiliency.
“From Charlie Dingboom, my high school coach, I learned the lessons of team responsibility, rules, and respect for the game and my teammates. I coach the way I do with rules, boundaries, and appropriate discipline when needed.”
He writes with the same passion he speaks.
Ehrmann is on the short list of the greatest public speakers I’ve ever heard, combining an uncanny arsenal of experience both as a player and coach with true passion and compassion for his players. Listen to Ehrmann for five minutes and it’s easy to see why he truly says he loves his players and why he won’t consider himself a success until 20 years after they graduate.
InSideOut coaching is an extension of the many seminars and speeches he’s given throughout the country. He deals with such sensitive issues as masculinity and sensitivity in and out of the locker room, date rape and how young men can stop it, and how InSideOut coaching has very little to do with wins and losses and a lot to do with love and relationships.
“InSideOut coaching is not just a program; it is a process,” Ehrmann wrote. “For me it culminated in this book. The relationships, the learning, the teaching and the coaching have all been one long, arduous, and ultimately liberating ceremony. The beauty of transformational coaching is that the transformation works both ways — it transforms us as coaches, too. Our players teach and challenge us. And if we listen, they tell us how to love them.”
Thank you, Joe Ehrmann, for a book that is a must-read, and a message that has to be heard.