Jerome Souers- Head Coach
Story By: Kevin Pakos for the S&E News:
I have been covering the NAU football team for years now and have been fascinated with the way Coach Souers handles his football team. Northern Arizona University, the Lumberjacks have a rich history of academics and athletics. In football only ASU has sent more people to the professional level.
NAU is in Flagstaff and has an elevation of over 7,000 feet. It is fitting that a coach like Jerome Souers would make this his home. Rare air suits him well. In Arizona college football, NAU is an after thought to most of the states sports media. It gets it’s annual spots when alumni in the media show up for homecoming, but not much more.
The Jacks play their games indoors in the Walkup Skydome, itself a remarkable structure that was ahead of it’s time when it was built in the ‘70’s. The field is turf and last year they unveiled a new jumbo tron and scoreboard that adds to the game day excitement. The press box though is a little outdated. It still swings from the rafters. The only way up is by stairs and then it only has room for the radio booth and some coaches’ rooms.
The campus at NAU is the first thing you see when you come into town from the I-17. As soon as you go under the I-40 overpass you have to turn right onto McConnell and soon you are at the Skydome. From McConnell to Butler the campus is nearly as long as the city itself. Well, by the old boundaries. It’s buildings are a mix of new and old with the older structures adding a sense of warmth to visitors and residents. The pine trees that dot the campus just add to the welcoming feelings.
The football team has produced some great coaches and players over the years. The football team plays at the level below the big schools and until this year was called Division 1-AA. But the program is progressive and under the leadership of Coach Souers has been playing at least one game a year against D1 foes. This year they have two in a row, first at ASU then at Utah. Two weeks that will test the will and strength of every player on this team.
Since he was hired in 1998 he has become the third winningest coach in NAU’s history with 43 wins in eight seasons. In 2006, his ninth season he will tie Max Spilsbury for length of service. Coach Souers led the team to it’s first NCAA 1-AA quarterfinal appearance in 2003. That year the team won it’s first Big Sky Conference Championship since 1978.
During his time here NAU has had two playoff berths and had three consecutive wining seasons from 2001-2003. The Jacks had 23 wins for the second best three years span in school history. Since he was hired he has coached 58 players to all conference honors a combined 90 times with 23 first team picks. In 1999 he was the Big Sky Coach of the Year.
The success in the classroom of his players has been remarkable. The team has had players win the Golden Eagle Scholar Athlete of the Year four times in the last five years. They were Eric Damko, Steve Gomez, Mark Gould and Paul Ernster. He has also had seven named to the 2005 Big Sky Fall All-Academic Team. Overall, 42 have earned 65 Big Sky academic honors over the last eight years. Plus the five academic All-Americans.
Coach Souers is among good company on the NAU all time win list. Currently he is third with his 43 wins. Max Spilsbury had 58, Steve Axmen had 48. The other two in the top five are well known coaches. Joe Salem he had 26 wins and Larry Kentera also had 26 wins for NAU. The Arizona Board of Regents recently approved his extension that will take him through the 2008 season and seat him as the longest tenured football coach in school history. It also keeps his family here long enough so that his daughters Anna and Alaina can finish their prep careers in Flagstaff. No doubt a relief for his wife Paula.
The NAU President John D. Haeger had this to say about the coach. “With Coach Souers, NAU has an individual who holds his players to high standards, whether it’s on the playing field, in the classroom or around campus. Jerome molds good citizens as well as good players. We are delighted to have Coach Souers at Northern Arizona University.”
Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with some of the finest coaches at every level of the sport. From youth football all the way to the NFL. Sometimes as an observer and sometimes in a more hands on manner. Their styles, concepts and manners varied greatly. From the screaming, yelling, my way or the highway tyrants to the quiet, teaching type. All produced quality play at some level with their teams. All will have a loyal group of former players that swear by the man. Few will have been coached, taught and encouraged in the way that the man you are about to meet has done.
Jerome Souers is a man that could easily been making a living doing any number of things. His passion is faith, family, music, tradition. His father before him was a football coach. A man respected by many in Oregon. A man that passed just this past May of 2006, Dwight Souers, and was honored by his tribe with another eagle feather and given the name “Great Wolf”. A man that Jerome grew up following his whole life.
When I walked into his office on campus the first thing I noticed was the Regalia from he and his fathers life as Lakota Sioux. No, actually the first thing I noticed was a set of beautiful hunting knives, a gift to Jerome from his daughter. He was very proud of them and during our time together he handled them a lot. Needless to say, everything we discussed “off the record” will remain so.
