I had the opportunity to sit down and talk leadership, program development and being a Head Football Coach with Victor Santa Cruz of Azusa Pacific University at the Glazier clinic in February, 2015.  Santa Cruz has been the Head Coach at APU (NCAA Division 2) since 2006.  Azusa Pacific is located in sunny Southern California.  Read his bio here.


Coach Santa Cruz had a very intriguing leadership revelation after going 14-28 in his first four seasons. Since this leadership revelation, the Cougars are 39-17 with back to back Great Northwest Athletic Conference championships!

Enjoy this insight from a NCAA Head Football Coach!

Coach Fore: Coach, as a player, who was your favorite coach and why?

Coach Santa Cruz: I see myself in different stages of life and I have been very fortunate and blessed that there are coaches there that met me at the right time in my life for what I needed.

So, if you look through high school, it was Craig Bell (Rancho Buena Vista HS in Vista, CA) for his leadership strength and who he was as my high school head coach. Our defensive coordinator, Tom Hammond taught me a passion for the defensive big picture. Dale Henry is a guy who is still a dear friend of mine today. Dale was always the ultimate believer and positive. He really has this infectious love for the game. Tony Paopao, from high school, taught me to understand the profession and the attention to detail needed to be successful in this game.

Santa Cruz's high school coach, Craig Bell.
Santa Cruz’s high school coach, Craig Bell.

Then going into college (at Hawaii), it was Rich Ellerson, our defensive coordinator, and that man just taught me how to be successful at the college level; the intensity of the game and how to be prepared for a game and how to just can keep competing every single moment.

Rich Ellerson was the DC at Hawaii when Santa Cruz played there.
Rich Ellerson was the DC at Hawaii when Santa Cruz played there.

Bob Wagner was our head coach and he’s the ultimate administrator. I look back on the lessons of just playing for him and seeing how he administrated the whole program.

Another guy is Buzz Preston, who’s now at Georgia Tech. He really taught me that even at the high level of college football to never lose the heart for the game. To never lose that passion and the love for the fellow human that you’re playing with.

Ken Niumatalolo coached Santa Cruz at Hawaii, he is now the Head Coach at Navy.
Ken Niumatalolo coached Santa Cruz at Hawaii, he is now the Head Coach at Navy.

One thing I took from Paul Johnson, who was our offensive coordinator at Hawaii when I was playing, is to know yourself very well. I see his success. I’m happy for him and the guys like Ken Niumatalolo and all the other Hawaii guys who came out of that era. They are all triple option guys, and they know themselves very well.

Santa Cruz played for Paul Johnson while at Hawaii.
Santa Cruz played for Paul Johnson while at Hawaii.

That’s why I tell our staff all the time: “Know your system very well so that you can have those counter punches come game time.”

Another guy who has mentored me was Herb Myer; he is the first guy to give me a job in this industry. I worked for him as an assistant at El Camino HS in Oceanside, CA. Herb taught me about creating structure but not to lose the family in the process, all the while making sure you’re a competitor. At El Camino, every coach must do their role, while giving assistance and the freedom to do the role but in the context of having a strong leadership at the helm to say: “Hey, here’s where the program is going.”

Another Head Coach mentor of mine that I worked for is Coach (Pete) Shinnick; he has probably had the largest impact. He’s now the head coach at University of Western Florida. Pete, he is a close friend of mine and my closet confidant in this industry. As I list all of these people who influenced my life, Pete was the one who taught me to how to bring it all together. As you look at all these guys I’ve cited, I’ve named a lot of guys, Pete was a guy who said: “Okay, let’s bring it all together to form a coaching philosophy.” I really owe that to Pete. From Pete’s leadership, I was able to see somebody bring it all together because in the same way, he can cite a bunch of names that influenced him and yet, he’s able to bring it all together and know what fits him for what he needs at the moment. It’s not necessarily trying to mirror what somebody else did.

One of Santa Cruz's mentors, Pete Shinnick. He is the Head Coach at the University of West Florida.
One of Santa Cruz’s mentors, Pete Shinnick. He is the Head Coach at the University of West Florida.

Coach Fore: Now, here’s a tough question, we don’t want to name names, but think back to your playing career, who was your least favorite coach? What made them a bad leader?

Coach Santa Cruz: Oh man, I’ve experience some bad ones. I was blessed in my high school days, that Rancho Buena Vista staff from the 88 and 89 teams. They were just superb. In college, I experienced a couple of bad coaches, and what made them bad, and I say that with conviction, is that they didn’t know how to relate to players. It was my way or the highway but you can see that their ways have big time flaws. They didn’t know the business. They didn’t know the scheme. I have no problem when somebody says my way or the highway if I see you’re an expert.

Coach Fore: And if you trust them?

