By Shelly Barsuhn
It sounds like a sitcom plot. A college football coach and choir director develop an unlikely friendship. Hilarity ensues as they tread on each other’s academic turf and the disparate worlds of athletics and the arts collide.
But this is really more of a reality show, the true story of the friendship between Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Tim Sawyer and Head Football Coach Kirk Talley.
Before meeting, neither was a big fan of the other’s area of expertise. Passionate about music, Sawyer remained indifferent to football. Lifelong athlete Talley said his experience with choir in middle school was “neutral.” He was corralled into participating in choir even though “it wasn’t the macho thing to do.” So what did these two accomplished men have in common besides ID cards from Northwestern? In a typical college setting their paths may rarely have crossed.
The story begins almost 10 years ago when Talley, as the new head coach, sent an e-mail inviting fellow male faculty to be a “coach for a day” at an upcoming football game. Sawyer showed up. Acknowledging the “huge divide between music and athletics” at the time, Sawyer came to practice that day.
“I remember walking down the hallway and running the gauntlet with all these football players,” he recalled. “There was a smell. Of something. It was powerful.” The team was having a pre-game meeting on the bleachers. “One guy got up to do devotions. Then they started to sing. I thought, ‘Ah. Now I know why I’m here.’”
A true novice, Sawyer, who grew up in South America where fútbol was soccer, watched his first Eagle football game with interest. He was struck by the effort Talley put into coaching each player, as well as his “incredible servant leadership.” That particular game was “brutal,” but Sawyer noted how team members would pray together over an injured player, and how, despite the loss, they affirmed one another during the team’s now-famous “Fifth Quarter.” Sawyer joked, “That was my ‘football conversion’ experience.”
Sawyer reciprocated and invited Talley to a choir concert. Although Talley admits he has always preferred classic rock to classical music, he enjoyed the event. He remembers scrawling notes on his concert program—questions he wanted to ask Sawyer about how he organized and led his “team.”
Sawyer continued coming to the games and hanging out with the players and picked up the honorary title “Coach Sawyer.” (Mingling with the players in his Eagle football jacket on the sidelines of a game, he was asked by a visitor, “What do you coach?” Without hesitation, Sawyer responded, “Voice. I’m the voice coach for the football team.”)
Because he had no real authority during the games, Sawyer could focus on encouraging the players. From Talley and the other coaches he learned “how to motivate and coach rather than just direct students.” He also picked up the rules of the game. Football began to infiltrate his thinking and language—to the point where he imagined his choir students rolling their eyes during rehearsal and thinking, “Oh boy, here we go, another football analogy.”
Sawyer then invited Talley to accompany the college choir on tour. In this environment, away from football, Talley was able to mentor and build relationships with students in a world much different from his own. At first, the choir members seemed confused. “What’s Coach Talley doing here?” Before long, however, they appreciated his quiet presence. It was a powerful and affirming experience for them just to have the head football coach there, wanting to spend time with them.
“There wouldn’t be a whole lot of reasons for a choir member to interact with the football coach,” said Betty Kraus ’07, M’09, a former choir member, “but [they] are intentional about that. It’s a great example for the students.”
Josh Sawyer (no relation), former football player and choir member, learned that music and athletics cooperated rather than competed for students. “I’d looked at other schools where athletics had nothing to do with music. At UNW there were three or four of us who did both.”
Paul Bradley, dean of student development, is a close friend of Sawyer’s and Talley’s. He looks at their friendship as representative of a broader objective. “We have a fundamental conviction about the whole-person development of our students. It is part of the culture, mindset and paradigm. Each area of the campus is important and needs to be integrated.” Nowadays the camaraderie between the two men is well known, and the connection between music and football seems natural.
Part of the Family
What has “Coach” Sawyer learned from their association? “Sometimes I get too intense. Musicians—like athletes—tend to be perfectionists. Kirk’s gentleness balances me. He’s not fixated on winning. What you learn from the loss is more important than celebrating the win. In choir now, we have a prayer huddle after the concert. We incorporate that ‘Fifth Quarter’ [model] into the huddle.”
And Coach Talley? “The biggest thing I’ve learned—and God is constantly reminding me—is that these guys are people first, not just football players. Even though I tend to be more introverted than Tim, I can develop a relationship with each. You can’t force it to happen. It has to happen by God’s grace.”
Talley and Sawyer are still working on building that bridge. “We are not trying to merge the departments,” Sawyer assured, “but we’re tearing down the impenetrable wall between them.”
So when Eagle football players sing together before and after a game, they now have a foundation of musical instruction from Sawyer. “See, Coach Sawyer?” one player pointed out. “We’re supporting our voices when we sing.”
And choir students are supported by friendship with Coach Talley (and his wife, Terri, who teaches in Christian Ministries). “I know these kids and their voices—and their hearts as well,” affirmed Talley.
Every Friday the men meet for prayer, and their friendship has helped them get through the most challenging parts of life, including losing a parent. More than colleagues, they have become part of one another’s families.
Talley still listens to Rush and REO Speedwagon instead of Bach, but Sawyer is hooked on football. “I watched football all weekend,” he announced. “Six games.”
Talley laughed. “That’s more than I watched.”
“What has happened to me?!” exclaimed Sawyer.
Bradley noted, “This friendship is the genuine article. It’s true and it runs deep, through thick and thin. It is Christ-centered. It models for students our love and care and respect for one another. It is what we need in this culture—the permanence of relationship.”
Talley and Sawyer see parallels to the Christian life—inviting others in, allowing God to break down our barriers so we can build community and learn from each other. “Isn’t that what we all want?” asked Sawyer. “I don’t deserve to be in this family, and yet I’m welcome. That’s really cool.”