Contrary to the headline, this column is not about coaching clichés such as “one play at a time,” “play within ourselves” or Hayden Fry’s favorite, “scratch where it itches.”
Of course, a phrase becomes a cliché because it happens to be true to the point of overuse.
I’ve interviewed coaches for almost 30 years, because that’s been part of covering or announcing games. My experience of coaching is less broad than my experience of being coached, which you’ll recall isn’t much. Unlike 30 years ago, I have kids in sports now, so I observe from a parental point of view as well. (Including, on Thursday, the first time I’ve ever been part of a sports Parents Night, apparently.)
This column was prompted by one coach’s asking parents to thank other coaches for their involvement. And coaches deserve thanks for that involvement whether they’re paid or not.
Coaching is an extension of teaching. (Which is interesting given the number of non-teachers now in coaching.) Besides the physical and mental skills (like remembering plays) to perform a sport, coaches have to teach team orientation over the individual (not easy given your typical self-centered child), maximum effort in practice and competition whether you feel like it or not, the drive to excel but also to improve whether or not anyone notices, and, most importantly, how to respond to both wins and losses, particularly wins and losses in big games.
In my business magazine days, I looked with skepticism at books written by winning sports coaches — Pat Riley’s The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players and Don Shula’s The Winning Edge, among others — and their tenuous connections to business. The books were not about how handing the ball off to Larry Csonka or having Magic Johnson run your offense makes you a winner; the books are about leadership, which is something people in business of some size, where the CEO is not the chief widget-maker, want to know.
Two fictional high school coaches come to mind — Norman Dale of Hickory, Ind., from “Hoosiers,” and Eric Taylor of Dillon, Texas, from the TV version of “Friday Night Lights.” Dale, you’ll recall, took a small group of undertalented players and turned them into winners. Taylor was the TV embodiment of what a high school coach should be — not perfect, but always an example to his players, some of whom lacked the home example of a father. Of course, you too could say and do the right thing all the time if you had scriptwriters (for instance, Taylor’s “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”) who, for that matter, would make sure players hit buzzer-beating baskets and threw state championship-winning touchdown passes.
Vince Lombardi apparently was his own scriptwriter. From somewhere he came up with my favorite phrase of his, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence,” which can apply in far more places than just athletics. People here when the Chicago Bears trained at UW–Platteville have stories about Mike Ditka, and, contrary to his public image, almost all are complimentary.
The better coaching examples are in real life — for instance, Platteville cross country and track coach Rob Serres, former Platteville swimming coach Tom Caccia, or, down the road, Cuba City’s Jerry Petitgoue, or, up the road, Lancaster’s John Hoch.
Caccia did, and Serres does, turn non-athletes into athletes, which if you think about it is quite a feat. It’s hard to imagine Petitgoue’s success being topped, merely because it seems unlikely a coach will ever coach in one place as long. Petitgoue has won with practically every kind of basketball team possible, since high school coaches have to coach what they have, not what they might like to have. As for Hoch, when I arrived in Lancaster in 1988 he hadn’t had a winning season yet, and there were many doubters of his odd wishbone offense. A quarter-century later, people in Lancaster wonder what the Flying Arrows will be like after he retires.
To see coaches like Petitgoue, Hoch or Platteville’s Jim Lawinger on the bench, sidelines or dugout as long as they have is something that is increasingly rare. Some young coaches don’t have early success and don’t stick with it. Some coaches tire of the time commitment, particularly coaches with families. And some coaches get to deal with, as happened at undefeated, number-one-ranked Big Foot High School last year, an angry parent demanding to know why his son wasn’t playing, despite the fact that Big Foot was undefeated and number-one-ranked.
You know what happened to Big Foot. (The coach, Belmont native Rodney Wedig, is now at Beloit Memorial.) If you haven’t seen a copy of the 2013 Platteville football video, you should. It shows the early depths and late heights of last Hillmen season, and how coaches and players responded to the adversity of a 1–3 start. For a coach, the most gratifying thing must be to hear his or her quotes repeated by his or her players. And, in the case of a couple of Platteville coaches, seeing their sons play on the artificial grass of Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
The ultimate Platteville coach will probably always be W.P. Hill. How do we know this? Because they named the Platteville High School teams for him.