The Heart and Mind of a Teacher and Coach

 In Career Change

When I recently met with David Saunders to discuss his career from teacher to coach and back to teacher, he said that “It doesn’t have to be a perfect little path”. David’s 37-year career has taken many twists and turns. The common thread found in his teaching and coaching is the emphasis of self-discipline combined with genuine care and concern for his students and players. Here is a glimpse into this man’s career path as he learned to work with his heart and mind.


Growing up in Georgia, David was influenced by his grandfather who taught multi-age students in a one room schoolhouse during the 1930’s and 40’s. Since school followed the harvest seasons, he farmed land and taught kids while somehow finding time to read the Britannica encyclopedias. Grandpa, as David called him, knew that knowledge provides opportunities and opens doors to those who want to learn. David was all ears and soaked up every word.


At age 12, he started working in a pizza place and then a shoe store to save money for college. Later he worked for C.W. Matthews, a roadway construction company, who needed strong laborers. Young David spread asphalt and repaired railroad bridges during summers and breaks. He made good grades, worked many jobs and played football, a game he loved.

Little did he know that a local referee named Jude watched him throughout his football career at Douglas County High School. Due to his academic success, he graduated early and worked for a road crew to save more money for school. He was bound and determined to get a college education.


When Referee Jude told Auburn University about David’s athletic ability, he was invited to walk-on’ at Auburn that fall. Grandfather spoke and grandson listened – opportunity comes from dedication and hard work.

While at Auburn, David studied, worked, played ball and coached Junior Varsity football. Working and saving for ten years, he was the first person in his family to enter college.  His father, an aircraft mechanic, and his mother, a school bus driver, were extremely proud of their self-made son who paid his own way through school. David walked away with a degree in education which opened the door to over three decades of coaching.


Teacher in Andalusia, AL

David headed to Andalusia, AL to teach Social Sciences at a middle school and to coach high school football. He vividly recalls an incident when he called on a student to read aloud. The boy couldn’t read and David learned to never embarrass anyone again. Born with a kind heart and a keen mind, he wanted to help others and not hurt them.

Jacksonville State University

When an opportunity at Jacksonville State arose, David exited the classroom and stepped onto the field. He successfully managed three important positions for six years: Athletic Dorm Director, Field Maintenance Director and Recruitment Coordinator.

Georgia Southern University

David relocated to Georgia Southern University which was a larger school with greater coaching opportunity. As a defensive line coach, he helped his team win a National Championship. As the Academic Coordinator, he used his teaching skills to motivate his players to do well in school. David wholeheartedly believed that his players needed to make good grades as well as winning scores.

9 Years and 6 Colleges

Coach Saunders yearned to be a head football coach in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) which required extensive experience. For the next nine years, he coached in six different universities, relocating his family to follow his passion.

Millsaps College

He soon became the Head Coach at Millsaps College, a private liberal arts school. There he tripled the number of players, raised money to hire more coaches and secured the first collegiate artificial playing surface in Mississippi. His team prospered until 2005 when Katrina a category 5 hurricane, blasted the Gulf Coast creating a wave of destruction in its path. In the aftermath of the storm, 17 players left school which devastated his football team.

University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)  

After Katrina, David returned to Ole Miss as a position coach where his salary doubled. For reasons unknown to him, the Head Coach did not renew his one year contract. Blindsided and jobless, he moved forward with a strong heart and a sound mind. As he first explained, “It doesn’t have to be a perfect little path.”

Cellular South

Through coaching, David connected with many local and state leaders. Cellular South asked him to coordinate their community service project, ‘The Gameplan’. This program helped student athletes meet NCAA academic requirements so they could go to college. David visited state high schools, worked with teachers and administrators, made home visits and ‘taught’ potential college players how to do better in school. After all, David had always been an educator at heart.

Two More Colleges

Before returning to the classroom, David coached at two more schools, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Pearl River Community College. He taught his players life skills, including exercise, nutrition, academics, teamwork, discipline and consistency. He told his team to always do three things that require no talent: be on time, stay onside (neutral zone in sports) and finish strong. During this time, he considered teaching again which continued to be on his mind and in his heart.


A friend working at the University of West Florida (UWF) encouraged him to return to teaching. After coaching for over 30 years, David moved to Pensacola, taught high school reading and coached football. During these two years, he became aware that “Students must learn you care before they care to learn.”


David volunteered in a reading program for elementary students over the summer. When the principal of an elementary school offered him a fourth grade teaching position for the fall, he couldn’t refuse. He wants to motivate his young students to work hard and do their best throughout their education.

When I first met David, he wore a ’12 man’ button. In 1921 at the Dixie Classic football game, a student came down from the stands to play for Texas A & M, which started the 12th Man Tradition. All of the Aggies, known as the 12th Man, stand during the entire game to show their support and wait to be called upon if needed. David Saunders vows to be his students’ 12th man, supporting them to learn all they can and doing all that he can to help them learn. His fourth graders will be the lucky recipients of the heart and mind of a teacher and coach.

Consider your own path. For most of us, the path is like David’s, with unexpected turns that seem to consistently guide us back to what pulls on our heartstrings and floods our minds.


“Football is a game of discipline. The shape of the ball is weird and like life, it takes unusual bounces”.


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