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#TGW: Taking The Lead

2019 Season Tickets | ACC Network

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Knowing the person next to you and developing a trust with him is paramount to any football team. It’s especially important for Georgia Tech, which is looking to establish a new culture and create a new identity under first-year coach Geoff Collins.

Last weekend, Collins and several members of his coaching staff, who have already shown themselves adept at thinking outside the box when it comes to forming team bonds, put on yet another unique exercise, taking 17 members of the team — the off-season captains and several other upperclassmen — on a trip, about 100 miles north of Atlanta to Lake Burton, for a leadership retreat.

The trip lasted a little more than 24 hours but was about the quality of time spent and should have long-term impact on the 17 student-athletes and their teammates.

It’s more about breaking down barriers than breaking down film and has become part of Collins’ routine.

“It was actually a tradition [at Temple] before we got there and we kind of carried it on, tried to enhance it,” said Collins, who also looked into similar trips taken by the basketball programs at Virginia (the 2019 national champion) and Texas Tech (also a Final Four team). “We revamped it and tried to make it as powerful of a 24-hour period as we could. Lew(is) Caralla, our head strength coach, Derrick Moore, [GT athletics’ character development coach], did a phenomenal job teaching our guys about leadership and bonding. It was just an unbelievable experience for all of us.”

The group made the approximately 100-mile journey to Lake Burton to participate in the team-building activities. Getting out of Atlanta and to someplace everyone could relax and let their guard down was crucial.

“Coach Collins and I really wanted to get the leaders away from the team and give them an experience that they would never forget. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re in the fire all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to get away,” said Caralla. “The retreat itself was one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had as a coach. Kids opening up, explaining their stories that no one takes the time to listen to on normal days, to just get away, to really understand each other, where we’re coming from, what we’ve gone through, the pain that we’ve had in our heart before, to how we’re standing in front of you today, that kind of thing. With a meaningful structure for the guys that weekend, it was extremely powerful and I’m very happy with the results that we got from it.”

“The retreat was an exceptional experience. I would dare to say was probably the best venture I’ve had with any student-athletes outside of the Institute,” said Moore. “It’s a huge, huge step that I think solidifies the complete buy-in and complete turning over from the old to the new. Coach Collins is passionate about his student-athletes, his players. If that wasn’t clearly communicated on that retreat, then it never will be. I’ve never seen a head football coach really paint a picture of what he loves the most, that it starts and ends with his players.

“It was as if a day was 60 days. That much was packed into that experience,” Moore continued. “He taught them the value of leadership, what leadership really looks like, what it really means, its greatest value and how it is shared among their peers. It was an exceptional display of what that looked like and I thought for the first time those cats really got what leadership meant.”

The players were noticeably moved.

“I haven’t really had an opportunity to ‘lead’ in the past. I was very shocked but thankful that Coach Collins, at the conclusion of our [spring football] meeting said, ‘Tyler, I want to invite you to one of our leadership retreats,’” said fifth-year senior tight end Tyler Cooksey. “Just going on this retreat was eye-opening and kind of calming. Time slowed down. It was just so peaceful to be able to go up to this lake house up at Lake Burton, take a step back and kind of reflect on what has happened this semester as a team and how far we’ve come and then kind of reflect on us as individuals as far as what’s important to us, what we value the most. It really opened my eyes to the core values that they’re really trying to embed in all the players on the team and especially the leaders. It was just a great experience.”

“I’d say the biggest thing was just hearing other people’s stories because seeing everyone on a day-to-day basis, it can be kind of surface,” said offensive lineman Jared Southers, who will play his final collegiate season at Georgia Tech after graduating from Vanderbilt and transferring to Tech in January. “Being able to sit back and hear what someone else has gone through throughout their life is really, really important. Some of these guys have gone through some troubling times, so it’s really nice to hear how they’ve battled through that adversity and are doing great things at Georgia Tech. We also had fun out on the lake. It was great just having fun with some of your friends, out there — Lucas Johnson, Nathan Cottrell, Tyler Cooksey, seeing the big Morgans [Brad and Scott] getting up on the paddleboards. It was fun being able to enjoy life a little bit.”

Collins set the tone Friday night when he kicked off the first group activity by asking each individual to answer the following: “If you really knew me, you’d know this….”

“I think the biggest thing is building trust, which we’ve tried to do ever since I got hired,” said Collins. “Letting the players know that we’re real people, too, and we have hopes and dreams and thoughts and feelings and past experiences and just trying to share those things with them. By me going first and really being vulnerable and showing them some things that I wouldn’t share out in public but felt really comfortable sharing with them, I think it meant a lot and it kind of opened the gates for them to be vulnerable with each other and with us and really bond and share some deep things.”

Collins’ frankness and honesty hit the mark.

