Late sports psychologist Trevor Moawad's impact and legacy in college football

Trevor Moawad's connection with Alabama coach Nick Saban goes back to Saban's days with the Dolphins and their work together continued during the formative years of Saban's dynasty with the Tide. Tom Hauck

TREVOR MOAWAD WAS always on the periphery. He wasn't a coach, wasn't on staff, wasn't on campus every day of every season. But he was around -- leading training exercises during the summer, on the phone to help coaches with messaging during inflection points in the season, on the sideline for pivotal games to offer encouragement or a quick word of advice. For years, he whispered in the ear of perhaps the greatest college football coach of all time, Alabama's Nick Saban, and he wound up doing the same for many of Saban's former assistants who would go on to lead top-25 programs and College Football Playoff contenders.

Not everyone bought into Moawad and the burgeoning work he did in the area of mental conditioning, but these coaches did. They believed in what he taught about the importance of neutral thinking and how what people tell themselves through internal dialogue can affect their performance. They saw how his lessons helped their players and how they helped themselves. Competitors at their core, they believed Moawad gave them a winning edge.

The talent level is so close among the top teams, Georgia coach Kirby Smart explained, that wins and losses are often measured in inches, not yards or feet.

"What he really became known as: the difference," Smart said. "He can be the inches, if you buy in."

And the more Smart and others bought in, the more time they spent with Moawad, the more their relationships evolved. They found Moawad to be authentic and caring. They wound up counting him as a teammate, a brother and a friend.

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher called Moawad one of the most genuine people he's ever met. When Fisher's marriage of 22 years ended in divorce, Moawad was there for him. Fisher said they "lean on each other a lot" outside of football.

"He was always trying to think of how to make things better and how to make people better, all the time," Fisher said. "He was selfless. Totally selfless."

Three months after Moawad's death at the age of 48, Fisher and others are still trying to make sense of his loss. Many were stunned, unaware of his private battle with cancer. Maryland coach Mike Locksley exchanged messages with him less than a week before he passed. Despite what he was going through at the time, Moawad reached out to connect Locksley with LA Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, whose daughter was attending Maryland. Moawad then asked Locksley to send along a picture of his family.

Locksley went quiet for a moment recalling the conversation. He cleared his throat and sniffed hard.

"I just read that text and it got me," he said. "That's who Trevor is, man. He put everybody before himself."

Moawad had the uncanny ability to connect with people. His gift as a teacher was making the complex simple. He'd throw out a four- or five-word phrase that coaches said would instantly shift their thinking.

Locksley remembers one phrase in particular that he finds comforting today: "The best is ahead."

Trevor Moawad left the world too soon, but his impact on coaches and players endures. His presence on the sideline and his voice on the other end of the telephone are missing as the end of another long season nears, but his lessons are still being felt.

IT WOULD HAVE been easy to turn him away at the door, this supposed guru, this trim, blond, well-tanned, overly energetic man who handed out business cards that read "President of Mindset Programs" and would later co-found the training and performance company Limitless Minds. The title sounded fancy, but what did it even mean? College football coaches have refined B.S. detectors. They're used to sniffing out snake oil salesmen from all the agents and handlers and self-proclaimed experts who hang around the sport looking for a payday. But it seems they didn't get that vibe when they sat down with Moawad and listened to him speak.

Maybe it was because he came with Saban's seal of approval. The two connected when Saban was with the Miami Dolphins and their work together continued during the formative years of Saban's dynasty at Alabama. But beyond that, something resonated about Moawad's message. Something struck a nerve and made coaches such as Smart, Fisher and Miami's Mario Cristobal want to hear more.

Moawad was disarming, cracking jokes about being the son of one of the original contributors to the book series "Chicken Soup for the Soul." He worked with professional athletes such as Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and consulted with members of the Navy SEALs. He wasn't some rah-rah guy telling coaches they needed to be optimistic all the time. His speeches didn't feel canned. They were practical. In the hyper-masculine world of football, he was OK with tough love and tapped into the idea of self-control. He'd tell coaches and athletes things like, "Starve your distractions, feed your focus."

