It’s 6 in the morning. Columbia students are fast asleep, exhausted by their Thursday night outings in the city and midterm papers due the night before. Few would even think about getting up at such an ungodly hour, especially on the day that marks the beginning of the weekend. In fact, most of the city is still asleep. You cannot yet hear the typical hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
A hundred blocks north of campus, football quarterbacks coach Ryan Larsen has been at Baker Athletics Complex for the past hour. He is about to wrap up his usual early morning workout. Soon, he will be getting ready to go over the film from the previous day’s practice with the other offensive coaches.
For Larsen and many other assistant coaches, this is just another day at the office. On a normal day during the season, Larsen is usually up by 4:30 a.m.
“It’s early, but you get used to it,” he said.
Being an assistant coach is not a typical 9-to-5; Larsen has to work late nights, early mornings, and adapt to constantly changing work schedules. “I don’t think people expect the hours to be as crazy as they are,” men’s basketball assistant coach Justin Levine said.
In a normal season, a typical workday for Larsen is 12 to 14 hours. Though much of the work that goes into it may go unseen, that is the level of commitment necessary for a collegiate athletic program to function.
‘A lot of moving around’: How they get there
Levine, who played tennis at Ithaca College, got his start in college basketball as an undergraduate. While working toward his degree in business administration, he worked for Ithaca’s, and later Cornell University’s, men’s basketball team, doing “anything that the coaching staff needed.”
From there, he worked as a graduate assistant and video coordinator at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2019, he was offered an interview at Columbia, which he obtained through a connection he had with a coach from Cornell.
After playing football at Claremont McKenna College, Larsen decided to go to Indiana University, where he earned his master’s in athletic administration. Then-head coach of Indiana football, Bill Lynch, who recruited Larsen out of high school, offered him a volunteer position as an offensive intern and, later, a full-time role.
He went on to hold various positions at Rhodes College, Wabash College, and Stevenson University before joining the Lions' coaching staff in 2019.
Running backs coach Joe D’Orazio, who played center at the University of Pennsylvania under current Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli, started as a tight ends coach at the University of Chicago. After one year in Chicago, he was a defensive graduate assistant at the University of Utah. He also worked with the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, coaching under Super Bowl-winning head coaches Andy Reid and Doug Pederson.
D’Orazio is currently in his second stint with the Light Blue, as he was Columbia’s tight ends coach in 2015 before going to work with the Eagles. He explained that it is typical for assistant coaches to have nonlinear career trajectories.
“Inherently … there’s a lot of moving around,” he said.
But all three coaches emphasized that their myriad experiences helped them get to where they are now.
Not having played Division I basketball, Levine knew he would face many challenges trying to break into coaching. He credits the coaches he worked with for teaching him the ropes.
“I felt prepared when I got a job because so many people had given me tremendous insights, and I felt like by the time I got this job as an assistant coach, I knew how I would try to make my impact on Coach [Jim] Engles' program within the framework that he wants things done,” he said.
D’Orazio, who has coached tight ends, wide receivers, linemen, linebackers, and running backs, also credits his former colleagues for helping him adjust to new roles. “The biggest thing is having somebody that can teach you the positions,” he said.
At Indiana, Larsen would help out with whatever he could, from making coffee in the office to stuffing envelopes at home. He learned that helpfulness goes a long way, as Lynch promoted him to a full-time position because of it.
“Don’t be afraid to do the smallest jobs, because the smallest jobs still need to be done by someone,” he said. “[Your] willingness to do it can say something about you.”
A plethora of responsibilities
Levine, like other assistant coaches, helps head basketball coach Jim Engles come up with gameplans and make in-game adjustments. But his responsibilities extend far beyond what is seen on the court.
Throughout the year, Levine writes scouting reports on opposing teams, breaks down film with players, and acts as an ad hoc academic advisor to his players. That is on top of all of his on-court duties: holding individual workouts with players, helping run practices, and coaching the team in games.
“There are a lot of things to cover, and time management and emphasis on what the staff deems important [are] critical,” he noted.
Perhaps the most time-consuming aspect of an assistant coach’s job, though, is recruiting. The process involves traveling across the country, developing and maintaining relationships with recruits and their families, running camps, and hosting both official and unofficial visits. Many of these duties fall on assistant coaches.
“Being a college football coach, you’re gonna spend more time recruiting than doing football. … Recruiting is a nonstop effort. You are constantly recruiting all year long,” Larsen said.
“There’s no off-time,” D’Orazio summarized.
Inevitably, such a nonstop process will demand a hectic travel schedule, coaches said.
“You might watch three workouts in one day where you’re just driving around the state of Florida, and you got five hours of sleep. All day, you’re working and making evaluations. … Those days can be very crazy as far as the travel and the lack of sleep that you can get,” Levine said.
Larsen noted, though, that the football staff’s recruiting efforts serve a vital purpose. “If you don’t recruit good players, you’re gonna struggle,” he said.
With many recruits no longer able to showcase their talents at tournaments and exposure camps due to local and state restrictions, introducing prospective student-athletes to the team has been much more difficult than in years past.
