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Lessons from Justin, My First Assistant

By Greg Earhart 

I’m asked all the time  “How do I get into college coaching?”  
 
Here’s the answer:  Be more like Justin Jennings.
 
Justin passed away last week from complications of colon cancer.  I’m pissed and I’m sad.
 
When I first met Justin he was in his Junior-ish year at UW-Oshkosh and came to work at the Indiana Swim Camp.  Heading into our third summer, I had told him that I had accepted a job at Carthage College and offhandedly joked that if he knew anyone interested in a $1,000 assistant job to send them my way.  A couple of weeks later he called me and said he could work for me. 
 
I had assumed he was talking camp.  He was, after all, my lead boy’s counselor.  No, he explained, he was talking about Carthage.
 
“No Justin, you can’t.  You need to finish your degree.”  I’d seen too many coaches shortchange themselves by not finishing their degree.  Don’t worry, he assured me.  His credits would transfer to UW-Milwaukee.  No, I insisted.  I wanted to speak with his parents.  He’d already prepped them and they gave me their blessing.  
 
Lesson #1 – Be willing to take a risk and be humble enough to appreciate the lowest rung on the food chain.    (And have supportive parents)
 
So Justin came on board for $1,000.  He asked to do more than anyone making $1,000 should ever be asked to do.  Yes, he coached, but he also troubleshot our troublesome scoreboard.  He volunteered to work the department golf outing.  He lifeguarded.  He worked summer league.   The thing was, the more he took on the more people took notice.  When our athletic director found out Justin hadn’t finished his degree he got tuition waived.  When our women’s coach saw that he wasn’t a threat and just wanted to help, he gained her trust and helped bring our teams together by working with both.
 
Lesson #2 – Work your ass off to make things work.   You might or might not be rewarded, but that can't affect your commitment.
 
As a first-year head coach I made more mistakes and assumptions than can be counted – at least one for every one of those dollars he made.  We had a tough task in changing the direction of the program and looking back I cringe at some of the things I said and did.  Justin was exceedingly perceptive, and no doubt he cringed as well. While he might have questioned some things, what was never in question was his loyalty.  When he had a concern, it was expressed in private, well-reasoned and even better-intentioned.  More often than not, we were in agreement but even when we weren’t he respected it and he helped me communicate it.
 
Lesson #3 – Be loyal.  You might disagree.  In fact, you might be right, but being loyal means putting the program, and the experience of the kids ahead of your own beliefs and ambitions.  
 
Throughout his brief career Justin affected so many people.  I can’t count how many people have mentioned how he helped them love the sport, or how he could always be counted on to do the right thing, even when it inconvenienced him.  Funny story – one night my apartment complex burned down (ok, not that funny).  Justin was due to have the next morning off and like many overworked, underpaid, young assistants he was out having a good time, right up until about Midnight when I found myself standing in the parking lot, swaddled in a Red Cross blanket, watching the complex burn, and punching his number into a borrowed phone.  “Are you serious?”  he asked.  “Alright, I got you, what do you want them doing tomorrow?”  The next morning, I wander in late.  Justin's running practice and the guys stare at me as if they had seen a ghost.  Later one of them explained, “We knew you were hard-core, but couldn’t believe it when Justin told us you called him from a burning building to give him our workout.”
 
Lesson #4 – Make those around you look AND BE better than they are.  When you do you gain trust.  Then you earn responsibility, and eventually you will have rewards and opportunities open before your eyes.
 
One of those benefits is getting the opportunity to be picky.  As Justin’s skills, reputation and network grew so did his opportunities.  He had started on the lowest rung and within a year he would be able to add a conference title to his resume.  Justin knew that one title wasn’t going to make him any better as a coach and he moved on.  First to get his master’s degree and then onto his first head coaching position.  
 
At this point, Justin could write his own script - settle into an easy career at Coe, leverage his experience to move onto a bigger program or use his Texas connections to catch on with a major Division I program.   He had opportunities to do each, but it wasn’t until Colgate, a mid-major in an overlooked conference, came calling that he made a move.   In truth, Colgate didn’t recruit Justin, Andy Waeger did.  Andy wasn’t a boss, a colleague or even a friend.  He was a kindred spirit – someone who believed in the same things Justin believed in, and gave Justin the opportunity to coach the way he wanted to coach.

Lesson #5 – Moving ‘up’ is relative.  Find the place where you are most valuable and most valued.  Moving ‘up’ might mean moving sideways, backwards, or even upstate New York.  
 
On my wall sits a photograph of Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Ian Crocker, and Neil Walker.  Actually, photo doesn’t do it justice.  It’s a piece of art.  Professionally framed and matted, and hand signed by four Longhorn legends.   One summer, Justin – just returned from a the 20-odd hour drive back from swim camp, gave it to me as a way of saying thanks. 
 
I didn’t know how to react.  Even today, I can’t explain it.  My mindset is such that there’s little place for credit or for blame.  That’s why I, and so many others loved Justin and loved working with him.  In the end, I just wish I could have done a better job in thanking him for everything he taught me.  Including:
 
Lesson #6 – Appreciate what we do.  Appreciate the opportunity to work with the people who are a part of this sport (both those in and out of the pool). 

Nobody gets paid enough to justify the hours we put in, the sacrifices we make, or pressure we place on ourselves so we have to pay it forward and recognize the value and the impact of what we do when we do it.
 
Because sometimes those opportunities are taken from us too soon.

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