Mentor Mondays: Coach Sonny Wolfe

Today’s post marks the first installment in a series that I’ll write from time-to-time on various Mondays.  This series, sensibly named “Mentor Mondays,” is a look at some of the people who have impacted my life, whether it be through sports, school, music (one of my stronger passions) or simply through any other aspect of my life.

What you’ll read is essentially an overview and my opinion of the person and the ways that they’ve influenced and molded me into who I am today.  Chances are, they’ve done the exact same thing to countless others along the way!  I’ll start off with a person of particular relevance; this post is dedicated to recently-retired McGill Redmen Football coach Sonny Wolfe.

108174_FB_Sonny_Wolfe2_465x250 (good)Background Check: Coach Wolfe began his McGill coaching career in the mid-70’s, during which time he was an assistant under legendary Redmen coach Charlie Baillie.  In 1984 he moved on to Acadia University where he lead the Axemen as their head coach for a remarkable 19 seasons.  After relatively brief stints with St. Francis Xavier University and the Université de Montréal, Coach Wolfe was named McGill’s Head Football Coach in the spring of 2007, following the resignation of Chuck McMann, who returned to the CFL to coach with the Calgary Stampeders.  Coach Wolfe was at the helm for five seasons, stepping down this fall after a contest against Concordia that resulted in the Redmen falling to an 0-6 record, putting the playoffs essentially out of reach.  Overall, his career spanned a total of 44 years – impressive in an industry that rarely favours longevity in any sense of the word.

Rebuilding Project: Sonny Wolfe inherited a McGill program that was coming off a 4-4 regular season, with a lopsided post-season loss in the conference semi-finals to Laval.  The season before that, the team experienced a nationally-publicized hazing scandal that lead to many veteran players leaving or being cut by the previous coach staff.  Coach Wolfe walked into a program that hadn’t had a significant recruiting class in at least two years.  While there was some good, young talent on the team, overall there was a considerable lack of depth.  The team’s most important leader (and arguably its best player at the time) from the 2006 season, Greg Hetherington, graduated after his five-year career and moved onto the CFL.  There was a large lack of coaching resources available to the team: Coach Wolfe was the only full-time coach on the staff at his time of hiring.  Many other programs in the Quebec football conference (now known as the “RSEQ”) had between three and five full-timers – clearly he was at a tremendous disadvantage compared to who he was facing on the field on a regular basis.  He had his work cut out for him…

In the end, Wolfe’s head coaching career at McGill did not amount to much in the win-loss column.  He won only three regular season games, all in 2009, and two exhibiton games against substantially weaker OUA conference competition.  Success is not always what’s seen on the surface however – his leadership resulted in many positive changes within the program.  Here are some of the lessons that his actions taught me:

Faith is the most important quality that a person must possess when overcoming life’s obstacles.  I’m not talking about religious faith either, although many people rely on exactly that when dealing with their problems.  Faith is “belief that is not based on proof” and without that rationale behind one’s actions, most people give up on their goals in the face of adversity.  Faith is the precursor to confidence, which in my view is the key that opens all of life’s doors.

People will knock you and criticize you for your actions; standing up to your opponents and continuing to do what you believe in is a tremendous act of courage.  A few different approaches to team development were tried out during Coach Wolfe’s tenure.  Some steps, like increasing the number of year-round full-time coaches to three, and adding a seasonal full-time position for a special teams coordinator, were instrumental changes that made the team drastically more competitive.  Recruiting less academically-qualified players through Continuing Education (night school that leads to the awarding of diplomas and cerificates and not degrees) was a step that added athleticism to the squad, but faced a lot of negative feedback from observers of the team.  Still, going forward with your day-to-day duties of work for five years and  not knowing if you are ever going to truly have a chance to silence your doubters is a noble act to say the least.

Sonny Wolfe CaricatureRegardless of what is going on around you, whether good or bad, always hold yourself accountable to your own set of high standards. Coach Wolfe was the most organized man I’ve ever worked for.  He was a first-class human being and treated everyone who played for him, whether star player or career back-up, with respect and dignity.  It’s not possible to be equal in all things in sports, but it’s possible to be fair.  Ultimately, in order to be a leader, you must be someone that people can depend on, and want to follow.  Without followers, you aren’t a leader – you’re just a person with a job title.

I learned so many crucial lessons on how to treat and interact with people – he opened my eyes up to how you develop other peoples’ abilities and skills as both athletes and individuals.  Thanks to him, I have a strong foundation of belief underneath me.  I know how to carry myself and be professional in a very tumultuous industry.  Thank you Coach Wolfe!



2 thoughts on “Mentor Mondays: Coach Sonny Wolfe

  1. MB this was a great article!!! Although I only knew Coach Wolfe for a brief period of time, he had shown a lot of faith in both his players and coaching staff (unfortunately faith doesn’t always translate into wins). Through all the rough patches that the team encountered throughout my one season, Coach Wolfe never stopped believing in us. These are signs of a great leader, and I respect him greatly as a result. Hopefully some day I can emulate his career, and have the same influence on my own players as he did on myself.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.


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