A Different Path

April 16, 2018

Most coaches tackle career goals by moving up the ladder in a methodical way. We talked with five who are navigating untraditional routes.

After becoming the winningest head coach in NCAA Division III, Larry Bock switched gears and took the reins at Navy, where he has turned around a struggling program.


During the winter of 2011, Larry Bock, then Head Coach at Juaniata College, took a phone call similar to many he had received in the past. An athletic director—Chet Gladchuck from Navy—was looking for a new volleyball coach and wanted to know if the veteran coach had any recommendations. Bock passed on a few names and called the coaches to let them know.

But during those conversations, something started to dawn on him. “As I talked to the other coaches about the benefits of working at the academy, I found I was talking myself into being interested in the position,” says Bock. “I put my hat into the ring.”

He was quickly offered the job, which he accepted, and he made the unusual move of leaving a position he held for 34 years for a new one. He also went from being the winningest coach in NCAA Division III to a struggling Division I program. Undergoing a career switch so late in the game is an unexpected move, but it worked for Bock, who has found himself reinvigorated by the task of turning the Navy program around.

There are many reasons coaches make career changes. Most involve a traditional progression—from being an assistant or coaching a lower level team to becoming the head coach of a varsity program, sometimes followed by more moves to bigger programs with larger budgets. Five or six years at one stop is typical, and ambitious coaches always have an eye on the next step.

But that career sequence isn’t right for everyone. Or sometimes life simply doesn’t pan out that way. And there are so many other factors to consider, from a spouse’s career to personal goals and needs.

In this article, we talk to five coaches who have taken unusual paths to their current positions. They explain the decision-making process and how they made their transitions.

SMALL TOWN FEEL

Nicole Blakeman likes new challenges. In her first head coaching job, she maintained a top program at her alma mater, Clear Lake High School in Houston. Next, she rebuilt a team at Rockwall (Texas) High School. From there, she started a program from scratch at Johnson High School in San Antonio.

This year, however, she took on what might be considered a very different venture. She went from a large Class 6A school to a smaller class 4A school, becoming Head Coach and Girls’ Athletic Coordinator at Navarro High School in Seguin, Texas.

“I wanted to get back to the reason I went into education, and that was to make the largest impact possible,” says Blakeman. “I feel like I can do that better at a smaller school like Navarro where I am involved at so many levels. I pass through the cafeteria as the seventh and eighth graders are having lunch and get to say hello and chat with them. And I see the junior high team on a daily basis. At a larger school you often have to drive to the junior high and there might even be multiple ones.”

Blakeman also chose Navarro because of its community and history. “This is a special place,” she says. “My assistants are both Navarro graduates. I’ve met people whose children graduated 20 years ago but who still come to watch athletic events. You just don’t see that in bigger communities.

“I went through a pretty large change in salary, but there is a different type of compensation,” Blakeman continues. “It involves relationships, a sense of community, and really enjoying where I work.”

But she did face the tough task of replacing a successful coach. Blakeman started by meeting with the six returning seniors in the summer. She also did a lot of listening early on, asking the players questions about their goals and expectations, and she shared her own philosophy and ideas, focusing on leadership and commitment.

She also didn’t hesitate to join team members in whatever they were doing. “We were waiting for our game to start in a tournament once and the athletes were playing one of those memory games with each other,” says Blakeman. “They asked me to join in, so I did. I think it’s important to be willing to spend time with them and build those relationships. Coaching is more than just wins and losses. It’s about getting to know the whole kid.”

Blakeman was careful to keep what had worked under the previous coach and not reinvent the wheel. “It’s never good to go in and completely wipe out what someone else has done,” she says. “You need to build on what they’ve accomplished and keep some of those same traditions.”

That has been balanced with implementing new ideas, one of which is mental training. “We do relaxation techniques and exercises,” Blakeman says. “We might tell the athletes to see themselves playing well and performing skills correctly. It’s a way to decrease the influence of negative thoughts and increase the positive. When a player doesn’t perform well it’s rarely because they are not able to—more often, it has to do with what’s between their ears.”

