The former Vancouver College football players I spoke to couldn’t stop gushing about their varsity coach, Todd Bernett. They acknowledged his positive influence in their lives and made great personal gains because, as one player said, “The last thing you wanted to do was disappoint him.”
A detail-oriented leader who expects punctuality and complete dedication, Bernett does not cut anyone who comes out to play football for the Fighting Irish. He recruits some, convinces others to stick with the game, and says he aims to set up all his players to succeed in life and football.
In the weight room with the team, he puts on a belt and lifts. “He’s jacked,” said Peter Dyakowski, a weakling Grade 10 student in 2000 when Bernett encouraged him to stay on the team and is now a 325-pound offensive linesmen for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats.
“That was really cool because you see your coach slapping on four plates from the weight rack and repping, I don’t even know how much,” said Dyakowski. “I’ve seen him [leg] press 400, 500 pounds. I’ve seen him bench well over 300 pounds, which for a quarterback, is ridiculous.”
On Sept. 29 Bernett recorded his 100th win for Vancouver College. The 41-year-old coach runs the team with an experienced staff that includes his wife, Andrea Prout-Bernett as the general manager. Together they have a six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. Bernett converted to Catholicism while at his first teaching job at a private Catholic school on the North Shore and was hired at Vancouver College in 1999 to teach social studies and religion.
In the early 1990s he was the starting quarterback for the NCAA Div. 1 Eastern Washington Eagles.
Bernett has biceps as round as a CFL football and I didn’t once hear him say “ah” or “um” during a 20-minute interview, even as he talked philosophy and the inner mind of a teenage boy.
Courier: Football is joking (maybe not so jokingly) called a religion. Are there parallels between church and football?
Bernett: In a way that they are both big entities that have to grow and adapt. For example, football has had an interesting year, with the [New Orleans] Saints bounty scandal, with the number of either concussion-related stories or thought-to-be concussion-related stories—couple of former NFL players committed suicide—things of that nature. I think that now football has to change and modernize and so those are challenges that the church faces also.
Courier: Players describe you as intense and dedicated. They say the last thing they want is to disappoint you. What do you make of that?
Bernett: I don’t know. And I know that—I see it every year that I deal with them. I get the feeling that they don’t necessarily feel pressure from the history of the program, I think they feel pressure from the moment that they’re at within that history, that they have to continue it and that means meeting my expectations.
I sometimes do get the sense that they’re so rattled that they disappointed me and I don’t want it to be that personal. It’s almost parental in a way, though. The feeling… as a teenage boy, I can remember, when you disappoint your mother or disappoint your dad, I can related to that and when I see it, I try to go parental and guide them in the way I would want my children to be.
Courier: How do you balance being their friend and being their coach?
Bernett: I don’t consider them friends, and even once they’re done playing, I don’t know that I do although I do have friendships. It’s a relationship that can’t really be defined by friendship. It’s a unique coach-player relationship that maintains itself forever. And I know, sometimes, old coaches will say, “I’ve been the best man at weddings,” and things of that nature and I’ve been to a few weddings. I haven’t been the best man, but that’s alright. [laughs] It’s not a friendship and everybody is OK with it. It’s just it’s own unique relationship that is between coach and player and it maintains itself that way.
Courier: What do you hope your students and players learn from you?
Bernett: Inner connectedness. Team work, relying on each other and how influential we are on each other and our need to be positive with each other, our need to support one another, our need to all want to meet the expectations of the team.
Courier: Tell me about the contributions Andrea, your wife, makes to the football program. Do you call her “the Missus,” too?
Bernett: [laughs] I do when in front of the boys. Her title is general manager but she will take on special cases, academic issues, life coaching, and then she’s been a big push behind a lot of things we’ve done to get the program to reach out to the community.
Courier: Do you have a coaching philosophy?
Bernett: No, it’s hard to define. The one person I can relate to that I know I specifically use every day is [NCAA basketball coaching legend] John Wooden. Because I remember reading once that he said, “You can’t treat everybody the same way.” And coaches who try to treat everyone the same way are going to fail their team. I’m influenced by that but it’s so different from each team to the next and from each boy to the next—there are 50 boys on the team and there are 160, 170 in the program—so to say, what’s my philosophy for them, I couldn’t because they’re all so different. Just trying to serve their needs but at the same time giving them what they need, not always what they want.
Courier: You trained six players who are currently on a CFL roster. That must be a satisfying measure of success.
Bernett: I try to go watch all of them over the course of two years. When they’re in town, I try to make sure I see all of them once. I watch a lot more CFL than I ever used to. [laughs] The boys who are playing at CIS or NCAA schools, I’m not on Facebook but the Missus is so one way or another we stay in touch with all of them.
What I know they learned from us here is not necessarily things on the field, it’s off the field stuff. We’ve had multiple boys who’ve gone on and said, “I’m so happy I lift and I learned good technique because a lot of boys at the other school didn’t. Trey Henderson at USC, Brody McKnight at Montana both told me that our weight program got them prepared to lift at an NCAA level. Other boys have gone places with high expectations and succeeded: no problem waking up early, getting to class on time, meeting coach’s expectations, being committed because they learned that from our school.
We don’t have the depth that other programs have and I don’t say that to mean boohoo and woe is us, but we just don’t. Because we don’t cut, a lot of these kids aren’t football players but they love the program and what they get out of the experience and I’m not going to turn a kid away who’s committed. But they’re not necessarily built to play the game at a high level in high school but if they’re here and they’re willing to work hard, there’s no way I’m going to cut them. They get playing time and we give them a good experience but at the same time, sometimes we need to be very careful that we’re not setting them up for failure, that we’re not putting them in a situation where they’re going to fail and then feel bad about their experience.
I’ve learned that teenage boys are probably more aware of who they are than we sometimes think. A lot of what comes off as machismo is really not who they are inside. A lot of them know their limitations and they’re willing to just give the best of what they have.