The days of a high school coach who teaches teenagers crucial life lessons while trying to win a game are dwindling.
Professional and collegiate coaching became a bottom-line business long ago, but somewhere along the line, it unfortunately seeped into high school coaching as well. And now the definable measures for those coaches seem to be mainly wins and losses, too.
Principles of respect and discipline are fading, while parents and players are demanding wins, playing time and responding with anger when a player draws the ire of a coach. In the midst of doing so, it is forgotten that coaches are teachers by trade and wins come from lessons taught between games.
But when there are no more games left to be played, years removed from a high school athletic career, are wins and individual statistics going to be more important than learning traits to become a successful adult?
On Sunday, I found a definitive answer when I awoke to the news that the football coach, Bill Sutherland, from my alma mater had died suddenly at the age of 71.
Hundreds of memories flowed through my mind throughout the day, many of them revolving around football. But the first memories that popped into my head had nothing to do with a game and a man I had been around my entire life.
Every fall during my childhood was dominated by golden helmets glimmering in the sunlight and the Notre Dame Victory March playing after every touchdown. I should clarify, I’m referring to Notre Dame High School in my hometown of Batavia, New York, not the prestigious university in South Bend, Indiana. But to a 10-year-old me, there was not much difference, particularly with a coach who had a gap-toothed smile and intensity that could rival Vince Lombardi.
Initially, I got to know Sutherland because my brothers played for him and my father served as one of his assistants. And even after we’ve long graduated, he is still referred to as “Coach” in our household.
It would be logical to think that football memories would be the first to return to my head when reminiscing. I heard him deliver pregame speeches that would make a nun want to steamroll a running back. I heard him scream at two burly linemen lagging behind during conditioning that he was going to hire a 6-year-old to run around the track with a Twinkie as incentive to get them to pick up the pace.
Yet, my first memory was set in his freshman history class and it was not when he caught a basketball player reading a magazine in class and told him, “The only dribbling you’re going to do this winter is when you drool.”
Up to that point in my life, few teachers were willing to challenge a student with a physical disability, but Coach was never afraid. He knew me and knew that my legs had no affect on my brain. Early in the year when I was pulling B’s and C’s, he was blunt and demanded more in front of the entire class.
I learned quickly that if you put in maximum effort on assignments and during classroom discussions, you would be rewarded on tests. It was a lesson that can be extended to profession or business — if you are prepared, you will be successful.
By the end of my time in his class, I achieved a near-perfect score on the state-mandated test. He did not congratulate me or pull me aside; it was unnecessary. I knew that is what he expected of me, that is what I should expect from myself and that should be sufficient enough.
There was no coach-speak with him, if he preached something — God, family, football — he was going to live it himself and he expected the same from his assistants and players. He was passionate about football, and no matter how many beers he drank to celebrate a win or drown out the frustrations of a defeat on Saturday, if the church was still standing at 7 a.m. on Sunday, you could bank on him being there.
So, the next time there is an urge to criticize a coach for playing favorites, understand those favorites are likely fulfilling assignments on the field and in the classroom. Instead of complaining that a coach yelled, think of the lesson they are trying to teach.
Decades after graduation, if a former player is not still applying some lesson learned from high school athletics, then we can determine the quality of the coach.