“[The pandemic has] made recruiting a lot harder because usually, we have evaluation periods over the summer where we go out and really put our eyes on guys and see everything we would like to see,” Levine said. “There’s a lot less film out there.”
Still, teams are making the most out of the situation. The football team started hosting virtual campus and facility tours, home visits, and position-oriented meetings with recruits.
Once new recruits reach campus, assistant coaches also serve as mentors for a group of student-athletes, who must balance the realities of attending an institution as rigorous as Columbia, their commitment to their teams, and personal lives.
That is the primary responsibility of Stephen LaRouere, CC ’13, a men’s golf volunteer assistant coach and full-time investment banker. A former Columbia golfer himself, LaRouere provides career guidance and mentorship to Columbia golfers, occupying a role that he describes as “a supplement to the really strong career development services for the athletic program.”
“It’s more something that I do for fun,” he said. “I really just see it as me giving back to the program more than anything.”
Ultimately, though, an assistant coach’s most important job is to serve their head coach. “Your loyalty to your head coach and to his overarching philosophy for the program is the most important thing,” Larsen said. “My job as an assistant is to be loyal to my head coach and to what his vision is for the program.”
Levine echoed this sentiment.
“I really, really focus on, ‘How can I make Coach Engles’ life as easy as possible?'” he said.
‘That’s why I love coaching’: motives and dreams
With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting in-person activities around the world, Ivy League athletic games and practices were put on hold until at least January. Since the pandemic started, nearly all of the football team’s operations have been made virtual. For Larsen, that means meeting with the quarterbacks digitally on a regular basis to go over film and talk football.
“We’re still meeting two, three times a week to talk football … in some way, shape, or form so that they’re still improving from a mental standpoint,” he said.
For assistants, coaching comes down to guiding the players' growth—not just on the court.
“You don’t get into this profession for money,” Levine said. For men’s teams, they make just over $70,000 a year on average—over $100,000 less than a Columbia head coach. Assistant coaches for women’s teams are paid only $42,000 a year on average, compared to just under $100,000 for women’s teams' head coaches. Rather, what is dearest to Levine is witnessing growth and evolution in his players.
“The greatest joy I think you take away is watching the student-athletes grow on and off the court,” Levine said. “Seeing them struggle on the court, and then work on it and work on it, you’re helping them along the way, and then they do it at a high level in a big moment. … That’s a really special process to be a part of.”
His commitment to his players' growth has not gone unnoticed, either.
One day, sophomore Emmanuel Onuama was scheduled to meet with Levine 30 minutes before a practice to go over plays. After taking longer than usual to get ready, Onuama showed up late, not thinking much of it.
Levine thought differently.
Onuama remembers Levine telling him, “For you to get where you want to go, you have to be able to be available to your coaches and people who want to help you. You have to be able to show up on time every time. Not just once. Not just twice. You gotta do it every day. That’s what it takes to get to the next level.”
“It stood out for me because, OK, here’s a guy that’s trying to help me, and then I’m late, and he’s out here putting himself out for me, and I didn’t show up in time for him,” Onuama said. “I told myself never to do that again, and that’s always stuck with me.”
Larsen also cherishes seeing his players grow into young men and said that his favorite day of the year is graduation.
“[Graduation is] awesome because you were such a big part of that young man’s life for those four or five years, and to see them graduate and then now be an adult—to me, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
To D’Orazio, being a part of “recruiting a 17-year-old boy and having him graduate [as] a 22-year-old man” is what makes coaching at the collegiate level so special.
“In the NFL, coaching a 32-year-old man with six kids making $6 million a year doesn’t have that same intrinsic motivation and payout in that way,” he said.
Larsen remembers seeing his teammates cry after his final collegiate game against Claremont McKenna’s cross-street rival Pomona-Pitzer, as the bittersweet realization that their football careers were over finally hit them. He, however, did not share the same feelings.
“I was like, ‘Man, I cannot wait to coach now. I’m done playing! I get to coach now,’” he recalled.
For some assistant coaches, they plan to ascend the ranks into a head coaching position. Within just the past year, three former Columbia assistant coaches assumed head coach positions—Howard Endelman, CC ’87, as head men’s tennis coach; Katie DeSandis, CC ’13, as field hockey head coach; and Kenneth Blakeney left the Light Blue to helm the men’s basketball team at Howard University. According to Levine, being a Division I head coach would be a “dream.” But he makes sure that he doesn’t look too far into the future.
“There’s no more important job than the one you have,” he said.
In the same way, D’Orazio, though he will always have professional goals, is locked in on his current job.
“I want to be the best football coach at Columbia I can be every day,” he said.
Larsen said his ultimate goal is to be a Division I head coach. But for the time being, he is more than happy where he is.
“I am in zero rush to get out of Columbia,” he said. “This is such a great place. The administration is great; the alumni are great; working for Coach Bagnoli is great. We have awesome, awesome kids in our program.”
And as Larsen progresses through his coaching career, he will always remember the lessons he’s learned along the way, particularly the ones he learned from making coffee and stuffing envelopes.