September 9, 2003

Without Sports, We Still Need Coaches

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Like so many of you, I’ve become a has-been: A former high school athlete turned armchair quarterback living vicariously through senior-year highlight reels and intramural flag football. But despite the fact that my last chance to achieve glory on the court passed years ago, I still have a coach.

In sports, a skilled athlete can play well, but a disciplined, intelligent, and mentoring coach can make them play to their best. Think of Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells, and Phil Jackson.

Lombardi arrived at team meetings fifteen minutes early, established high standards, and compelled his team to achieve them. Parcells, with his demanding, methodical approach to coaching has taken the once-hapless Giants, Patriots, and Jets to the playoffs four times and won two Super Bowls. And finally, the Zen master of basketball, Phil Jackson, has won a record nine NBA titles in his career and coached two of the game’s greatest dynasties: the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. The big man from Montana may take a more spiritual approach to leadership than Lombardi and the Tuna, but he produces the same thing: winners.

I had the opportunity to play for somewhat of a legend myself. This fall, my old high school football coach, Ron Holtman, will return for his 39th season at the helm. His career record stands at an astonishing 301 — 65 — 5. He also has six state championships and numerous district titles. Despite those statistics, not many of Holtman’s players go on to play in college; they’re too small and too slow. But coach Holtman makes them into the best players they can be. The winning takes care of itself.

Now, a recent scourge of scandal has undermined the integrity of the profession and made apparent the importance of good coaches and dearth of them. Situations such as those involving Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss, who asked his players to lie and accuse their former teammate of dealing drugs; Jim Harrick at the University of Georgia, who helped his ballers cheat through a phony course; and Larry Eustachy at Iowa, whose philandering and booze addiction cost him his job and rattled his marriage, have undermined the integrity of the profession. At all levels of athletics, one cannot understate the need for renewed investment in quality individuals who believe not just in winning but in exemplifying the qualities of a winner.

But what about the rest of us who don’t get to play sports still? Maybe our playing field isn’t green, but we still need someone to draw up Xs and Os when we need a new game plan.

Mitch Albom did, and he wrote a book about it. Tuesdays with Morrie tells the story of Albom’s reunion with his dying mentor, Morrie Schwartz. When Albom started college at Brandeis, he was forced to take Morrie’s sociology class. “Only a dozen or so students were there,” he writes, remembering his first impression of Morrie’s lecture hall. “It will not be easy to cut a class this small.”

Four years later, Mitch had taken every one of Morrie’s classes and found himself referring to the professor by a different name. “I began to call Morrie ‘Coach,’ the way I used to address my high school track coach,” he writes. Morrie responded, “I’ll be your coach. And you can be my player.”

Can’t say I do the same with any of my professors, but I have found a coach here. You won’t find him in Teagle or Barton Hall, but you can always stop by his classroom or office. Like Lombardi and Parcells and Jackson, he demands effort and expects results. He also leads by example, packing his classes full of useful information and holding office hours all day to give extra help–or just talk. He uses a homemade course pack instead of a playbook.

Mine, over the past two years, has become tattered, and the three-ring holes on most of its pages have torn through. But no matter how worn it becomes, I won’t throw it away. In fact, it’s probably one of the few things I’ll take with me when I graduate.

I had good fortune to play for a great coach and learn from one, too. If you have had a similar opportunity, count yourself lucky. But for those of you who haven’t found someone like Morrie or coach Holtman, you’re in a good place. Freshmen, you have four years here to find a mentor, someone who will push you to excel, support you when you fail, and congratulate you at graduation. For everyone else, you might find that person when you least expect it. He or she might, like Morrie, teach a class you think you’ll hate. Or maybe you won’t ever take their class at all. Hopefully, you won’t someday have to do what Mitch Albom did, revisit his coach for a few Tuesday conversations before he died. Then again, we should all be so lucky.

Archived article by Everett Hullverson