I have long wondered where he got his patience and ability to work peacefully in such a stressful job. I have observed he and his staff at both practices and on game days and there has been a consistent thread of strong, passionate, understated leadership shown at all times. I was there when the team had it’s great season in 2003, the season that ended with a playoff run and culminated with nearly 30 starters graduating. Many going on to pro football careers.
I have been there the last few years as the squad tried to remain competitive and fill all the holes left from the ’03 class. 2004 and 2005 were seasons that saw many young 17 and 18 year old student-athletes get their reps as starters against older, bigger players. The team struggled, but the staff, from Jerome Souers on down looked and acted the same on the sidelines as they had in the great 2003 season.
Football is passionate, violent, dangerous game. The men that play it risk their health and careers every time they step on the field. Many coaches and programs talk of academics, being family, caring about each other and working for each other. All too often however, it is mostly just talk. Players are recruited as commodities that will be discarded if injury or other things affect their ability to perform.
All the colleges stress the three foundational points needed for a player to maintain balance and stay in the game. The first is: Instruction, making sure the academics are being handled properly to stay eligible and on track for graduation. The second: Physical, training, weights, conditioning, nutrition and health. This is a must to perform at the needed level and keep the mind healthy. The third is Social, players in college come from diverse backgrounds. Those from traditional supportive households have a distinct advantage over athletes that come from broken homes and low income areas. They must be given the tools to grow up as adults and blend in with their new friends and team mates.
These three points are critical and cannot be taken for granted. At NAU, coach Souers and his staff add a fourth point. Spiritual/Faith. The staff has noticed that when there is a falloff of performance on or off the field that at it’s root, it can be traced to a spiritual issue with the player. When players are recruited by the coaches and they visit them in their homes, they identify when they can what spiritual roots a player’s family observes. They can then encourage the players to stay on track with their upbringing to stay focused on the things that matter most.
NAU is a school with a lot of good surroundings. Coach Souers had this to say about the environment here. “The beauty of this opportunity at NAU is that it is unique to our sister schools. ASU and the UA are PAC-10 and have a very large media market. There are different dynamics that pressure those programs at that level. The boosters, the media, the atmosphere there that their coaches end up having to deal with. We don’t have the big TV contracts driving decisions here.” “There are disadvantages here, we don’t have the things available to us here that they may have, but we don’t have that pressure. We are able to spend more time with our student athletes on more than just football. We deal with them at all levels, all aspects.”
It is important to us to see a complete development. Not the overcompensation of being a great athlete. For us as a program we have the opportunity because we are out of that light a little bit we can look at our program differently, we can be more involved with the day to day aspects of the college experience. Football is a great classroom for us, but that’s not the only reason they are here. We work with them on how important it is living in a small town and being a role model. You make a mistake and everyone sees. You have a chance to impact people because you are visible and you are seen. It is a wonderful opportunity, but with that comes a great responsibility.”
That’s a part of the experience here that I think is unique, when you come to NAU you are going to have an opportunity to really know who your coaches are. You are not in such a complicated environment, that’s not to say the other Universities are lacking. But it is big business, it’s entertainment and sometimes those values conflict with the best interests of the student athletes.”
Coach Souers came to NAU from Montana; I asked if the atmosphere there was similar to what he has encountered here on campus and in the community? He replied: “I was fortunate to be in one place for awhile. I was at the University of Montana for 12 years. I saw the growth of a program that was underperforming in 1986. Went into a new stadium, it took eight years before that program won it’s first conference championship, ten years for it’s first national championship and it has continued that excellence.”
We went from averaging a few thousand to twelve thousand to now with twenty four thousand in the stadium. It is a long term vision, it’s something that took quite a bit of patience, roll up your sleeves.” “Our environment here is similar we have the building blocks of what we are trying to build here at the grass roots level. That is what we are after; we want a lot of Arizona athletes. This is a complete college experience here. We are here to develop men, we are here to develop leaders, and we want to reflect back on our society in a positive way.”
That involves dealing with high risk individuals, when you have second and third generation college students that are upper middle class white, I think it is easier for them. We offer college opportunities for multicultural prospects; it is what we are about. We supply those opportunities, give guidance and counsel, then I think you take higher education back to where you come from. We give them a chance to really make a difference. That’s our pebble in the pond theory here, that’s how we operate.”
S&E: NAU recruits great athletes, players that were top prep players, looking for a future in the game. You said you are trying to build men, over the years you have shown the ability to discipline great players that make mistakes off the field. Many schools find a way to bury the information and let the kid play. How do overcome the objection of the player’s team mates, your boosters and fans to sit a player even if it hurts the team?
