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  • Writer's picturePeter Miller

SGG brings research to practice by asking leading researchers, scholars, and experts about coach-identified themes.

Chris Span is Associate Dean of Graduate Programs and Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Professor Span also serves as a Faculty Athletics Representative to the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA. Chris is a prolific scholar – a historian of American education – who is widely regarded as one of the leaders in his field. Notably, he is the author of the acclaimed book From Cotton Field to Schoolhouse: African American Education in Mississippi, 1862-1875. Originally from Gary, Indiana, Professor Span is also an elite pocket billiards player who learned the game as a youngster in Chicago and went on to travel the country competing at the highest levels of his game. He shares rich research and life-informed insights for coaches on history, knowing context, mentoring, and parent involvement. In this SGG episode, we discussed:

1. His “accidental” journey to becoming a professor – including the advisor at Illinois (JoAnn Hodges) who supported him at a key juncture…And why he still shovels her driveway all these years later!

2. How another mentor, his former professor Paul Violas, encouraged his trajectory to graduate school: “Maybe you should have a little more confidence in yourself because there seems to be people who have a lot of confidence in you.”

3. Why JoAnn Hodges made a difference: “She spoke to me like we were family… I had never met anyone in college who spoke to me like a family member.”

4. “I believe that maybe she saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself at that point in my life.”

5. How he became an elite pocket billiards player – and the relationships he formed along the way.

6. What his mentor, Bugs, “the Michael Jordan of pocket billiards,” said to Chris when Chris considered leaving school to pursue billiards full time.

7. The importance of knowing the history and context of the places we work. “How am I a part of this larger narrative?”

8. “No matter your station of life, you should be able to relate to people at their level.”

9. The danger of hubris when coming into a new place or a new position.

10. “Don’t shy away from the past, but don’t let the past guide you to the point where you are debilitated by it.”

11. Mentoring by showing and listening instead of speaking.

12. Dean James Anderson’s mentoring by storytelling.

13. The kindness and compassion of his wife, another important mentor in his life.

14. Being flexible and adaptive.

15. “All young people need to grow into adulthood through trial and error.”

16. “If parents lay the foundation for their kids, it will bear fruit.”

17. “I’ve learned far more from my failures than from my successes.”


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