A vital contribution unseen by the public eye

Assistant coaches work for ‘job experience and for the love of the game’

Queen’s assistant coach Duncan Cowan speaks to point guard Baris Ondul in a Feb. 2 game.
Queen’s assistant coach Duncan Cowan speaks to point guard Baris Ondul in a Feb. 2 game.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

They’re the people behind the bench and on the sidelines who receive neither credit nor criticism after the game. Although the players are familiar with them, they’re often unknown among fans and media alike.

Assistant coaches sacrifice hours of their time for little pay or recognition to help varsity athletes hone their skills.

If he hadn’t hurt his foot in his third year as a Gael, men’s basketball assistant coach Duncan Cowan might never have gone into coaching.

“My third year I had a bad foot injury and missed the entire year and looked at it more as a coach. That’s what kind of got me hooked on it a little more,” he said.

“In my fifth year I walked away from the playing. I was happy enough to coach at the high school level.”

He and head coach Rob Smart essentially split coaching duties, Cowan said.

“My job is there to relieve the administrative side of things so he can concentrate on coaching,” he said. “It’s a little different from the typical assistant coach.”

Cowan also teaches at Frontenac Secondary School in Kingston.

He said he would like to be a head coach someday, but it’s a difficult job with a young family.

“I love the work but it’s also a less than secure job over the picture of a career,” he said. “Things get dry for a little while and all of a sudden you’re out of a job.”

Men’s hockey head coach Brett Gibson said assistant coaches Andrew Haussler and Tyler Reid act as a go-between for his players.

“As a player sometimes it’s intimidating to come speak to me,” he said. “An assistant coach is more of a friend, whereas I’m more of a mentor.”

Gibson was an assistant coach at Queen’s under Kirk Muller in 2005-06 before taking over the following year. He said there isn’t much financial incentive.

“You’re basically doing it for a job experience and for the love of the game. They don’t get paid well, if anything at all, they’re on call just as a head coach.”

Haussler works full-time as a corrections officer on top of his duties as an assistant coach.

“He’s basically losing money some weekend working his schedule around that,” Gibson said. “That’s the stuff you don’t hear about.”

Gibson said he and Haussler have developed a rapport the players can appreciate.

“Andrew is great at reading me, he knows exactly what I’m thinking.”

He said assistant coaching’s vital preparation for anyone with ambitions of becoming a head coach.

“I always wanted to be a head coach, but I know the learning curve is huge. To this day I still don’t know a lot about coaching—there’s a lot more that you can learn every day. It’s a huge adjustment that people don’t understand.”

Assistant coaches are paid an honorarium that varies between sports. No head or assistant coaches are considered full-time. Hours worked and honoraria vary.

Men’s hockey captain Jeff Ovens will be transitioning to an assistant coaching role next season.

Gibson said Ovens has all the characteristics of a great assistant coach.

“Jeff is like having another coach,” he said. “He’s not afraid to stick his neck out when he feels something needs to be said. It’s an easy transition from captain to coach of the team.”

Ovens, who’s completing a teaching degree this year, said he has ambitions of one day being a head coach.

“I’d like to be a head coach at some time, and to have the opportunity to start coaching at the CIS level—not many up-and-coming coaches would have that opportunity.”

Rugby coach Peter Huigenbos said assistant coaches Luke Falwell, Gary Gilks (a former RMC head coach) and Mike Wong are vital to the program’s developmental nature.

“We run four teams. Without having the three assistant coaches we wouldn’t have four teams, we’d have one team. They’re totally invaluable.”

The team has three assistant coaches, even though the athletics department caps the team at three coaches overall because of cost concerns.

As a result, the players pay Wong’s honorarium. They pool money through a collection.

The assistant coaches spent countless hours coaching the thirds and fourths, organizing matches and taking them on road trips.

“Head coaches don’t know everything … assistant coaches have expertise in certain aspects of the game,” Huigenbos said. “They’re a lot more suitable to coach the players in that way than I am.”

The football team, which has 12 assistant coaches working under head coach Pat Sheahan, is an exception to the cap on coaches.

“It could never work that way in football, seven different positions plus special teams,” Sheahan said.

He said the growing number of coaches in other sports could be influenced by the football model.

“The more coaches you have, the more looks you get at the tape, the more teaching you get done,” he said.

“They’re assistants in title only.”

Sheahan said some assistant coaches do the job just because they love the game.

“There are other guys who have no intention to be a head coach. It’s a very passionate pastime for them and that’s why they want to be involved in it. The metaphor I use is they’re getting their football fix.”

Cross-country team member Maggie Vincent said assistant coaches can be a great personal resource for athletes dealing with academic and athletic demands.

Justin Hall, a former CIS Academic All-Canadian, is now an assistant coach for the team.

“I find [Hall has] really helped me in the mental aspects of the sport,” Vincent said. “He’s the one I always sit down with to go over goals and specific training.

“If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have stuck with cross country.”

Vincent said assistant coaches don’t get enough credit.

“Even people on the team don’t really know what he does,” she said. “The reason I started going to him is because I had an injury and he’s the one who will put together an alternative workout for an athlete. … It evolved into him helping me with summer training and goals.”

Cowan said assistant coaches may receive due credit someday, but people shouldn’t choose the job for salary.

“It would be nice if there was enough funding in general for teams, but for most assistant coaches there’s not really a whole lot of incentive to be involved other than the love of the game. The role your average assistant coach plays is pretty crucial and invaluable, but it’s kind of tough to attract quality coaches with the small honoraria that they get.

“It’s something that might change with the focus of athletics over the next few years.”

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