“What made that the most effective moment for me was that Coach Collins set the example,” said Moore. “He started that process. For those young men to hear the head coach of their team, a Power Five conference head football coach, become that vulnerable, I thought, really galvanized that group of guys and showed them, ‘Our life stories and experiences are not that much dissimilar.’ Coach Collins painted a picture of his life and became incredibly vulnerable and it taught them the value of men having the kinds of conversations that are very difficult for men to have.”

Friday night concluded with a fireside activity inspired by Caralla, where each player talked briefly about what they admired about the person sitting to his right.

“That was a magical, magical moment,” said Collins. “Just the things that were coming out of each guy’s mouth, the looks on the guys’ faces when they were hearing what makes them a respected member of our program and somebody that is looked up to, or hear a characteristic that they really admire. For the person that’s hearing why they are respected, why they are valued, why they are admired. That was probably one of my favorite moments.”

Maybe the most powerful moment came on Saturday morning. The group rose at sunrise, broke into small groups and went out to explore the beautiful lakeside and enjoy the picturesque sunrise. About 15 minutes into the walk, each group stopped and a staff member handed an envelope to a student-athlete. Inside each envelope was a letter or letters written to that individual from a loved one. Each student-athlete read the letter privately then could read the letter aloud.

“That was all Lew Caralla’s brainchild. That guy is absolutely amazing,” said Collins. “He reached out to their family members, some were their coaches, some were their girlfriends, to get them to write letters to the guys. You could tell it was very powerful to see what their loved ones had written down, how much they meant to them and how proud they were of them, why they’re so important to the family or to them. It was really special.”

“You talk about a breakthrough!” raved Moore. “[Collins] understands the greatest connection is with the people that have loved them the most — that relationship with their parents and the message of encouragement that their parents send them as they transition to this new era. The expectations that are upon them, the excitement that this new regime has brought and the idea that though the challenges are going to be tough, they are built for it. Each letter had its own personal touch and its own message to that particular kid. The tears, the emotions, that really showed them, ‘This head coach really gets it. He really cares.’ To be that thoughtful, that creative, was spectacular!”

“The end result of it was really a great experience for us,” said Cooksey. “They ended up having these letters, getting to know how loved we are from our family members and also just opening up to one another and seeing that we’re not so different from one another, all the guys on the team. This day and age, we can easily just get kind of locked in on just being on our phone the whole time and lose your conversation time with people.”

Ideally the retreat will inspire conversation throughout the team as it heads toward the start of the 2019 season. Caralla believes last weekend was a seminal moment.

“I felt it when I was there,” he said. “I really believe the wet cement that we had in the winter hardened up that weekend because those guys are going to be our foundation this year. Not just this year. That’s going to set the tone for our tenure here. Those guys gave everything they had that weekend. To pour it out, leader-wise, I can already see an effect in our summer workouts and it’s only the first week.”

The student-athletes can feel the effect as well.

“We went out to Lake Burton and really just got to know each other better as leaders and come up with a collective vision for this team and for this program,” said Southers. “It was really nice to be able to get to know some of your coaches better, get to know Coach Collins better, on a deeper level, as well as your teammates and brothers that you see every day but don’t necessarily know some of the things that they’ve gone through in their life.”

“This leadership retreat is probably one of the most crucial pieces of his puzzle moving forward,” said Cooksey. “It’s a day that I feel like all of the guys that were there will never forget because the stuff we learned is not just used for football but for life, especially with some of the guys that you’ve been training with for the last four or five years and you love that person. We have 17 guys on the team that can keep each other accountable for everything and everyone is on the same page. I just think that it’s going to be a huge impact for us and help everyone benefit from the amazing leadership that we have from Coach Collins.”

2019 Season Tickets

Thanks to the excitement surrounding new head coach Geoff Collins and the great value of 2019 season tickets (reserved seats for seven home games – including the regular-season finale vs. archrival Georgia – beginning at just $219 and Stinger Mobile Passes, starting at just $149), Georgia Tech has already sold more season tickets than it did for all of 2018. For more information and to purchase season tickets online, click HERE.

ACC Network – Coming Aug. 22

The ACC Network is a linear and digital platform dedicated to 24/7 coverage of ACC sports. It will exclusively televise approximately 450 live events each year, including approximately 40 football games (beginning with Georgia Tech’s 2019 season opener at Clemson on Aug. 29), as well as 150 men’s and women’s basketball contests.

Don’t get shut out! For more information and to learn if your cable/satellite/digital provider is committed to carrying the ACC Network, visit GetACCN.com. Georgia Tech fans whose cable/satellite/digital providers aren’t already committed to carrying the ACC Network are urged to contact their providers and ask for the ACC Network to be a part of their subscription.

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