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Hearing the Call

July 01, 2015 - 6 minute read

Chuck Goldstein '15

Head coach Chuck Goldstein, MCAA ’15 led Gallaudet University’s football team in a Cinderella season in 2013, winning their conference and breaking into the national rankings (#25) for the first time in school history.

What’s unusual is that half the players on the team are deaf and the other half are hearing-impaired. Gallaudet, founded in 1864, is the leading university in the U.S. for deaf and hearing-impaired students.

“I haven’t used a whistle in six years,” says Goldstein from Gallaudet’s 99-acre Washington, D.C., campus.

The Gallaudet Bison play by the same rules as all other teams in the NCAA’s Division III. But they call plays using sign language, with everyone looking at the ball to know when the play starts.

And because there are so few deaf and hearing-impaired players in the U.S., the team’s roster is around 54 players, far below the normal 100. A few injuries can devastate a season.

“Our recruiting pool is so much smaller,” says Goldstein. “I’m not allowed to recruit hearing players unless they are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL),” making the team’s breakout season that much more remarkable.

Goldstein’s own path was just as unexpected, and was helped by a degree from Concordia University Irvine’s Master of Arts in Coaching and Athletics Administration (MCAA) program. As a former high school coach who was suddenly elevated to the top spot at Gallaudet, Goldstein learned on the fly, adapted quickly and made his stamp on this storied program.

From childhood, “All I wanted to do was teach P.E. and coach football,” he says, but success didn’t come immediately. He played college football in his native Maryland, then joined the coaching staff at a couple of local colleges, but struggled to make ends meet.

“I had no connections in the coaching network or much experience,” he says. At one point he was working the graveyard shift at a residential group home and putting in a full day coaching, just for the love of the game.

Newly married, Goldstein found a job teaching P.E. at a southern Maryland high school. He hoped to coach again at the college level, but when the opportunity arose it scared him and his wife.

“I bumped into a friend who was the head coach at Gallaudet and he said, ‘Come coach with me,’” Goldstein remembers. “I was hesitant at first. I had a good teaching job. My wife was pregnant with our first son and wasn’t excited about me going back to coaching at college. It requires recruiting and doesn’t have great job security. What if we didn’t win or the head coach left? Then where am I? There were so many question marks.”

They took the risk and Goldstein joined the Bison in 2009, in time to be part of the team’s first winning season since 1930. Later that year the top spot opened up and because there was a hiring freeze due to the economic downturn, Goldstein was named head coach.

“I was young and naive and learning how to coach a team on the fly,” he says.

Not only that, but he was learning a new language, ASL, which is expected of everyone who works at Gallaudet, even those like Goldstein who have no hearing loss. Sitting with players at lunch helped.

“They were very patient with me,” he says. He soon learned that Gallaudet, which is a federally chartered school (the President of the United States signs each diploma), is deeply committed to its sports.

“I’ve had kids tell me their dream is to wear that Bison uniform,” says Goldstein. “For some kids this is like playing for Notre Dame.”

But the Bison have racked up more losing seasons than most football programs. The team’s major accomplishment in 116 years was inventing the huddle in 1894 when Gallaudet’s quarterback pulled his players into a circle so no one could see his hand motions. (Ironically, today Gallaudet doesn’t use the huddle because opposing teams can’t understand ASL.)

Goldstein discovered that he had to always stand in front of players so they could see him communicating. He learned to keep track of where the sun was so he wasn’t backlit. Meetings took longer and it was harder to get someone’s attention from across the field, including a running back headed for the end zone after the play was dead.

It took me a while to figure out what impact you can have on young people. You’re changing lives.

On defense, the team played to the ball and looked to the referee to put his hands up because most couldn’t hear a whistle. On special teams plays, a coach bangs a big drum on the sidelines to indicate when the ball is on the ground. Players feel the vibration and know to look for the ball.

But some aspects of the deaf experience provided a strategic advantage. With the silent snap count, the quarterback puts pressure on the center’s rear end to signal when to hike. The quarterback can even change the call at the line of scrimmage, signing with one hand in front of the center’s face and letting the players communicate that down the line. None of this takes extra time.

“We’re signing so fast you can’t pick up on it unless you’re fluent in ASL,” says Goldstein.

In his first two years as head coach, the team went 5-5, then notched a winning season (7-3) in 2012.

Then the magical 2013 season arrived.

“We ripped off nine straight wins” and became the first men’s team at Gallaudet to make a NCAA tournament appearance, Goldstein says. Eleven players made the all-conference team, and Goldstein was named the 2013 coach of the year by his peers in the conference.

The Bison’s run captured national attention and the team was featured on ESPN, the CBS Evening News, in the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

At the same time, Goldstein had just enrolled in Concordia’s MCAA program.

“I researched different graduate programs in coaching administration, compared them all and felt like Concordia was the right fit, so I jumped right into it,” he says. “I really enjoyed the classes. I used the stuff I learned in the classroom in my program. It was really beneficial.”

For example, he took knowledge from his Technology and Sports class and implemented it right away in Gallaudet’s football program.

“I was a boring PowerPoint guy before,” he says. “Now we’re all linked in as a staff because of that class.”

Concordia’s professors were easy to get hold of when he had questions, he says, and the schedule’s flexibility allowed him to take classes during the summer and double up in the winter, while taking a break during football season.

“During the day if I had a few minutes I could take an online test or quiz or something, spend time with my kids, and then put my kids to bed and do homework,” he says.

Tom White, founder and director of Concordia University Irvine’s MCAA program, says that the program currently serves 1,019 students in all fifty states and five foreign countries. “Our MCAA program provides a transformational experience that connects athletics with faith, learning and a life’s work of service,” says White.

For Goldstein, that became part of his journey of growing as a coach.

“When I first started coaching, I just wanted to win,” he says. “I didn’t know what coaching was. I just wanted to yell at people and spit in their faces. It took me a while to figure out what impact you can have on young people. You’re changing lives. They come in as immature 18-year-old kids and leave as mature adults.”

Now, with his teams producing genuine NFL prospects, Goldstein gets more satisfaction from helping kids become outstanding adults. “Football teaches you everything you need to know about life, accountability, discipline, all those things,” he says. “I’m the man I am today because of football. As coaches we’re in the business of developing young people. The bigger wins are graduation, shaking their parents’ hands.”

Along the way Goldstein has helped revitalize Gallaudet’s football program and become fluent in ASL.

“When I hang out with friends I start signing when I’m talking,” he says. “It happens naturally. At a restaurant I’ll sign when I’m ordering and not realize it.”

His three sons, ages 5, 4 and 2, love coming to the field and hanging out with players. And two of Goldstein’s co-workers—a basketball coach and the men’s soccer coach—have started Concordia’s MCAA program.

“I think it’s a great program and I promote it anytime I can,” Goldstein says. “I work with great people. I love my job. I love football. I’m never going to stop learning football.”

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