"I can't guarantee you positivity works," he'd say, "but I can guarantee you negativity works the wrong way."

Saban, who has long been ahead of the curve in terms of the mental side of sports, found Moawad compelling. He said it was interesting listening to him talk about human behavior. It was inspirational, Saban added, calling their time together a "learning experience."

Moawad helped Saban a lot in the area of motivation, pointing out how it's not always best to look for inspiration in external sources, like a loss to a team the previous season or something disrespectful an opponent said in the media. It's why Saban rarely talks about revenge.

"One of the things Trevor always tried to emphasize was you should want to be as good as you can be because that's the most important thing to you," Saban said. "That's what you're striving for. Which, you know, is a simple concept, but not always simple to implement."

He added, "We were really, really good friends. We talked a lot."

Smart, who was Saban's longtime defensive coordinator before leaving for Georgia, admitted he was skeptical of Moawad at first. A former player, Smart hadn't given much thought to the mental side of football before. But Moawad's passion was so readily apparent and so intense, Smart said, that it forced him to think.

He'd watch Moawad work with the team, such as during one exercise in which he'd have two players sit back-to-back and explain to one another a series of shapes in specific detail. Whoever's partner drew the shape most accurately won. The exercise exhibited the value of being an effective communicator, which would come in handy when confronted with a hostile crowd or an intense situation during a game.

Slowly, Moawad's messages started to sink in for Smart. It reached a point where he wondered if the coaches were getting more out of the lessons than the players were.

"He made me think of the game not like a Neanderthal," Smart said. "He opened that up for me."

Smart said every season is an "emotional roller coaster" and that Moawad was a steadying influence for him. When Georgia lost to Alabama in overtime of the CFP National Championship Game in 2018, Smart said, "He was right there with us."

After falling inches short of victory, Moawad helped come up with the team slogan that offseason: "Where are you going to get your inches?"

Since then, the Bulldogs are 32-5. Smart laughed as he tried to pick out his favorite Moawad saying. There are so many he uses today, he said, like, "When you're green, you grow. When you're ripe, you rot."

"I've been through a lot of things with him," Smart said. "A great man, a great person who cared a lot about everybody."

Mel Tucker was Smart's defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2018. When he was hired to be Colorado's head coach, one of the first things he did was ask for the resources to bring Moawad in as a consultant.

Without Moawad, Tucker said, he doesn't know where he'd be. And there's no better example of that, Tucker explained, than his first days on the job at Michigan State in February 2020.

Tucker was hired away from Colorado late in the coaching cycle and was scrambling to hire staff and prepare for spring practice when COVID-19 hit and the world was turned upside down. Everyone on the team was sent home and all team activities were cancelled.

That's when Moawad's concept of neutral thinking kicked in for Tucker. By removing the emotion and not spending time worrying about the unknown, Tucker was able to think clearly.

"I really leaned into that heavily," he said. "Because, you know, what can you control? What are the facts? It's not a 'Woe is me' or 'This is not fair' or anything like that. It's just, what do you need to do? Keep searching for the truth and getting new information to guide you and being steady with it. Be neutral with it. That's how I handled it and how I led our organization through that period of time."

Tucker can't remember how many times people told him what an awful situation he stepped into, but he weathered it. Despite the Spartans going 2-5 in 2020, he was able to build the foundation for what came next: a 10-win regular season and a spot in a New Year's Six bowl.

During a win at Miami in September, the cover of Tucker's play sheet was devoted to a favorite phrase of Moawad's that has become something of a team motto: "It takes what it takes."

Like Smart, Tucker believes Moawad was a difference-maker in the win-loss column.

"The proof," Tucker said, "is in the pudding."

