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A passion for excellence: RPI’s Joseph King. Photo by Teri Currie.

Expecting the Best—and Getting It

RPI head football coach Joseph King sets high standards for his players—and for himself

By Jan Thomas

Bulletin boards with Xs and Os lean against a wall adorned with photographs of past teams in Joseph King’s office. There are no plaques. There are no awards. There could be: King has won the Upper Collegiate Athletic Association (UCAA) Coach of the Year award three times. He has coached the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute football team to two undefeated seasons and has compiled a .705 win percentage in his 13 years as head coach. But to King, awards are not important.

“Any coaching situation that I’ve been involved with is real team- oriented,” says King. “We’re not interested in individual stats, we’re interested in We. . . . I’m not as proud of individual awards as I am certain teams’ accomplishments or certain players’ accomplishments.”

And his teams respond to his coaching techniques. After a dismal first season as a high school coach at St. Peter’s Academy in Saratoga Springs, King decided that he was poorly prepared and that he needed a plan. He made a list of expectations and attributes that he wanted from each of his players. The list included hard work, discipline, unselfishness, mental and physical toughness, respect and loyalty. King also realized that one of the most important aspects of being a coach is to evaluate people and to recognize when they’re not living up to their potential. As he developed his own coaching philosophy, King discovered his own potential. St. Peter’s turned its initial 1-6-1 record into a 7-1 record and state ranking of ninth the following season.

King, originally from Ballston Spa, played both baseball and football as an undergraduate for the Siena Saints. After he graduated, his next logical step was coaching. “Ever since I can remember, I loved athletics,” King says. “It didn’t matter what sport. They’re a big part of my life. After football and baseball in college, the only way to pursue it further [was] through coaching.”

King, now 54, acknowledges that he got his first job coaching at St. Peter’s at age 21 because no one else wanted it. He taught history while coaching both football and baseball at St. Peter’s, and then later for Watervliet High School. In 1981 he joined the staff at RPI as an assistant coach. Five years later he was promoted to associate head coach, and in 1989 he earned the head coaching position.

His teaching days long behind him, King by now is used to the long hours that college coaching demands. The day after a game, King and the rest of the coaching staff spend five hours breaking down tapes of his own team and his next opponent. Additionally, he spends at least 12 hours in the office three days a week. “You know, you say to yourself, what the heck do you do for that long?” says the coach. “But if you see some of the mistakes we make. . . . Sometimes I question myself.”

But his responsibilities don’t end with football preparations. He is the assistant athletic director, and he’s in charge of interns for his department. Also, being a college coach requires a lot more than just games and practice. King is not aloof and doesn’t consider himself to be available to his team on only a player-coach relationship. He maintains that his players can come to him on a social and academic level as well.

“The goal of the program—ask any of the coaches—is to get your son through here in the next four years with the best GPA he can get and make him marketable,” states King. “We do everything in our power to make sure that they are student athletes, in that order. . . . But I think that some of the other things are more important. Some students with more important issues come to me. And over the years I think I’ve heard basically everything that you can possibly hear as far as 17- to 22-year-olds go and all the things that they go through. I’m right here on the first floor, my door is always open. You’ll have no trouble finding me. It might be the most trivial thing, but we’ll talk about it.”

King likes to think of his coaching philosophy as beneficial beyond the realm of the gridiron. He hopes to instill in his players accountability and a healthy work ethic, which he believes will lead to success on and off the field. Players and coworkers will tell you that there is no better example than Joseph King himself.

“Joe King is the epitome of a coaching professional,” says Anthony Ortolano, the head athletic trainer and coworker of King’s since 1995. “When the game starts, it’s about doing your job and getting positive results. There’s no excuses. That’s why the kids respond as well as they do to him as a coach. Because they know that he expects the best from himself.”

And in addition to what he hopes to instill in his athletes off the field, King has gotten the best from them on the field: His teams were undefeated in 1999 and 2001, won their division each of the last three seasons, and have made two trips to the NCAA playoffs. This year, the Engineers are 6-1 and still have a shot at making the NCAA playoffs. Their final regular-season home game is this Saturday, Nov. 9, against St. Lawrence.

Seeing King on the sidelines, hounding the referees about a call or yelling out plays, is understanding Joe King’s passion for coaching. “I’m pretty intense,” he admits. “I’m demanding of my players and assistant coaches. Very demanding of myself. I have a hard time accepting mediocrity.”


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