Moving to Navarro also allowed Blakeman to take on another of her life goals—getting a higher level of experience in athletic administration. “I am interested in being an athletic director at a school like this where you can coach at the same time,” says Blakeman. “You don’t get those opportunities at most large school districts.”

With one successful season behind her—ending with a 39-6 record and an appearance in the Region IV final—Blakeman’s advice to other coaches looking for a new job is to focus on the possibilities of the situation. “Don’t get caught up in how large the school is,” she says. “A lot of people view 6A as being at the top because they have the most kids. But each school is unique and has something to offer.”

OUT OF RETIREMENT

After more than 40 years of coaching, Sid Feldman thought it was time to retire. He left his position at Piedmont College and started doing some projects around the house. But there’s only so much work a house needs.

He decided to call up a local high school and ask if they needed a coach—which they did. Once Feldman told them about his experience, he was hired on the spot.

That was two years ago, and as Head Coach at North Oconee (Ga.) High School, he couldn’t be happier. “At the high school level, you’re a support system for your players,” Feldman says. “Your major responsibilities are to expand their horizons and create an atmosphere where they feel important and successful.

“I get to be an advisor as well as a coach,” he continues. “When they need help I provide guidance, whether it’s about picking a college, dealing with health issues, or understanding good nutrition. Those are the most important things. Winning is not at the top the list.”

Feldman has had a long journey between his first job as a high school coach, at Yorktown (N.Y.) High School, and his current post at North Oconee. He started a program from scratch at the University of Georgia, worked at a middle school for a while, and was Head Coach at Piedmont, an NCAA Division III school, from 2008 to 2015.

“Coaching at Piedmont was the best experience of my life,” he says. “It was a fabulous environment with a great athletic director and I had a blast. But after seven years, I decided it was time to move on, and though my retirement didn’t go as planned, now I’ve had two tremendous years at North Oconee.”

Feldman believes it’s important for coaches to know when to leave and start something new. “The best decisions I’ve made are when I have quit something and moved on,” he says. “My advice is to feel yourself out and don’t stay where you’re unhappy because you’re afraid you won’t secure another job—you’ll find it. And things will only go downhill at your current job if it’s not the right fit for you anymore.”

Overall, Feldman loves being back in the high school ranks. Pay is not an issue because he receives retirement benefits, and the kids bring an enthusiasm that he has found refreshing. Every day, he enjoys helping the young women through an important time in their lives.

“At the college level you’re teaching winning through competition, but at the high school level you’re teaching basic skills,” Feldman says. “And the atmosphere in the gym is different. While the college women are fighting for starting time and working all week just to win on the weekend, the high school girls are enjoying the sport and each other’s company.”

NEVER TOO LATE

From afar, it looked like Larry Bock was the consummate NCAA Division III coach, an expert at winning at the non-scholarship level, enjoying small school life where you can be involved in many areas of campus. But if you looked closer, you’d learn there was a lot more going on.

“A big reason I stayed so long at Juniata was that my wife and I didn’t want to uproot our children,” says Bock, who had compiled two Division III national titles along with 25 trips to the national semifinals. “And there was no big reason to leave. I was at a really good school in a really good community, and I didn’t let my ego convince me that someplace bigger translated to someplace better.”

But once his children were out of the house and doing well in their own careers, the family factor was no longer an issue. In addition, during his last 15 years at Juniata, Bock doubled as the school’s athletic director, and the combined demands of the two positions were getting to be too much. He also knew his top assistant coach was more than ready to take the reins.

“The program was in good shape and I thought about either going into administration full time or retiring,” Bock says. “But I also knew if I stopped coaching I would miss being around the athletes, especially the training aspect and seeing them improve every day.”

