A TEDx talk on Sisu suggeested the following: "Sisu seems to be related to what I call the action mindset; a consistent, courageous approach toward challenges which at first seem to exceed our capacities. It is about actively reaching beyond our perceived limits, and stretching the existing boundaries of our psychological strength. We don't know how strong or capable we truly are before we are at the proverbial edge, and push beyond it."
Adapted from the Third Rail blog, Feb. 18, 2014.
In his seminal 1947 book on the history of Georgetown football, author Morris Bealle tells the story of a coaching change that involved little fanfare nor newspaper glory. Far from the age of social media and breaking news, Rev. John Kehoe, S.J. walked up the hill from campus upon the practice field that would later bear his name. With a 5-9 former halfback in tow, Kehoe made his way to the field and walked onto the practice. An announcement was read to the team.
"Gentlemen, your new coach, Jack Hagerty."
Eighty-two years later, Rob Sgarlata was introduced Tuesday as Georgetown's head football coach without the fanfare common at many schools, yet, like Hagerty, he is someone to whom Georgetown football is more than a job, but a calling. Recruited by Scotty Glacken, studied under Bob Benson, and coached alongside Kevin Kelly, Sgarlata has been part of this program for 22 of the last 24 years. It's a shared experience that figures to fortify the new coach against a daunting task that one of his predecessors faced so many years ago: putting the pride back into Georgetown football.
If there was a national search following Kevin Kelly's departure, it was a brief one. Sgarlata was the best choice given the circumstances of a position, and, let's be frank, Pete Carroll wasn't walking through that door. It's a door which opens to a program with a major college brand, a small college budget, and facilities best suited to a high school. A coaching search in early February was going to be daunting under any circumstances, much less one in which its predecessor struggled so visibly for not one or two years, but eight. Kevin Kelly saw his record drop from eight wins to two within two seasons as the shadow of scholarships began to dominate the entire Patriot League, that is, north of the Mason-Dixon line. It sent a subtle message that this may not be the job an aspiring coach is going to give two weeks notice for.
Doubtless there were candidates, but none with Sgarlata's experience nor the perspective of what Georgetown football is and what it can become. The 5-8, 165 lb. Sgarlata wasn't the biggest or fastest running back when he arrived from West Nyack, NY in the fall of 1990. By the time he graduated, Sgarlata would go on to lead the Hoyas in rushing two straight years, be elected team captain, and win the John L. Hagerty Award for the outstanding back on the team.
When he took over as head coach, Sgarlata debuted a simple message which he would build for Georgetown Football, whether that was on a bus trip, a recruiting trip, or a trip to 2nd Healy. It is is three distinct but related parts:
"4 For 40": A commitment to Georgetown is not just a four year exercise, but a forty year relationship that builds personal, professional, and career leadership throughout one's life;
"Men For Others": Symbolized by the sun that is on the Jesuit crest, Sgarlata expects his team to live up to Ignatian values of service, both among the team and within the overall community; and
"Sisu": A Finnish word not directly translated into English, it was described in 1940 by Time magazine thusly: "The Finns have something they call Sisu. It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate Sisu as "the Finnish spirit" but it is a much more gutful word than that. Last week the Finns gave the world a good example of Sisu by carrying the war into Russian territory on one front while on another they withstood merciless attacks by a reinforced Russian Army. In the wilderness that forms most of the Russo-Finnish frontier between Lake Laatokka and the Arctic Ocean, the Finns definitely gained the upper hand." Closer to home, Sisu expresses the will to fight and to prevail by former Georgetown defensive end Janne Kouri (B'97), whose efforts to battle back from paralysis are not only significant for the effort, but in how he stands as a model for others to follow.
Absent scholarships and with the highest admissions requirements in the Patriot League's Academic Index, Georgetown could become severely non-competitive in a real hurry. The ability to bring the best concepts of sisu into a program that will be underdogs in nine or ten games a year cannot be discounted.
The earlier reference to Jack Hagerty has a historic parallel, however, and is not meant to compare Sgarlata in 2014 against the arguable candidate for Georgetown's greatest ever football coach. But the uphill climb awaiting Sgarlata is not unlike what Hagerty faced when he succeeded Tommy Mills in 1932.
Georgetown's fall from an 8-2-0 team in 1928 to a 2-6-1 team by 1932 was not entirely a result on Mills, any more than the last two years was the sole responsibility of Kevin Kelly. The decline of those teams of an earlier era followed a quiet decision by University president W. Coleman Nevils S.J. to end athletic scholarships. Rev. Nevils felt Georgetown didn't need scholarships to attract fine young men for sports like football. (In theory, yes, in practice, not so much.) It led Mills' top assistant, future Hall of Famer Frank Leahy, to leave Georgetown after one season, saying that Georgetown exhibited "a certain coolness" to competitive football, and he wasn't being complimentary.
With financial aid but little else, Hagerty's first full season was a one-win campaign in 1933. Four win seasons followed in 1934 and 1935. By 1936, Hagerty won six of nine games. By 1938, the Hoyas were undefeated. By 1940, the Hoyas were in the Top 10 with just 20 scholarships, not the 80 or more common in the major college ranks of that era.
But it's more than scholarships that turned Hagerty's Georgetown program around in 1933. He understood the politics of the Healy Building, he knew when to push and when to pull, and he knew the importance in building internal support before he could demand external change.
A case must be made for not only what Georgetown football wants, but what it needs. It doesn't have to be 60 scholarships or a 25,000 seat stadium. But it needs more than what it has right now, and a coach that can speak alongside a parent, a former player, or a University president and make that case, financial and otherwise, can begin to see results. The enduring promise is that no one sitting in McDonough or Healy that is "against" football, but they nonetheless expect football to create its own path to success. In this, the goals of "4 For 40", Men For Others", and "Sisu" can set a statement about where this program is, and where it can go.