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Kevin Bullis: The Man and The Coach: Part I

Head Warhawk Football Coach Kevin Bullis was kind enough to sit down with me the day before the first 2015 Spring Practice and answered a variety of questions. The questioned ranged from personal to philosophical to football.  

Here is Part I of the interview: 

COULD YOU GIVE US A SNAPSHOT OF YOUR CHILDHOOD AND A VALUE OR TWO YOUR PARENTS PASSED ALONG TO YOU?

I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, Elbow Lake, a town of about 1300 people. I had a graduating class of 35.

 I was very fortunate. My dad had a 6th grade education. He grew up during the depression and had to work the farm for our family. 

 My mom got a degree in nursing. There were four children in our family and our parents taught us a lot of things. Things like hard work, commitment, and faith.  One of the biggest things my parents passed along was about helping people. To always be a helper.

 Helping people is what drove my mom towards being a nurse.  My dad, who got out of farming for health reasons, became a service man. He fixed refrigerators, furnaces, air conditioners, and pretty much anything. He was always helping people. And that was something we were taught from early ages.  My two sisters are in the health care field, my brother is in a service field, and that’s how I’ve always looked at coaching. It’s about helping.  I’ve always looked at it from an educator’s perspective.

 I went to college to be a history teacher. I earned my degree to be a history teacher and coach.  I see coaching as an opportunity to help people. 

HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN COACHING?

When I was in college, I was introduced to coaching because of an injury.  My senior year at the University of Minnesota-Morris, I broke my wrist in 3 places. At that point of my life, I thought to be injured my senior year was the worst possible thing that could happen to me.  In a lot of ways, it was one of the biggest blessings to happen to me.  My coach at that time asked if I could coach the guy behind me.  And that’s what I did. It was really a thrill for me to see him improve and help coach him.  After that I became a student coach.  That’s when I got the bug to be a college football coach.

 The opportunity to coach and being taught as a child to be a helper really made an imprint on me.

 Whether it is someone on the side of the road who needs help or a neighbor who needs their driveway shoveled, it’s what you do. It’s our responsibility. You don’t look to get credit for it. It’s what you do.

 And that’s what coaching is all about.  It’s always been about helping.  I’m very happy for my friends who went to Buffalo, but at that level it’s a business.  And that to me is philosophically inconsistent with who I am. For me, staying at the Division-III level, staying at Whitewater, are consistent with who I am and what I am about philosophically.  It is consistent with me being able to spend more of my time helping young men and young people. 

WHEN YOU THINK BEYOND THE FOOTBALL PLAYER, AND CONSIDER THAT YOU CAN HAVE AN IMPACT ON STUDENT-ATHLETES FOR FOUR OR FIVE YEARS, WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU WOULD HOPE YOU COULD BUILD IN TO A PLAYER AS A PERSON:

To me, that is a long list.  You talk about gifts that are given. You talk about winning a National Championship and you get the gift of a ring or a trophy. I guess those are gifts. But the real gifts are more important than that. Players get the gift of working hard together for a common goal, being committed to that common goal, doing it collaboratively, and putting our egos aside and being able to look at the greater good. 

That collaborate experience is fantastic. Within that you will will learn skill sets that can take you anywhere. 

When we talk about helping each other, it is the senior helping the freshman. Shortly before spring practices began we held a meeting with the seniors and talked about what is their goal for this spring, what are their goals for next fall, what are their personal goals, how are they going to lead? How they going to NOT lead? We talked about good examples of leadership and bad examples of leadership that they have witnessed. 

 It’s important that the seniors have the approach of giving back or, some might say, giving forward to the future, by leading the young people in the program.

 The question I asked them is “What type of legacy do you want to leave?”  We talked about good legacies and bad legacies. This opportunities for seniors to lead is a gift to them, but it is also a gift they are giving to the younger guys. They are passing on a legacy. 

 And all those experiences are really what it’s all about. The experience of being part of a collaborative effort, the experience of mentoring, the experience of leading, the experience of working hard for a common goal, the experience of meeting people you have never met before. 

 We can talk all about hard work, work ethic, commitment, and all those things.  But it’s really a culmination of all those experiences a young man has. It’s about understanding the value of an education and an understanding of how this whole Warhawk experience will serve as a launching pad to their future. 

 Learning to care about the people around you. Learning the value of caring for one another.

 I talk to the guys about dealing with adversity.  How are you going to deal with adversity next year? Are you going to separate or are you going to come together? 

 The players talked about how they will stay together during adversity.  They talked about seniors meeting together and then meeting as a team. I told them, “Now you are creating a plan. Always hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Adversity is the worst when you are ambushed. How are you going to react as leaders? Because however you react, everyone else will follow.”

HOW DO YOU HELP THE KIDS DEAL WITH THE PRESSURE OF COMING INTO THE SEASON AS TWO-TIME DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPIONS?

That’s one of the many things Lance did a great job with. We continually talked about the process.  That, to me, eliminates a lot of the pressure because we are focused on today.  We are not focused on, “Oh, wow, we’ve got a 32 game win streak!”  If you focus on that, then that can become pressure.  I had a hard time remembering that our winning streak is 32. I knew it was over 30. But that shows you how it is not a focus for us.  The trophies are not a focus for us.  Our focus is on today. What are we doing today to get 3% better?  Whether it’s sitting in an English class and taking the best dang notes I can take.  Maybe it’s working hard to improve in the weight room.  Maybe it’s running a route just a little bit better when I work on this wide receiver drill.  Whatever we are doing at the moment, we have an opportunity to get better.  To me, that alleviates the pressure.  Concentrate on the rewards and the little successes throughout the course of a day.  Appreciate on the little victories throughout the course of a normal day. 

 The players appreciate what great leaders last year’s seniors were. One of the things they said was that group made everything fun. They had fun at practice. They had fun together and they treated all their teammates right. 

 Matt Behrendt worked with a younger QB.  He had fun doing it and made it fun for the younger player. Those kind of things have helped build a culture in which players work hard together, have fun together, treat each other right, and push each other to get better in a positive way. When those things occur, it alleviates the pressure.  When it’s fun, you don’t worry about national championships, the focus is on the little successes of today.