When Moawad passed away, Tucker posted a remembrance on social media. He called Moawad a friend and a mentor, as a lot of coaches and players did that day, but he also called him a teammate.

"He made me better," Tucker said. "Great teammates make the people around them better."

ALL EYES WILL be on JT Daniels as Georgia prepares to play Michigan in the CFP semifinals on New Year's Eve at the Orange Bowl in Miami. But then again, all eyes have been on him for nearly a decade now.

Daniels was a can't-miss prospect in Southern California who skipped his senior year of high school to enroll early at USC, where he was expected to lift the program out of mediocrity. Two years later, after suffering a season-ending injury as a sophomore, he transferred to Georgia, where he was expected to take the Bulldogs' sluggish offense to the next level.

But injuries have plagued his two seasons in Athens, and Stetson Bennett IV supplanted him as the starter. Daniels again failed to meet lofty expectations.

This season, Daniels has attempted only 94 passes. But he may get another chance.

The slow and steady drumbeat calling for him to play grew louder when Bennett struggled against Alabama in the SEC championship game, throwing two interceptions in a 17-point loss, Georgia's first of the season. There's a sense that Bennett, a former walk-on, has maxed out his potential while Daniels, a former top-100 prospect, has the ability to do more in the passing game.

If Smart was looking to shut down the quarterback debate, he did the opposite when he told reporters on Dec. 15 that "both of those guys are evaluated each and every day."

If Daniels can retake the starting job and lead Georgia past Michigan to the national championship game, he'll have his storybook ending. And he'll have a chance encounter with Moawad in the seventh grade to thank for it.

At a quarterback camp run by the trainer Jordan Palmer, Moawad gave a presentation to Daniels and the other QBs in attendance, including future pros Deshaun Watson and Kyle Allen. Daniels recalls being impressed by how prepared and energetic Moawad was as he talked about having a competitive mindset.

He can still remember the story Moawad told about a man who accidentally locked himself in a walk-in refrigerator. Trapped inside by himself over a weekend, it seems the man believed he was freezing and would die from hypothermia. He was found dead on Monday, Moawad told the group, but the fridge hadn't been turned on.

"Things like that showed how powerful it is when we believe in negativity," Daniels said.

Not succumbing to that black hole of doubt hasn't been easy for Daniels. In high school everything was perfect, he said, but college has "been bumpy as s---."

One minute USC fans were on social media calling him a star. Then the Trojans went 1-2 in his first three games and fans were calling him a piece of garbage.

"I literally had death threats in my DMs and I'm 17," he said. "You need to have a strong, developed mindset."

Daniels wonders how many Aaron Rodgerses or Tom Bradys are out there who failed to reach their potential because they weren't surrounded by the right people. He looks at teammates who are struggling with the transition to college, whether it's dealing with demanding coaches for the first time or the shock of playing in front of 90,000 people who will love you one minute and turn on you the next, and he wants to teach them everything he knows.

"I'm lucky enough to have been around the right people," he said. "If I don't have Trevor in my life, I couldn't tell you where I end up."

Daniels was shocked when Smart informed the team during a meeting that Moawad had passed. He had to step outside to collect himself. Through tears, he called to relay the news to his dad. Moawad was his best friend, Daniels said, and he never let on about how sick he was.

But that's who he was.

"He wanted the conversation, no matter who he was talking to, to be about you and not about himself," Daniels said.

Yes, Moawad was doing a job, trying to make players and coaches better.

But he went above and beyond, like when he'd send notes of encouragement and video messages to Jimbo Fisher's son when he was in high school. Moawad didn't have to do that, Fisher said, and it showed how much he cared on a personal level.

"He had a tremendous heart and he had a tremendous love for people and he had a tremendous love for life," Fisher said. "He wanted to impact other people in a way that made their life better. Whatever they did, whether it was sports or whatever, there was a genuineness about him, and he was very unique that way. He was always trying to think of how to make things better."