Coach Santa Cruz: I trust them if I can tell you’re a professional. You know your stuff very well and I’ll jump right in with your way. I’ll be passionate about that way. In contrast, some of these coaches were just yellers. It felt like they over compensated for what they didn’t know by yelling. I understand that in this business, yelling is sometimes expected and timely, but I think a lot of young coaches are maybe getting the wrong idea when they start off in the businesses. It’s not about being the yeller or angry or how intimidating you look. What matters most is how can you service that kid? How can you provide an expert product for them to learn from? Can you create an environment that all types of personalities can learn from? So, I’ll leave the names out but those are the things that I realized, you (bad coaches) didn’t help us at all.

Barking at kids usually doesn't help.
Barking at kids usually doesn’t help.

Coach Fore: Coach, if you were to boil down all that leadership you learned from all those coaches, what’s the best leadership lesson you’ve learned in coaching?

Coach Santa Cruz: Learn to lead yourself first. There is so much information out there in terms of philosophy and scheme. As a head coach, when it hits the fan and you’re feeling the stress, you’re feeling the pressure, if you don’t know how to lead yourself and hold true of the core values that you set as a standard before you left the harbor, then this ship is just going to fall apart in the storm.

Leading yourself means that if you get a parent calling, or that fan who is just blasting you on social media, you are going to stick to the mission instead of being reactive to everything out there and be defensive.

Thankfully, I’ve grown to know myself. Each day I’m going to lead myself first so that I can lead the program. You have to know where the program is going and as a head coach, you’re the tip of the spear. You’re the machete in the jungle and so, chances are, there’s going to be more dark times and you’re the one who has to create the path.

As an assistant you are following somebody else’s lead. The best assistants help clear the path as the head coach chops away at the jungle. Whether you an assistant or a head coach, if you know how to lead yourself well, you know how to better relate with results.

There are different types of players and different types of people and ultimately, we are in the human performance business. So, you have to know how to relate to other human beings so that we can collectively achieve a great result.


Coach Fore: I love that! You’re forging through a jungle as a head coach. You’re the one who is going to get rid of some of that brush, have to clear the path.

Coach Santa Cruz: Yes.

Coach Fore: That’s a great picture. Who do you try to emulate as a leader today?

Coach Santa Cruz: Here’s the mistake I made as a younger head coach: I read all the head coaching books, their biographies and I would try to mirror what they did instead of learning from them. I needed to decipher between what resonates with me and what is practical for my program.

As far as program management goes, when you read about other head coaches you must know what you can apply versus what is just their personality and that’s just something that works for them. So, I’m trying to be the best me I possibly can be.

That’s how my program is going to succeed and how we’re going to go. I’m going to learn from a lot of people, but I not trying to be a bunch of other people. So, the list of coaches that we started the interview off with, there’s something I’ve taken from every single one of them, but I’ve been at fault and I’ve made the mistake of trying to be like them instead of learning from them. You can come from a program where this or that head coach ran it and think “I’m going to run it exactly the same way.” You do it exactly like he did it. Well, it may not work because you’re not that person.

There’s are a lot of secret sauce that’s goes into making that work, that only the other person could put in there.


Coach Fore: How long did it take you to learn that principle you just shared, to just be you?

Coach Santa Cruz:  It took me longer than I would’ve liked. I was going into my fifth year of being a head coach when the light bulb came on. I became a head coach at thirty three years old. Having my first four years of failing, having only one winning season in four years, I thankfully had a close friend named Pat Intraversato helped in mentoring me. Pat owns an executive coaching firm called Iron Coaching. Pat helped me to come to grips with learning to lead myself in order to relate for results.

In 2010, you started to see the program turn in terms of the wins and losses. It started to really turn so much so that we started to become a real winning program. 2010 is when I committed to be the best me. I’ll start to lead myself. I’ll start to make sure I trust people more and say: “I’ll study the Nick Sabans and the other successful coaches in the world that we admire…I’ll appreciate them but I never can be them. There’s only one of them. I’m going to make sure I’m just going to be the best me this program has.”

Coach Fore: So, after five years, you kind of made that decision to focus on who you are as a leader, that’s when you saw the whole APU football program turn the corner?

Coach Santa Cruz: It’s amazing just how this decision helped the coaching staff. It actually brought some real synergy to them because they saw the authenticity come out. So, the trust level went way up.

It’s an amazing phenomenon but the more authentic I led, the more they (assistants) were able to just fall in line and the trust went way up.

Because now, they knew what to expect each a day. They knew how to fall in line and how to help because it’s tough when the head coach is unpredictable, as in the previous years, of me trying to mirror somebody else’s techniques.

Those first years were not authentic, because they’re not necessarily from me. Now they know who they’re going to get every day. So, it’s a real big humbling lesson that I had to learn. I’m really glad I had the chance to fail because otherwise, in my whole life, I would have never figured this thing out.