Although he didn’t realize it right away, the job at Navy was the one he had been waiting for. “I never thought I would be very good with the whole scholarship thing,” Bock says. “So to be able to work for an athletic director like Chet who appreciates the Division III model and how it can translate to Division I was intriguing. Winning is really important here, but it’s far outweighed by making sure that the quality of the athletic experience is nonpareil. Plus, Annapolis is a really cool place to live. It was an easy destination to choose.

“I’ve always been very careful and patient about career options, both within Juniata and outside it,” he continues. “But when the right opportunity presented itself, I trusted my instincts and that served me well.”

That’s not to say the transition was easy or simple. In his first season, Navy went 6-23, far different from Juniata where he had won 87 percent of his games.

“It was humbling,” Bock says. “Fortunately my professional satisfaction has always come from the players on the team, not the wins. The saving grace was being around my players. I knew coming in that they were impressive, but I really didn’t appreciate how impressive they are. Whatever they put their mind to, they do. To be in the practice gym with them and face that challenge of getting a little bit better every day, week, month, and year was more than enough to keep me going.”

For Bock, the losses were a small price to pay for being able to coach full-time again, especially at a place like Navy. “It’s a wonderful way to make a living,” he says. “Anybody who is wired like I am would say, ‘Yes. This is better.’”

Still, Bock knew he would need to change his expectations to match his new situation. “When I first came to Navy, we focused on the process instead of the results and we made steady improvements,” he says. “But this August, Chet came to our preseason compliance meeting. He looked the players in the eyes and told them, ‘It’s time for you all to start thinking about some championships.’ And they came out of the gate on fire.”

This past fall, Navy reached the Patriot League championship game after finishing second during the regular season. Along the way, it handed American University only its fourth loss in its previous 74 league matches.

“I hope all of my different experiences have made me a better coach,” Bock says. “I know this was the right decision for me, my family, my old team, and hopefully my new team.”

TIME TO MOVE ON

In 14 years as Head Coach at Murphy (Ala.) High School, Nancy Shoquist led her team to four Elite Eight appearances and one Final Four appearance in the state tournament. Yet, last summer, she took the reins at Mary Montgomery High School in Semmes, Ala., which had compiled a winning season in only one of the previous six years.

Why leave success for a struggling program? Shoquist chalks it up to desiring a different atmosphere.

“I’m getting toward the end of my career and I just needed to be in a more positive setting,” says, Shoquist who was inducted into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Sports Hall of Fame in 2014. “I wanted to be in a good school where there were hard working kids and strong traditions.

“I had stayed at Murphy because of the kids in my program. It’s hard to leave good kids,” Shoquist continues. “But I finally had to make the decision that was best for myself. Sometimes, we are too unselfish and stay in situations we shouldn’t.”

But there was another factor, too, specific to Mary Montgomery and its former Head Coach, Leslie Gates, a friend of Shoquist’s. Two years ago, Gates experienced tragedy when her husband died in a construction accident, and she decided to stop coaching after the 2016 season. She had been at Mary Montgomery for 23 years and was loved by her players. The void would be large.

“I was originally going to go to a different school, but then Leslie contacted me and said she was stepping down,” says Shoquist. “I realized I needed her and she needed me.”

Before making the move, Shoquist had to come to terms with Mary Montgomery’s losing records. “I had never had a losing season as a coach,” she says. “I had to mentally prepare myself for not knowing how we would do.”

This involved having the right expectations. “I set very realistic goals because I didn’t want to be disappointed,” Shoquist says. “We ended up surpassing all of the goals, but I think making them attainable helped me to be satisfied with the season.”

And while they didn’t have a winning season, with an overall record of 10-17, the team did make it to the quarterfinals of the state tournament. For Shoquist, part of being content with this included seeing the development of her athletes and watching them buy into the program.

Still, there were some emotional hurdles to overcome. Because the players had trusted and loved their previous coach, Shoquist was worried about how long it might take them to embrace her.

