From being named the first female head football coach in Louisiana high school history to becoming national champs in deaf football, Louisiana School for the Deaf head coach Susan Gremillion is leading the way and exceeding the odds.
Susan Gremillion knows that she cannot just “slip in” a weekly coaches’ meeting whenever she wants to for the Louisiana School for the Deaf (LSD) football team.
During football season, the LSD coaching staff hold weekly coaches’ meetings to prepare LSD players for their next game.
Gremillion, the first female head football coach in Louisiana high school history and now going into her third year as head coach for the War Eagles, grew up with two brothers as a child.
Thus, the St. Joseph, La., native is no stranger to being around men, but more importantly, sweaty guys playing in the trenches on the field.
Because of the gender difference and stipulations of being a female football coach, Gremillion is limited in small ways. On a bigger scale and through her eyes as being just as good as any male football coach, she does not see gender as a big difference.
“I know there is a difference but I don’t go into coaching games realizing that,” said Gremillion. “I use it as motivation. I tell my players that they don’t want to get beat by a woman, so they got to play extra hard. Be the man on the field.”
Gremillion’s body of work speaks volumes that are much higher than her gender.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” Gremillion said. “If it was a different sport, it might. Like any other coaches in competition, when we’re off the field, I am not a threat. If we get a set of sidelines between us, then it’s on.”
In just two years, Gremillion coached the War Eagles to an undefeated season and national deaf champions in 2016 after serving as the assistant football coach for 12 years under her husband, Darren Gremillion, who coached the War Eagles for 15 seasons.
On top of defying the odds of coaching a male-dominated sport, she teaches eight 30-minute classes for the students at the deaf elementary school on campus as well as a physical education course throughout the academic year.
For Gremillion, she puts in the work and the facts are crystal clear.
She coaches. She teaches. She knows what it takes to win. Above all, she perseveres through the obstacles that come in her path to success.
Despite football being a gentleman sport, Gremillion said she has been treated as an equal to her male counterparts.
“Nearly six weeks after being named the head coach, I remember going to the coaches’ clinic and being amazed at some of the big names in 4A and 5A who read the article about me,” Gremillion said.
“They recognized me from having gone to the meetings with my husband and congratulated me. It showed the camaraderie we have here in Louisiana. Until we play each other, it is all cool.”
Gremillion also credited her success today from the values and lessons she learned growing up as a child.
“I take pride in coming from a small school and from a small town,” Gremillion said. A lot of the values that I learned as a child have stuck with me with over the years and have helped me to never forget my roots, to never forget where I came from and to be proud of who I am.”
Her strong values and work ethic helped her become the coach she is today.
Those values also led and helped her to become a good educator, something that she never wanted to do but has proven to be a key source for her coaching success.
“When I was in college, I knew early on that coaching was what I wanted to do,” Gremillion said. “I never wanted to be a teacher and I never wanted to be in school longer than I had to be.
“Now it is my 20th year of teaching. I realized that I needed to embrace teaching. Once I did that, coaching from that perspective made me a better coach.”
Part of being a good leader is one’s ability to take direction and learn from another leader. In Gremillion’s case, her husband’s leadership shaped her in to the coach she is today.
During her years as an assistant coach, her husband switched her to different positions, giving her the opportunity to learn the positions in depth and to work with a kid who was hard of hearing.
“I did not have the sign language fluency and knowledge of signs that I needed to have just yet,” Gremillion said. “By switching the positions over months at a time, it helped me tremendously.
For Gremillion, this experience served not only as a major key to her coaching success but it would serve as test of her patience and determination moving forward.
In her first year as head coach, things were not picture perfect as she thought they would. The team had not come together as quickly as she and the coaching staff wanted it to.
“We waited around too long for some upperclassmen to step up and be role models for the kind of team we felt we could be,” Gremillion said.
As a result, before the 2016 season, she kicked two guys off the team because they were not following team rules, setting an example on the importance of “team” over individual players.
“We never let them break the rules or bend the rules but I was way more patient in letting them hang around,” Gremillion said. “I knew that we had more to offer them as being a team member than they had to offer us. I wanted to give them a chance to be a leader.”
With change comes adjustment and growth.
Kids and LSD players took notice to the seriousness of Gremillion when it came to the changes she made to reflect the team concept.
“Some people asked, where is such and such and I (Gremillion) said they aren’t on the team,” Gremillion said. “They were shocked.”
