All Joe Judge needs to know he learned in kindergarten. What Bill Belichick and Nick Saban taught him was just a bonus.
First and foremost, Judge believes in fundamentals. He has preached their importance to professional athletes, college players and, yes, even preschoolers. For three days, he served as a kindergarten physical education teacher in West Point, Miss., a little over 20 miles from his alma mater, Mississippi State, where was a graduate assistant.
"It was time for me to make some kind of money, so while I was still interviewing for other jobs, I had a buddy who was the head coach of a local high school, who my wife actually taught within the high school with him, the same high school," Judge recalled. "So, he said, 'Hey Joe, come on over, you coach at the high school, you'll make some money. If you don't get a college job this year, you'll work here, you'll fly, we're good and we're flexible.' So, I said, 'Great. What job do you have?' I've got a master's degree, I'm a dissertation short of my PhD at this moment, so I'm like, 'All right, Chris, what do you have for me?' He goes, 'Well, we've got a kindergarten PE job open.' I was like, 'I'm not a kindergarten teacher.'
"He goes, 'It's the best job in the district, man, best job in the district. All you've got to do is show up, you play some dodgeball with the kids in the classroom, you go home, you're good, we do ball in the afternoon.' If you've ever seen that movie Kindergarten Cop, that first day where he comes home just exhausted beyond belief, that was me. I came home after the first three days and I could barely stand."
At the end of the third day, Judge got a phone call from Eddie Garfinkle, who offered him a job at Birmingham-Southern. A year after that, he won his first of two national championships at Alabama. Five years after that, he won his first of three Super Bowls in New England. Then five years later, the Giants introduced him as their 19th head coach in franchise history during a press conference at MetLife Stadium.
"I still never got a paycheck for those three days," Judge joked. "I'm sure there's interest collecting on it by this point."
Through it all, the memories of that week– not even – still resonate with him.
"What I learned coaching PE for three days in the West Point School District was the patience you have to have with children," Judge said. "I think I had five or six classes a day in a classroom, it wasn't a gymnasium, it was a classroom. These kids would come in and I realized I had to have an organized plan with these kids that covered the full 60 minutes I had them. If I let any detail in that plan go to waste, it was going to be chaos. I had kids dancing on the window sills, I had kids peeing themselves, I had kids doing everything. I figured out you have to keep them busy. You have to be detailed and prepared on the front end to make sure that regardless of who your audience is or who your classroom is, you have to have something to keep them busy and occupy them mentally and stimulated that they want to participate in what you are trying to accomplish."
Teaching has been a lifelong passion for Judge. He is ABD – All But Dissertation – in his pursuit of a PhD in Education from Mississippi State. He has completed all of his classwork but just needs to defend his dissertation. When he started the process in 2005, he was married with one child. Now he and his wife Amber, a former MSU soccer player, have four children – Sean, Michael, Emma Riley and Ella Grace. Between family and coaching for Belichick and Saban, time became a luxury.
A doctorate was not a prerequisite for the Giants in their head coach search, but they wanted a teacher. Judge's gift in the area became apparent during his interview.
"I just think the more he went on answering our questions and talking about his vision and what he believes a successful program has to look like, and just the way he's a teacher," team president John Mara said of what stood out about Judge. "He grew up believing that you have to be a teacher to be successful in this business. Talking about his experiences with Coach Belichick, his experiences with Coach Saban, I don't think there was one specific moment, but the longer we talked, the more excited we got about him."
Now the work begins. After all, he has been a kindergarten teacher longer than he has been a head coach.
"We used to have posters when I was in kindergarten about sharing and telling the truth and being polite and all that stuff," Judge said. "The thing that I really learned from the great coaches later in my career was really that they reinforced everything that I learned early in my career. That it's really the basics that carry over. There's some minutia that gets caught up when you get into the flow of things. Everyone thinks there's some guru out there with a magical scheme, everyone thinks there's some short cut to being good. Everything I learned from coach Belichick and coach Saban reinforced on a daily basis that it's the fundamentals. You don't build the Empire State Building by washing the windows, you build it with the foundation and work it on up. Whatever your goal is at hand, you can put that in the distance and start working day by day to take a step forward."
View photos of Joe Judge's first day after being named head coach of the New York Giants.