College sports teams are always in flux. Every year, roughly one-fourth of the team graduates and first-years take their place, making coaching continuity critical for sustained success. The importance of a good college coach, not only for a program’s long-term success but also for supporting the wellbeing of the student-athletes, cannot be underestimated.
This year, Vassar Athletics hired new head coaches for multiple sports, including Women’s Soccer and Men’s and Women’s Track and Field. I spoke to the two men Vassar hired to fill these positions, hoping to get a sense of who they are as coaches and their goals for the coming years.
When I asked new Head Women’s Soccer Coach Keith Simons why he was drawn to Vassar, he told me, “Vassar’s mission and core values and the principles really aligned with the way I’d like to coach…giving people the freedom to question and seek more answers is definitely how I like my players to play because our sport is one of the more free flowing, there’s not as many set plays.”
It was clear that Vassar aligned with his personal outlook. “My style is to create an environment where our players have to solve problems on their own. We give them, I’ll say, just enough information.” He continued, “They retain it better … Really…it’s just another class. I mean, some of us get credits for some of our varsity sports. But it’s just another learning environment for them.”
Coming from schools like Wesleyan and Skidmore, he was used to coaching where students were high achieving in both academics and athletics. “My job here…as a new coach, is to blend all these things together, what’s made us successful, things we need to improve on, but not necessarily just come in and take it over…So I didn’t have to change or adjust my style.”
Just as he is willing to blend what he knows with what Vassar’s program does best, he also keeps an open mind when it comes to fostering open dialogue with his players. “I really like open communication … So I’m okay when players make mistakes and make a decision, as long as they can tell me why. What did you see? What were you thinking? Because that at least tells me they’re evaluating the situation” he said.
Similarly, new Head Men’s and Women’s Track Coach Joe Reed sees himself as more of a teacher than a drill sergeant. “I’m a fairly laid back individual. I always tell people, if I wanted to yell and curse a lot, I would just coach football … It’s about talking through whatever the task might be at hand … And I think that a learning environment is far more effective than me just yelling at everybody.”
When I asked Coach Reed about his earliest memory of falling in love with the sport, he reminisced about a high school rivalry in the 400 meters. He recalled, “I got second, and he got first… but not by that much… And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, the 400 is really tough.’ But I also remember thinking, ‘I want to go up against this kid again. And next time I go against him, I’m gonna beat him.’”
Later that season, Coach Reed bested his rival in a rematch. He would go on to run track in college for SUNY Oneonta, where he was the 2009 NCAA Division III National Champion in the indoor 4x400m relay, as well as a seven-time NCAA Division III All-American and four-time individual SUNYAC champion (Vassar Athletics, “Joe Reed Named Head Coach of Vassar Men’s and Women’s Track & Field Programs” 09.12.2021).
But after hanging up the spikes, Coach Reed wasn’t yet ready to give up the sport he loved. “I am inherently a very competitive person. I consider myself a problem solver, so I think one of the unique things about coaching is it provides you with an opportunity to work with a lot of different people on solving a lot of different problems.” Coach Reed spent five years coaching at his alma mater, where he was named Division III Atlantic Region Assistant Coach of the Year three times, before moving on to working as an assistant coach at Army for five years. Coach Reed helped both Army and SUNY Oneonta to conference championships and guided many athletes to achieving their goals, including the 200m Division III National Champion one season (Vassar Athletics, “Joe Reed Named Head Coach of Vassar Men’s and Women’s Track & Field Programs” 09.12.2021).
In contrast, Coach Simons did not initially plan to become a coach. Coach Simons earned his degree in management with a concentration in marketing and a double minor in sociology and communications from Manhattanville College. Though he was not thinking of becoming a coach when he enrolled at Manhattanville, Coach Simons credited his education to boosting his career. “Managing a business is like managing our sports program. The marketing is recruiting. The communication and the sociology is people.”
Coach Simons fell into a coaching career after finishing college. “I played [soccer] in college, and I was one of those players who played through my senior spring in a fall sport. Usually seniors in the spring, they move on because you’re not competing for anything anymore.” With no job prospects lined up, Coach Simons returned home to help coach his high school team.
It didn’t take very long for Coach Simons to fall in love with coaching and find success in it. He was hired as assistant coach at Elmira College for two seasons before a three-year tenure as assistant coach for Vassar’s conference rival, Skidmore College, where he helped the team to two Liberty League Championships. He then spent three seasons as head coach of The Sage Colleges soccer program, where the team made it all the way to the conference final in his first season. His last stop before landing at Vassar was Wesleyan University as associate head coach.
Both Coach Reed and Coach Simons have experience helping athletes move past challenges big and small. They emphasized caring about their athletes as people, and hope to foster team cultures that act as a learning environment for the players. Their craft is about more than just a race or a game. Coach Simons felt inspired by one athlete in particular who was diagnosed with cancer at the end of one season. “Just being able to be there and help him through that and work with the school to make sure that he got what he needed was an awakening for me to recognize all of the impacts we can have as coaches,” he said. “At this level and in a collegiate environment, we’re affecting people, we’re doing more than just coaching the sport.”
Coach Reed told a story about using the track to help someone refocus their life and achieve great things. “When I was at Oneonta, I was lucky enough to work with an athlete that won the national championship in the 200m. But as a freshman and sophomore he spent a lot of time ‘enjoying the college experience,’ if you will. We brought him in, the summer going into his junior year, sat him down, and…said, ‘Look, man, you have a lot of talent. You can be really good. But this other stuff, you got to let it go… rededicate yourself to the craft…And he worked his butt off. I mean, he really did a complete 180 and really refocused and really changed the way that he dedicated himself to getting better.” And then he went on to win the national championship as a junior.
Vassar’s Track and Field team had a turbulent spring and Coach Reed is aware of the tension he is walking into, which he addressed at his first meeting with the team (The Miscellany News, “Title IX investigation calls future of Vassar Track Team into question,” 05.05.2021). “My initial feeling [was that] it seems like people are ready to grow and heal and get better…being there for one another, helping each other heal and moving forward as a group, not in like sections, but being able to move forward as a unit.”
Despite the challenges of taking on a new role, both coaches are optimistic and have ambitious goals for the upcoming season. “My biggest goal for our program is consistency and consistent success. I think it’s one thing to go and look at schools and programs that have won it once or had a good season, and then they dip again. I want to be a program that consistently performs well and accomplishes the things we want to accomplish,” said Coach Simons.
Coach Reed wasn’t afraid to aim high either. One of his goals is to win a team title at a conference championship, as well as national qualifiers and All-Americans. “I’ve been a part of conference championships everywhere I’ve been and I want to keep that tradition going,” he explained. “I think [there are] some things that have to happen before that. We’ve got to recruit the right people. Make sure that we’re building the right culture. And eventually we have to grow the roster size to get the team a little bit bigger.”
Both coaches expressed excitement for the coming year and an enthusiasm for getting to know the athletes and the Vassar community. “I thought…let me apply and see what [Vassar] is all about. And really, it was the people…I felt that I connected well with the people. I thought, okay, if and when I get back into [coaching], I want to make sure I’m in a good situation. And, you know, talking to everybody made me feel like [Vassar] was a good situation” said Coach Reed.