Because of Gremillion’s dedication to build a strong team, the War Eagles began to come together as one in preparation for 2016.
“They realized that it wasn’t going to be one or two people who were more important than the team or who could win games for us,” Gremillion said. “I told them that we will win with what we have, we will lose with what we have but we are going to be the team we have to be.”
Gremillion’s team-first concept paved the way for the success that the War Eagles experienced in 2016.
However, little did she know, there were bigger challenges on the horizon that would not only impact the team but things that would challenge her personally.
What would keep this team together?
During the hot summer days of 2016, Gremillion’s mother, Anna Castle, passed away. In August, Baton Rouge took on major flooding from huge rainfalls.
Just as things began to look perfect for the War Eagles, more obstacles rolled on to the scene.
Instead of Gremillion and her team folding in the face of adversity, they took their commitment and dedication to play well to a new level.
Specifically, for the players, they began to display a sense of brotherhood and to play for each other.
“It was the first time in a long time that we felt these kids had each other backs,” Gremillion said. “If one was having a bad day or one was about to get mad because we weren’t letting them take a day off or take a rep off, they (players) would step in and say, hey come on, come on, we want to play our best.”
To play their best, Gremillion stressed to her players the importance of being focused, executing every play in practice and taking pride in what they did.
As a result, it allowed LSD players to get more reps in on plays and it limited conversation, creating a huge difference in their play on the field.
“It enabled them to take ownership of themselves,” Gremillion said.
With a bond of brotherhood in full effect, Gremillion and the War Eagles began the 2016 season with a lot of excitement.
Looking back on the War Eagles first game of the season to winning a national deaf championship, Gremillion said the season was unbelievable and totally different from one that she had ever coached before.
“It wasn’t one of those seasons where you normally win a championship and 99 percent of the time and you just look back on the season,” Gremillion said. “This season (2016) was the first time ever that I felt like I was in the passenger seat and my team was driving and I was looking through my front window.
“Each week, I saw us getting closer and closer and way off in the distance, I could see that championship coming to us.”
Gremillion, who is a strong believer in God, also said there was divine intervention during the War Eagles championship season.
“God definitely had his hand in it,” Gremillion said. “Before each game, we had some things to happen that ended up calming me down, calming the team down and motivating them to play harder than ever before.
In first two games of the season — against Arkansas School for the Deaf and arch rival Mississippi School for the Deaf — lightning delayed the kickoffs of both games and LSD players remained in the locker room.
While the players waited to take the field, one of the LSD players started a rhythm on his thigh and shoulder pads.
“The other players mimicked what he was doing and they were having fun,” Gremillion said. “They were staying loose and that spirit just took over the entire locker room.
“Then, during the kickoff of both games — Arkansas and Mississippi — an eagle flew over the field.
Needless to say, the War Eagles crushed Arkansas, 42-0, and Mississippi, 38-0.
Although beating Arkansas in a convincing manner, Gremillion said Arkansas always brings a hard-fought effort when the two teams face each other.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of season they are having, they always give us a dog fight,” Gremillion said. “Even if we are the better skilled team and should beat them, Arkansas will always give us a dog fight.”
After the first two games, the War Eagles were filled with confidence. They also knew, however, that to win and be crowned as champions, they had to put in extra work during practice.
“Once the players got these two things behind them, there wasn’t any looking back,” Gremillion said. “It was about seeing it (championship) as we came and making sure that we had our focus and tunnel vision.
“Nothing was going to stop us. We were the only ones who could stop us.”
It came to pass that no one would stop the War Eagles as they went undefeated and were named national deaf champions for the Mason-Dixon Deaf (8-Man) Football Conference.
The 2016 championship was the first national title for the War Eagles since 2005 when they were also undefeated.
For Gremillion, all of the things that her players experienced served a greater purpose in building them into the championship team they became.
While Gremillion continues to reflect on the championship season, she said that she is eager and excited about next season, which is roughly six months away.
“With eight seniors leaving from an eight-man football team, I look forward to to seeing how fast the fire is going to light in the guts of our returning players to see their thirst and motivation to repeat as champions,” Gremillion said.
For Gremillion, not being able to slip in a weekly coaches’ meeting whenever she wants is not so bad when she can cap an undefeated season as national deaf champs and come back with the chance to do it all over again.