DARIEN, Ill. - When he first applied for the wrestling coaching job at his former high school, 1st Sgt. Joshua Engel thought he had a mat win in his hands.
He came ready with 14 years of Army experience, and more than 10 as a noncommissioned officer (NCO). He deployed three times: twice to Iraq (2004-2006 & 2008-2010) and once to Afghanistan (2013-2014). He had a stack of solid military evaluations and reviews. He had wrestled from kindergarten through high school, and was now applying at his alma mater to follow his former wrestling coach who had been on the job 32 years.
But after three rounds of interviews, Engel didn't get the job.Not at first.
The school was looking for someone with extensive coaching experience. Engel had served as a volunteer coach in wrestling, football and baseball, but those weren't enough on paper to assume the head-coaching position.
A month or so later, he got a call back from Dodgeland High School, just a few weeks before the start of the season.
The school's athletic director wanted to know if he was still interested.
"After my heart stopped pounding, I kind of scratched my head and I said, I guess it's me or nothing," said Engel, who became the first sergeant in October to the headquarters company for the 416th Theater Engineer Command, an Army Reserve command located in Darien, Illinois.
In November he got the coaching job. But what at first looked like a last-ditch hire, actually turned out to be a perfect fit, he said.
"I think being a coach and being an NCO lend themselves very well to each other. They go hand-in-hand. I feel like I've been coaching for years only because I've been wearing the chevrons. I've been passionate about coaching, and I've been passionate about the military, so it's been a seamless transition," said Engel, who lives in Iron Ridge, Wisconsin.
Four moths later, his first season has come and gone. Engel was able to coach nine wrestlers through 30-some matches each. Every one of them earned at least one takedown and one mat win, despite most being newer to the sport. Two of his wrestlers qualified for the state championship, and one finished as the state runner-up in his first year in the tournament."Stepping into a head coach position is a lot more than the day-to-day practices and going to a wrestling meet," said Marcia Modaff, the athletic director for the Dodgeland School District and the district's middle school principle."There are a lot of hats as an organizer and as a scheduler. You're looking at a program 12 months in advance and then into the next year. I wanted to make sure we were hiring someone who was able to handle all of those hats."
Even though Engel lacked the high school coaching experience Dodgeland was looking for, he was qualified in every leadership area they needed because of his military background. NCOs are not only personal mentors to their Soldiers, but they're also trainers and planners. They often set up training schedules and prepare months, if not years, in advance for missions.
"He has stepped up to the plate and has done a great job," said Madoff. "He's understanding to the detail and the planning that was necessary, and he embraced that. The athletes under him have spoken very highly of him in his leadership."
Engel instilled discipline, but he didn't go Drill Sergeant Mode on his wrestlers. He had each one of them write an essay about their expectations for the season. He emphasized hard work and a sense of responsibility. He even had shirts made for the whole team with the slogan: "Own it."
"Own your actions. Own your thoughts. Good and bad. Own your wins. Own your losses. And that seemed to resonate pretty well early on in the season and throughout," said Engel.
Even though his civilian job title calls him "coach," in his mind he's been coaching Soldiers for years. The Army has taught him the value of patience and hard work, he said. Those are the lessons he will continue to pass along to his mentees, whether Soldier or civilian.
"I'm definitely an advocate for the Army, and an advocate for the military. I would let them know that life isn't always easy ... You've got to have that resiliency mindset. To pull yourself up by the bootstraps."