Every case is different and when somebody makes a mistake you have to have a consequence in place for when it occurs. Sometimes it happens in the heat of the moment, sometimes they are calculated. I can assure that anything that is thought through and calculated and is still a bad decision is dealt with a lot more seriously. Our coaches and players understand that we have a vision and that we rules and we need to follow them. Our players need to be great role models for the city of Flagstaff and the state of Arizona. It is tough when it happens but we have to deal with it.”
“I was hired to direct the football program here in the best way I knew how. We identify principles here and we are going to stick by them. Dr. Haeger has a distinct vision of what he wants his football team to look like and being a positive role model is a big part of it.”
S&E News mentioned that this is not being done in a lot of places even at the high school level, he replied: “Society in general tends to place value in athletic ability and performance; there is nothing wrong with that. It is only wrong when you forget everything else. You can’t dissect a human being and take the athlete out them. They have personalities, behavior, intellect, different levels; there are all kinds of things that are part of them.”
The wholeness of this experience is what matters, it is not just football. Football is part of it, being the best athlete we can be and performing the best we can. Don’t think winning does not matter, we want to win it, we want to win too, to be the best team we can be. But it is very important we excel in the classroom, it is very important we figure the social end of it out. That we understand that our relationships have impact, a ripple effect on everything we touch. These are lessons that we continue to expose our student athletes to and hope that they get that picture.”
Earlier in the article I mentioned the office and that it was decorated with the regalia of Coach Souers Lakota Sioux Tribe. His own and items from his father Dwight. Coach Souers was kind enough to show me some of the items and tell me a little about what they mean to him. Much of what he had is part of a tradition in his culture used for prayer, dance, purifying and are very sacred and private.
He explained how in many religions they use incense as part of their worship. He showed me the ceremonial fan the sweet grass that they burn to purify and cleanse. How if a warrior drops an eagle feather on the ground he will smudge it with sweet grass to cleanse it. He showed me his father’s chest plate and head dress the yoke worn over the shoulder. The bustle on the back where the two were merged into one. He told me how he must mourn for his father for one year. Then he will dance for his family. He told me how there are some people on this earth that have a place in our hearts that no one else can touch. Only someone that has lost a person like that can understand. His father was one.
During the course of our talk he explained how the spear the team raised at the end of contest they won represented many things. Part of the chant includes a Samoan chant and others. They tie a color or piece to the spear that represents their opponent and the team chants together as one. While watching this post game ritual for the last four years, it has become clear that these men played for more than just to play. That faith, family, team together united can accomplish much. The ceremony is a high point of the game for these men. To be able to lift that spear in victory also lifts their souls.
Most of the players also kneel together, win or lose to tie together the fourth lesson, the spiritual, and the completion of the others, instruction, physical and social. They do this on their own. They do this in celebration of thanksgiving to God. They do it together because they are becoming more than themselves and they draw as much as they give from their time together. High achievers have a higher purpose and higher calling and it is obvious who they are by how they treat each other and their communities.
NAU football has seen many players move on into pro football. More than I am going to list here. As of June 1, 2006 the following were still on rosters. Paul Ernster, P/K Broncos, Airaban Justin, DB CFL, Clarence Moore, WR Ravens, Keith O’Niel, LB Colts, Preston Parsons, QB Broncos, Roger Robinson, RB Cardinals.
NAU football is a unique program. They have proven over time that a player or coaches can come here and earn their way into the pro ranks. In today’s society that is a big selling point, getting to the next level. Coach Souers has proven that he can build winning programs and help in shaping great men. If you are the parent of a high school football player and you believe that your son can make it at the next level, then you must give NAU serious consideration.
More importantly, if you have a football player that you want to see grow into the best man he can be, reach his potential in the classroom and on the field. If you would like him to come home to you not as a different person that you may not know, but as a better, stronger person, raised the way you planned. Then you need to find out more about NAU, their football staff and academics.
If you do, then your first stop, your first call needs to be directly to the Head Coach at NAU, Jerome Souers. Your son will become part of the family at Northern Arizona. Your son will be in the hands of a man that respects what you have given him. Your son will be in the hands of the son of a man known forevermore as “Great Wolf.”
One of the things you notice about people in high pressure jobs is of course how well they do their jobs. Their mark is always excellence at the job they do. However, many successful men have sacrificed relationships with family and friends to attain their success. If you want to know who the man behind the success is, look at his family. When I walked into his office, he showed me with great pride the hunting knives his daughter had given him. Many dads get ties, socks, gift certificates and other well meant gifts from family and children. Coach Souers got a gift from someone that knew who he was, his heart. Someone he has been a father to while performing well in a stressful job. Look at everything when you pick a school for your son. The records, the staff, the campus, the academics. Then measure them all against the one thing that matters. The man into whose hands you place him. You will be well served by Coach Jerome Souers.