“As a coach, you want to be accepted, and I think the summer preparation helped calm me down,” says Shoquist. “In the first month or so I really didn’t let my own personality come out. I wanted to build that strict relationship between player and coach. Then, as the summer went on and I got to know the kids better, I was able to relax a little.”

One way she did that was through implementing fun drills that allowed everyone’s personalities to come out. A team favorite was called “Baby Baby,” a 2-on-2 drill where one player on each team is holding an extra ball (their “babies”). One team serves, and the back row player on the receiving team passes. The other player then throws her baby toward her teammate, who has to catch it. As soon as the set comes to her, she then throws the baby back to her teammate and makes the play over the net. The receiving team needs to have three hits before sending it back. To complicate things further, whenever a player tosses the extra ball, she yells “Baby, Baby!”

This worked well as a communication drill, but it was also a way to engage everyone. “The athletes joked around, saying things like, ‘You just threw my baby on the floor!’” says Shoquist. “They had a lot of fun with it. One player who rarely spoke or showed much emotion couldn’t get this drill for the longest time, and it would make her laugh and smile. It just brings out so much personality in the kids—I love it.”

Shoquist was careful to make the program her own, but not shy about asking Gates for advice. Gates had a daughter on the junior varsity team, and would often stay after her contests to watch varsity play. “If I couldn’t figure something out, I would ask her opinion,” Shoquist says. “It’s been nice to have an extra person as a sounding board.”

For other coaches considering a career shift, Shoquist says it’s important to reflect on every element. This means knowing exactly why you are making a change and understanding the type of school you are moving to. “You are going to have to buy into the program, the kids, and the parents,” she says. “You have to make sure it is a great situation for you—it needs to be a school with people and leadership you can work with.”

DOWNSHIFTING

When Shelton Collier got married 16 years ago, he faced a big decision. As Head Coach at Georgia Tech, he was over 200 miles from his new wife, who was captain of the fire department in Charlotte, N.C. If their marriage was going to work, one of them would have to move, and Collier said he would do so, even though it meant leaving a job at the Division I level. Little did he know, it was just the change his career needed.

Less than a month after he made the move, the Head Coach position at Wingate University, which is just outside of Charlotte, opened up. Collier applied, was offered the job, and has never looked back.

“Coaching in Division II has been really rewarding,” says Collier. “At Division I, the requirement is often to recruit athleticism and physical potential, whereas in Division II you can look for players with the right mentality and personality and remain successful. Recruiting in Division II is still challenging but it’s not as overwhelming, and that’s reduced my stress and given me a better quality of life.”

Collier has also enjoyed taking Wingate to new heights, as the program has experienced unparalleled growth under his leadership. “When you take over a new program, you immediately have to get a core group of players to buy in,” he says. “When I first got to Wingate, my priority was to get players to trust me and help me recruit new players. It can be difficult to create momentum when you’re trying to turn a program around, but we were able to have some success and keep building on it.”

“Some success” is putting it mildly. Collier has amassed 428 wins at Wingate, with 11 South Atlantic Conference (SCA) regular season titles, 10 SCA tournament championships, and four trips to the NCAA Elite Eight. He has been named SAC Coach of the Year nine times, AVCA Southeast Region Coach of the Year six times, and AVCA National Coach of the Year in 2013.

Collier says that while he was at Georgia Tech—where he amassed a 565-207 record and earned the distinction of being the most successful coach in the program’s history—his plans were to continue climbing the coaching ladder. But since arriving at Wingate, he’s re-evaluated his definition of success. “I’ve been really impressed by the passion and determination of the kids I’ve coached here at Wingate,” he says. “They inspire me. I get a lot of joy from being around players who are so motivated.”

To his peers with big coaching aspirations, Collier suggests they keep one thing in mind. “The biggest job isn’t always the best job,” he says. “A lot of coaches have one eye out the window looking for the next move to a bigger or better program. But that’s not always going to make you happy. Sometimes what seems like a great opportunity isn’t actually the best job for you.” 

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