College football is a results-oriented business. The history of the game is littered with tales of corner-cutting and rule-dodging as coaches look for an edge that will bring them more wins, more prestige and more money. Jerome Souers is not one of those coaches. In fact, as he enters his 13th year as head football coach of Northern Arizona University, Souers focuses first on bringing the right type of person to Flagstaff.
"For our team, it is all about finding student-athletes who want a degree, want to become the best athlete they can be, and understand the importance of being a great role model in the community," Souers says. "That involves giving back and being a good citizen in Flagstaff; it's certainly not some of the negative things you see college athletes running into these days."
Similarly, Souers strives to be much more than just the leader of a football team. He serves as a mentor to his players, helping them through difficult personal times and showing them how to be leaders—both on the field and in the community.
"I have an open door policy with my players that extends beyond football," says Souers. "It covers academics, and how they're coping with their lives. I think that one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is hearing back 10 years later from players who remember the lessons they learned and the experiences they survived. I think one of the most rewarding things you can hear is when former players say, 'This really helped me down the road and (the lessons you taught me) meant something.'"
Souers also actively supports causes that go beyond the gridiron. When an NAU booster and friend of his recently underwent a liver transplant operation, Souers and his team volunteered to help the Donor for Life program, eventually signing up approximately 300 potential donors. He also leads the Lumberjacks in volunteering with local youth football programs.
"We clinic and coach with Pop Warner kids, and our players get involved," says Souers. "It's really fun because it's so impacting: these little bobble-head kids are running around with my guys, who are like 300 pounds. It's really rewarding because the kids look at these football players with such big eyes."
His work as a role model covers many spectrums. Aside from building a program that strives for excellence on and off the field, Souers is also the only Native American NCAA Division I head football coach. A member of the Lakota Nation and Cheyenne River Tribe, Souers' roots trace back to reservations in South Dakota, where both his parents were raised. As a member of one of the most elite coaching fraternities in the world, however, Souers asserts that coaching success has more to do with performance than anything else.
"I think it doesn't matter what skin color you have, you have to be capable of doing the job," he says. "It didn't come easy for me—I didn't have a father or relative in a position to assist me. I had to start as a general assistant and work my way up. That's how my progress has been. Do I take pride in that? Sure, absolutely. I worked very hard to get here."
This is not to say that Souers does not embrace his heritage: to the contrary, he is happy to serve as a role model for anyone who aspires to a high rank in the coaching profession.
"(Being a college football head coach) is something a lot of guys want or will try to get to," he says. "I'm proud to represent my people and my heritage, and think that this is not a sport a lot of Natives have really been able to flourish in as participants or in the coaching field, so I'm excited I've been able to contribute."
Souers certainly has contributed a great deal to the success of his teams during more than two decades as a coach. He served as defensive coordinator for the University of Montana for nine years, helping to lead that team to a Division I-AA national championship in 1995. As the longest-serving head coach in Northern Arizona University history, he has compiled a winning record, going 70-66 over 12 years. In a sport that is often judged harshly on bottom-line results, Souers has delivered.
But his greatest accomplishment, Souers says, has little to do with wins and losses. "I'm most proud of developing a program that has a good family feel to it, where everyone understands the importance of trusting each other and working together. Great things happen when people work together and achieve the true sense of team."