November 14, 2001

Thank You, Coach

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My high school basketball coach sends me the most bizarre forwards. Anything from Lady Liberty flipping off a floating Osama head, to deep thoughts on marriage, to Happy Halloween e-cards.

Why he would send me any of these things is beyond my knowledge. However, since my first day at Cornell I have received at least two e-mails a day from the man we called Moose.

Moose is a “veteran” (ok, he’s old) and isn’t the sort to come out and tell his players that he loves us or anything of the sensitive sort. See, Moose is a very big guy (hence the name) and kind of resembles Santa in a high school chemistry teacher sort of way. Not the sort to get mushy.

Although I have not played point guard for Moose for two years now, he still wants to let me know that he cares about me. Granted he does this through various blonde jokes and random pictures of lighthouses.

I think that’s special. It says something about the importance of a coach and what they can mean in an athlete’s life. In an age when so much emphasis is put on athletes, their highlight reel, and their contracts, we hear so little about those trying to shepherd them towards greatness.

These days coaches in pro sports are shipped around like rumors of Anthrax at Cornell. It doesn’t even matter to people who the coach is as long as he doesn’t get choked (Latrell, we love you).

Guys like Mike Dunleavy, Stu Jackson, and Chris Ford seem to have coached every team in the NBA in their illustrious careers. Ford is now coaching Brandeis University for goodness sake. Good work Coach.

Somehow the importance of a coach has been lost in the big business of sports.

It hasn’t always been that way nor does it have to be that way now.

Vince Lombardi. The best. He was the star of his team and he did it from the sidelines in his wool cap and big winter peacoat. So few names stick out from those great Packers teams in the early years of the NFL, but no one fails to mention Lombardi when talking of that dynasty. All over Wisconsin there remains remnants of the man: stadiums, street signs, even middle schools bear his name.

The greatest of our day, I would argue, are Phil Jackson and Joe Torre. Both are the fathers of dynasties (Jackson now seemingly on the brink of another), yet neither has earned the credit bestowed upon Lombardi.

Talk of the great Bulls’ teams of the 90s always begin with Mike, then move to Scottie, then fade to Horace, and Phil’s name might be dropped sometime after.

Torre is, at times, ridiculed for having bought his talent. However, true baseball fans know the brilliance of Torre leaving Jeter in the minors until he was ready, making Rivera the closer after Wettland left, and putting Knoblauch in left field to save his bat in the line-up.

However, these guys are just footnotes in our talk of the great teams of our generation.

Jeff Van Gundy is another guy who doesn’t nearly get the respect we should at least give him out of pity. Come on, even my mom says, “Wow, he looks closer to death every time I watch the Knicks.” Van Gundy is a genius, as in literally a test-certified genius. And yet what does he do with his time? He coaches the most emotionally charged team anywhere, in the city bearing the largest microscope in the sports world.

But, it’s just not special to be a good coach on the professional level anymore.

This is a crime, and even athlete knows it, having experienced the relationship on the not-so-professional level.

It is a special bond between player and coach. A coach has seen you at your most vulnerable moments and during those glimpses of greatness that come along only when pushed by a coach we often love to hate.

They have snuck into your most intense emotions because that’s what has been asked of them. That is their role.

I coached a little league baseball team this summer and felt the uniqueness of that bond from the other side of the whistle. It is difficult to motivate people, but the reward for success is indescribable. Watching a twelve year old face light up as he hits the ball because of some tip you have shared is a feeling with which few can relate.

Coaches are more than just organizers or the designated whiner on the bench, they are instruments for change. I can name half a dozen coaches who changed, not just the way I threw my curve ball or shot a free throw, but changed how I thought about how to face a challenge successfully.

There are coaches at Cornell who, when I have encountered, seem to share such qualities. Coach Dick Blood of the women’s softball team inspired a team, from which little was expected, to battle its way to an Ivy League championship last spring.

Women’s soccer head coach Berhane Andeberhan truly cares about his players and will brag about them for ages if you are willing to listen.

Mike Schafer, head coach of the men’s hockey squad, insisted since last season ended that this year’s team will come out ready to play. After being left out of the preseason national rankings, Schafer has lit a fire under the Red propelling his unranked team to No. 9 in the nation over the last three weeks.

Coaching is an art, and there are more doodlers out there than there are aspiring artists. However, sometimes we get the opportunity to play for a master and we should be grateful for the opportunity.

At practice we hate our coaches, during games they have our full attention, and off the field they can be our closest friends. That’s a lot of value given to one person with a clipboard.

So go out there and thank a coach, any coach. I think I’m going to go check my e-mail.


Archived article by Scott Jones