Joe Austin’s journey to coaching football at Southwestern
St. Ambrose University quarterback Joe Austin lay on the football field with pain shooting through his body, willing himself to get up. The fake he’d just attempted hadn’t worked. As two defenders had barreled toward him, he’d jumped about four feet in the air to throw over their heads. They sandwiched him mid-air and slammed him into the turf.
Joe was only nineteen, a sophomore. He got up and went on to set a school record of twenty-eight completions in one game. Football was his life. But in the moment of that hit, the direction he’d planned for his life changed.
Now, the man hired to get Southwestern University’s football program back on its feet after a sixty-two-year absence can look back at that moment without regret. “There’s a purpose for what you’re going to be doing [in life],” Joe can now counsel his players, “and if you’re prayerful about it, and if you look forward, you’ll get to see the next step.”
Joe never played the same after that tackle, but he couldn’t figure out why. No matter what therapies he endured, he experienced excruciating pain and frustrating weakness. He just couldn’t make the big throws, couldn’t pivot or sprint like he needed to. According to X-rays, however, nothing was wrong. “I felt bad because I didn’t play as well . . . and I felt like I was letting my team down. My relationship with my coach was affected. He was trying to figure out why I wasn’t playing as well,” Joe remembers. “I was at my rope’s end.”
Joe simply wasn’t used to doing things halfway. As a kid, the Des Moines, Iowa, native had always done his best at whatever he took on: bowling, baseball, hockey, football. Sitting on the couch in front of a TV wasn’t his style; he was always outdoors, often with his older brother, Ryan. At age eleven, he earned a black belt in taekwondo. He followed family tradition and become an Eagle Scout. During his senior year in high school, he helped his team make the playoffs for the only time in almost thirty years. No, halfway just wasn’t an option for Joe.
But what if I can’t play football well anymore? Joe turned to his old high school coach, Tom Gruening, who’d been a role model for him. Coach Gruening advised Joe to pray about it, so he did. “Where do I need to be?” he asked God. “I didn’t know if I was going to play anymore, but if I did, I wanted to be at a school where, even without football, I’d really like it.”
In January, he transferred to Concordia St. Paul, a Division II school that signed him with a scholarship. He put everything he had into spring training; he gritted his teeth through every drill, every exercise to strengthen his back. But in the end, the trainers sent him for a bone scan.
Joe sat in the surgeon’s office staring at the X-rays of his spine. “The L5 vertebra is fractured,” the surgeon told him. He needed to insert two large screws and about twelve inches of wire. Joe remembers thinking, “I don’t care what you’re doing. Let’s just get it done.” He still clung to his dream of playing football. He had the surgery, endured an itchy cast, and waited.
Four days into summer training camp, however, Joe knew his football career was done. “I was still in a ton of pain. I just didn’t have the strength or mobility to be able to make the throws,” he says. “I’d been a football player since junior high. It’d been my number one focus since my sophomore year of high school.”
“I knew that I wasn’t done with football, even if I couldn’t play,” Joe says. He became a student coach and completed a degree in communication at Concordia. “I was looking at going into sports journalism or broadcasting.” To prepare, he became editor of the school newspaper; he worked in radio and cable television; he wrote press releases for the school’s sports information office. He completed an MA in organizational management. But he kept coaching at Concordia, as assistant offensive coordinator. The team set over seventy offensive records and made it to the top twenty-five in the nation three times in a row. Maybe, Joe thought, coaching is where I should be.
Over the next thirteen years, he coached and transformed struggling football teams—the University of Dubuque Spartans and the Hanover College Panthers—into record-smashing, yardage-eating winners.
Stepping on a New Field
Now, the fresh-faced thirty-three-year-old with a red-tinged crew cut steps onto the field with a huge challenge ahead: get a Division III team together by the 2013 season. Build a practice field, hire a staff, order uniforms and helmets, consult with food services about the diet for football players, and find the football players—he’s been doing all that. Now comes the coaching part.
One of the keys to his success in coaching goes back, oddly enough, to his BA in communication. “The thing I learned most from studying communication theory is that you have to be flexible as communication continues to change,” Joe says. Gone are the days of communicating with players by phone or even email, which they don’t answer—but “I’ll text a player once,” Joe says with a snap of his fingers, “and I get an instantaneous reply.”
He doesn’t communicate only about passes and tackles, however. He also has something important to tell his players: how to get up when you’ve been knocked down by something that, if you let it, could ruin your life plans. “We get players who go through all kinds of life-changing events, from deaths to injuries to getting dumped by a girlfriend,” Joe says. “I share with them some of my background.” He tells them what he learned long ago, that there is more to life than football: “Football and life are interrelated. The things you need to do well in football are the same things you need to do well in life.” Set priorities. Manage your time, your money, your talents, and your affections. “When a player plays in the program that I’m in charge of, he’ll leave it being able to be successful as a husband, as a father, and in a vocation.” He’ll look forward, see the next step, find his purpose.
Once, Joe stepped off the field as an injured player, but he looked forward, saw his next step, and found his purpose in life. “Coaching is my vocation,” he says firmly. “It’s what God’s called me to do.”
By Meg Moring
Photos by Rudy Ximenez