RAMBLINGS • Remembering A Coaching Career


I write to remember and to discover. Especially when I create this column, I seldom know where my thoughts will end. Last month I began writing about Patti Fuller and our school newspaper but bogged down in early coaching experiences, so much so that I had to continue that stream of consciousness technique (the technique that William Faulkner made famous in The Sound and the Fury) into this month's column.

A reader complimented me last June for my precise recall of my past; I didn't tell her that I only have that type of memory when I concentrate on past events. I suspect anyone immodest enough to write about his or her past would find that same gift. I don't remember much about my high school years, for example, until I write about a particular occurrence, but then names, faces, where we were, and what we were doing come flooding back. I can even see in my mind's eye the expression on the faces of those who were around me. Sometimes I even hear their actual words. If I review an event from 1960 and filter it through the experiences of the last 60 years, I have a better understanding of what happened, even why it happened. To me that's the most significant realization.

So I'm now going back to the spring of 1972 when I resigned after one season as HHS baseball coach. As I've written before, Judy and I had bought 72 acres of land in South Fillmore Township from Elmer Ricke, contract for deed. I'd grown up on a farm, worked on a farm as partial payment for tuition, room and board at Warren Wilson Junior College in North Carolina, and enjoyed the lifestyle. I wanted that for our kids. (Dawn would be born in August after we moved there (small house–kitchen, living room, bedroom, and a porch we converted into a nursery) in March, and Jenni would be born while we lived there, in April of '72. The wags at the gas station in Coffeen asked if I knew I was breeding us out of living space; I knew it better than they. Keith Landers, from whom I bought some of the materials to convert the porch into a nursery, smiled when I asked for an estimate of the cost of the lumber necessary to build a new house. Instead I bought the makings of a machine shed to house the WD45 I found at a bargain price in Vandalia.

The property had a barn, a farrowing house with 16 stalls, and only 20 tillable acres or so, but I liked a southern facing slope probably used as a pasture when the Cooks owned it. I never knew them, but the locals called it the Old Cook Place and wondered why anyone would buy it if it wasn't to hunt upon. I intended to grow Christmas trees. I'd spent summer vacations in Pennsylvania planting, caring for, and shaping another family's tree plantation and was sure I could do that while I taught. Besides, the land was cheap and had a livable house.

Judy knew I wanted it and believed I could make it work. She wasn't crazy about country life, but as she often did, she put my happiness ahead of hers. A neighbor, Mr. Hayes, sharecropped the tillable land the first planting season though I helped (perhaps he viewed it as interfered) as much as I could.

By the next crop season I had my own tractor, three-bottom plow, two row planter, and cultivator, so it was my turn. There were clues my hopes were more dreams than anything; with coaching and grading papers taking precedence, the soybeans weren't planted till early July. Luckily it was an ideal year for late beans. I had a pretty crop, but I didn't have a combine and those who did were busy with their own crops or other custom work till late in the winter when Raymond Duff harvested what was left. I had also planted corn; Terry Bone spent a couple Saturdays helping me shuck it into an old wagon I had bought at a farm sale.

Judy, bless her soul, didn't fuss about the financial loss, but when I almost missed Jenni's birth on April 24, she began to question my priorities. We had a baseball game at Taylorville that afternoon (Eddie Millhorn pitched us to a 9-7 win), and she and Lureta Satterlee (another kind soul who watched Dawn and Judy at her house) because Judy sensed birth could be imminent met the bus when we were unloading at the gym. Twenty minutes after we arrived at HAH Jenni was in the family; a few days later Judy's ultimatum was clear. "Help take care of your own children, or they and I will be back in Pennsylvania."

I knew she was right, and I didn't want to be alone in Illinois. My picture wouldn't appear in the sports section of The Hiltop (the HHS yearbook) as a coach again until the 1986 edition; Mike Sommer asked me then to be the program's freshman coach as Greg Matthews left that position to become Sommer's junior varsity coach. Dawn was a sophomore and Jenni an eighth grader, with their own interests (that didn't include mom or dad) and friends. Judy knew the coaching itch still existed; the farm had been sold ten years before, and I had always been the type who was happier when busier.

Mike and Greg were the type of coaches I enjoyed working for. Both were intelligent; both were good classroom teachers; neither was so competitive that winning at all costs was imperative. Both reminded me of Stan Horst, the basketball coach who headed the program in 1968 when I first came to teach at HHS; any student who came under Stan's influence became a better person unless he deliberately tried not to be.

Then in the spring of 2000 the school board listened to prominent community members and okayed accepting an existing boy's club soccer program as a school sport. The principal at the time, Larry Ackerman, hinted that I should be the program's first coach. I'd played a bit collegiately, but I hadn't mentioned that often in American football-happy Hillsboro; in fact, I'd written a letter to the editor opposing soccer as a Hillsboro High School option. Although football players and soccer players are generally built differently (and think differently), some fast, quick athletes, a desirable attribute in a soccer player, would make good skilled position players in football; a widely held theory at the time said football programs and soccer programs in small schools–and HHS had become a small school by then, shrinking from 850 kids in the fall of 1968 to less than 550 in 2000–couldn't exist together.

I asked Mr. Ackerman how he knew I'd played; he said it was on a transcript. It was; I'd received P.E. credit for playing in junior college. I was still the freshman basketball coach, working with Dyke Buerkett, who had replaced Sommer, but I had time on my hands, and I'd always been told that was dangerous. I'm not sure my dad believed in the devil, but he certainly repeated the "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" mantra often enough when I was young to make me industrious for life. Besides, Judy had passed in 1991, both girls were married and living out of town, and I knew the administration wanted a faculty member as coach because then the school has more control over the programs than if a non-teacher assumes the reins.

Often Mr. Miller, the WWC coach, had said he hoped the Americans who made the team would help spread his game (he was a native of Ireland) in the states. I hadn't had the chance to do that before.

When I told Mr. Ackerman I'd start the program, he tricked me, "Will you coach the girls too?" was his next question. Because of Title IX, the school had to add a girls' sport. Because Judy wasn't alive to advise against it (she always tried to protect me from my tendency to overestimate my abilities and time available), I said yes rather offhandedly.

That was one of the better decisions I've made; the young ladies have a different style of game–not as much power as the boys–but I had fewer problems personality-wise with them and their parents than I did each fall with a few of the boys. Perhaps it was because their egos were smaller. No matter, the one year I agreed to became seven years, and I held the job through the spring of 2006. I knew I was retiring in 2007, and a young man coaching and teaching English in Litchfield was willing to take the jobs. I told him then that he'd eventually hate me for stepping away; I hope that hasn't happened. I became a spectator then as both older grandchildren played for him, but I also stayed out of his business as much as possible.

Mr. Miller died decades before I began coaching (though I did coach all three grandchildren while they were in elementary school); I quit that when Dawn told me I was too gruff when I told second graders to suck it up, to continue playing hard, even if they were tired. I often wonder how he'd feel about the way soccer has swept the United States.

Again, I've thought too much, rambled too far from my original intent to talk about the years I spent as a high school newspaper advisor, the job that earned me a free donut some 40 years or so after the fact.

My teaching career, my coaching career, my sponsorship of the Preface are threads of my life, almost inseparable, one from the others. Sadly, I've used my quota of space for this month.

Next month will be devoted to the five precious Preface years; may it rest in peace after I explain how it came about, who made it work so well, and how it ended.

I promise to stick to the topic.


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