NFL Hall of Fame football player Jackie Slater is an assistant coach at APU. Here he works with a player during their NFL Pro Day.
NFL Hall of Fame football player Jackie Slater is an assistant coach at APU. Here he works with a player during their NFL Pro Day.

Coach Fore: Wow, that’s good, that’s really good. What is your greatest leadership failure and what did you learn from it?

Coach Santa Cruz: That’s it (what he just referred to as trying to lead like other people, not himself).  I guess, for lack of a better word, people say: “Oh you’re a hot commodity as a coordinator.” We were a top five defense prior to me becoming the head coach. People at the school were saying, “that’s was the best defense they had ever seen.” As a coordinator, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and then, you take over the head coaching position and you realize that it’s a whole another galaxy that you’re in. I tell people, because that’s a humbling lesson, that you never know how to be a head coach until you’re really sitting in that chair.

Coach Fore: Yes.

Coach Santa Cruz: You need to prepare to be a head coach if that’s your goal. Learn, interview but yet, it’s going to come down to when you’re sitting in the chair and then, you feel the pressure. You have to make the decisions.

You’re the tip of the spear, and back to that jungle example, is that you’re the one who doesn’t have the luxury of passing off the leadership responsibility. The buck stops with you.  You have to create the path instead of seeing the clear beaten path.

It takes a lot of learning. So, I admire those guys who can really hit it off right away and be successful as a head coach because they’ve had the humility enough to say I’m going to prepare in advanced. I’m going to prepare in advance and learn all I can. They probably did a lot better than me. They knew themselves much better before they got in that chair.


Coach Fore: Last question: how is Azusa Pacific Football developing leaders?

Coach Santa Cruz: I tell you what, that’s everything we’re about every day when we go in the office! Our mission statement is we’re “building champions while pursuing championships.” From the athletic side, we say we want to make sure that they’re performing at the highest level. However that begins by learning at a high level.

As a staff, we’re humble enough to constantly research new ideas, research best practices and keep learning. As we look and learn, there are three areas that we’re going to focus on in order to build into what we call a Warrior Man. So, a Warrior Man for us comes out of the Bible verse 2 Timothy 1:7 “that God had not given us a spirit of fear but one of power, of love, and self-discipline.” So, those are the three areas we’re going to focus on; power, love, and self-discipline. Throughout their time with us, we’ll share a variety of techniques and teaching moments to build our players up for the big game of life, while keeping an eye on the ball to clarify what we do and how we get better every day. For us, building leaders is committing to build them up in power and love and in self-discipline.

Power is their ability to change the environment. Their athleticism is an easy one to describe in regards to their power. Their academics are another area that they can influence. Another area of power we focus on is how they interact with people.  Your power does change the environment. So, we’re going to help. Hey you have that power. Some kids feel powerless. I’ll tell them at day one: “You have power and what you do with it matters every moment of the day. We want them to be positive in building things up instead of tearing things down.”

Love is a big word and we’re trying to create a very good working definition for them. Researchers would say that a person’s ultimate need is to love and to be loved.  It’s to give love and to be loved and so, we’re going to start as a coaching staff. First and foremost is we’re going to love our players and love doesn’t mean we’re giving them whatever they want. Love is sometimes tough. Love set the setting for our prgram’s structure. Love is creating that fairness, that belief in them, that looking out for their good and so, we’re going to do that first by how we treat them but then, we’re always going to call out how they treat each other.

Then, self-discipline is really that toughness factor that we’re trying to talk about and that all coaches talk about: “Hey be tough. Be tough.” Well, we’re going to define toughness as self-discipline. In other words, toughness is when you’re doing the right things longer and if you’re somebody who knows how to do the right things longer, that really means that you are self-disciplined. You see a lot of dreams cut short because of the self-discipline failures. You see a lot of talented people that the breakthrough was almost there but they weren’t self-disciplined enough just to keep at it, to continue to master their craft. Their emotions got the best of them. They were impatient and they gave up. So, those are the things that we’re really going to continue to build upon when you’re talking about leadership.

With that said, there are a variety of different leadership prescriptions we’re going to do from seminars for the players, from pre-meetings, post-meetings at the practice but it all comes down to leadership. As an organization, how do we hire. We have to hire an assistant coach who really believes in all those things. Their heart has to be to build champions while pursuing championships because the platform we have as coaches is like no other in the country. We’ve got one of the best jobs in the country, highest profile jobs in the country and we’re going to make a large impact over our whole lifetime of our career. Our jobs are so important because in this country we all have a hundred young men that you are going to see you every day for a minimum of 20 hours a week on average. It only makes sense that we make a difference in the lives of these young men along the journey to win it all.

Watch this sweet little video about Coach Santa Cruz.