A Conversation with Steve Cooke-Part 1: Standing Strong in his Beliefs

By Brian Jennings

Speak to Steve Cooke for any length of time and you realize a few things: He is passionate in his beliefs, resound in his convictions, and selfless in his actions. You don’t often hear the Rapids interim Head Coach talk about personal recognition or accomplishments, but rather how proud he is when his team (which includes players, assistants, support staff, and the front office) experiences success. For this and other reasons we’ll discuss in Part 2 of our discussion, Steve Cooke might just be the perfect man for the Colorado Rapids Head Coaching position minus the “interim” tag.

“Cookie”, as most within the organization call him, is no stranger to the sideline and of building programs. “Coming from where I come from, making my mum and dad proud, my kids proud, and trying to prove that I am capable of excellence in this profession is something that does drive me,” said Steve.

“In our profession you know there’s always eyes on you when you’re doing things. In this role there is more responsibility to make sure that’s seen and is lived as opposed to just said. There’s a real responsibility on the Head Coach to be a very positive role model and ambassador for the soccer club and organization.”

Many fans think that Head Coaches rule over the locker rooms with an iron fist, my-way-or-the-highway mentality, or do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do mindset. That couldn’t be further from the truth regarding Steve Cooke as he explains one of his core beliefs on how he goes about his job. “One thing I do believe in is ‘servant leadership’ so that the higher you go in an organization it is more your responsibility to serve those who are perceived below,” he told The Voice of C38 in our one-on-one conversation recently.

“The most important people in our soccer club are the players. How we can help the players maximize their potential and achieve what they want to achieve, their success will then become our success. The idea of me moving into this role only makes me want to help them and serve them even more because I think that’s what good leaders do.”

“That’s not just my opinion, it’s research-driven and is something that has been qualified by much smarter people than I am. I’m prepared to listen to that advice from a lot of high-level thinkers. I read a lot about leadership and how the best organizations thrive and this idea of servant leadership, and making sure people’s ideas are heard, and they have the autonomy to go about the way the want to at work is really important to me.”

Rapids defender/midfielder Marlon Hairston offered that Cooke hasn’t changed who he is when his title did so, but remains the trusted source they each can go to when needed. “The coaching staff had a great relationship with each other and the players also. Cookie is a coach who’s always talking to players, seeing how they feel, he’s always been one of those types of guys.”

“Him taking the Head Coaching job hasn’t distanced him from the players so he’s still the same guy. When he first took over the job it took players some time to move from Pablo to him, assistant coach to head coach, but that wore off quickly. The guys still give him the same respect he deserved.”

Remaining true to himself is something Steve is adamant to retain and tries to live and work the same way now as he did when he joined the Oscar Pareja’s staff in Colorado. “I don’t think I’ve changed as a person, but I’ve become a better soccer coach, a better leader, a better manager, a better person to work with and for over the last two months. I don’t think you change as a person just because you take on a different role.”

“We are very fortunate to work where we work because it’s exciting and a great way to live. But, the responsibility of that is that almost everything you do is played out in the public domain,” says Cooke, who knows there will always be doubters with their own agendas. “Most people have an opinion in what you should be doing. The difference in those opinions and what we have to do is that our opinions have to be tested on the field by a team that wants yours to look stupid. We live and die by the success of our decisions.”

“It’s the old Theodore Roosevelt quote, a passage from the Man in the Arena that starts with basically ‘It’s not the critic who counts’. Their opinions will never be tested.”

Cooke knows that being a soccer coach usually isn’t a career in which long tenure with your employers is the norm. In fact, he sounds like someone who is at ease with this reality believing in himself rather than trusting in others to have his best interest at heart.

“I’ve worked in this profession for 30 years now and I’ve always been employed. I’ve always had a career trajectory that’s always been upwards in terms of people’s perceptions. I’ve always been proud that wherever I’ve been I’ve worked extremely hard, I have always strived to learn, I’ve always involved more and more people.”

“If you go into this part of our profession and say I don’t really want to be fired I would suggest that you don’t really have much ambition and you won’t get fired. You’ll stay at a level where you will always be comfortable. But, if you want to be ambitious, you want to take your life and career to the highest level you can possibly go then I would argue that you’re going to have to take the responsibility and the potential to be fired.”

“I think it’s a journey,” says Cooke when looking at his chosen career path in soccer and development of players and programs. “I don’t think there’s a destination, a place to get to. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve made it and think only good things about the future.”

One of those good things would be for Steve to be retained after the 2017 season as the Rapids Head Coach. He is very bullish on how the team has reacted as of late and in the direction they are going as a squad. “I feel very pleased and proud about where we are as a group right now. We are at the beginning of something that could be very special, but by no means do I believe that is the destination that I’m looking for. What is important is the process of work and the journey we are all on.”

Upon taking over the Colorado locker room for his close friend Pablo Mastroeni this season, Cooke never asked about a time frame or ending date for his ‘interim status’ by design as it seems that it just wasn’t important to getting things turned around.

“It could have been one week, two weeks, because the actual timeline was never said to me. I didn’t ask any questions in regards to that. Information was offered to me that ‘we’re going to go through this global search, through a thorough process, it’s going to take a length of time’. I knew that every single week that goes by chances are that it could be the last one so I only really look at the next game.”

“Having had some time with the players, which I’ve found exciting and rewarding and I think we’ve great strides, part of it I will be judged on the reality of where we are today compared to where we were two months ago. I personally feel very happy about that.”

Cooke also admits that the experience, no matter how tenuous, has been a good one for his growth and will only benefit him in the long run because of what the team has shown him in achieving goals for themselves. “That will have its own rewards-whether they are intrinsic like finances, or whether they are that I know I feel good about myself, about the way we’re working, and I know that the way we’ve worked has worked. No matter where, no matter when, that process can be successful, will be successful, and then it’s just a matter of evolving and continuing to learn.”

“Every place I’ve worked has been for a long time,” Cooke reiterates as if to almost reassure people he will be just fine with whatever the outcome of the Rapids Head Coaching search is. “It’s always been longer term and trying to build teams, build organizations, and build groups and I’m very proud of what we’ve done here.”

“I feel I’ve grown a great deal, I’ve learned a lot, and feel I am more than capable of being a Head Coach in MLS at any club. If that is at this club-phenomenal-but as I’ve said I’ve worked for 30 years and never been unemployed so I don’t anticipate that coming.”

When asked flat out if he would like the job should it be offered, Steve did not hesitate in an answer and why. “The reason I would want to take it is I really believe in our way of working, our methodology, I believe the best way to build an organization is to serve the group and everybody to collaborate and achieve big things. If that is the way of working that an organization wants then I think I’d be a good person for it.”

(Stay tuned to https://voice.c38sg.com for Part 2 of my discussion with Steve Cooke as we look at how things have begun to turnaround for the Rapids on the field and Steve’s reaction to taking over as Head Coach)

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