Coaches' corner

A word about one of my favorite subjects: coaches.

Having just caught the last few minutes of Duke’s 76-62 loss at Pittsburgh, the question of what makes a good coach started jiggling around my brain. Sunday’s score aside, no one would argue Mike Krzyzewski is not a good coach. A great one, in fact. Regardless of how you feel about Coach K, or his Blue Devil teams, personally, one can’t argue with the numbers: 1,039 career victories (most all-time in college basketball) and counting, five national championships, 12 Final Fours, and two Olympic gold medals as coach of the U.S. men’s national team, to boot.

Of course, as with all good teachers, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Good coaches have to win, sure. But they also have to care about the kids they coach and put their welfare above Ws. They have to exhibit personal character of their own. They have to inspire players to work just a little bit harder.

They have to work everyday miracles.

Not all these miracle workers are quite as famous as Coach K. A few levels beneath that rarefied air, most coaches have to mow their own baseball outfield grass or worry about their own equipment. They have to handle administrative politics and parents who think their kids deserve more playing time. They have to give time and talent and effort on days when they may feel they have none to spare.

In 18 years as a sportswriter, and 42 of living, I’ve come across some pretty great coaches. (Met a few bad ones, too, but let’s save that for another discussion). One of the best, in my humble opinion, is currently kicked back in his recliner watching the race. My daddy was an assistant football coach before I was born and in the early years of my life. There are pictures of him wearing coaching short-shorts in the 1970s to prove it. He later branched out into basketball, assisting with high school varsity and serving as head junior varsity coach.

I don’t remember exactly how he became the varsity softball coach. I remember seeing books on rules and strategy around the house. I remember practices where he would sometimes be fiery, sometimes soft-spoken, as he searched for the right way to motivate a dozen teenage girls.

I suppose he found it, as his Landrum High softball team won the state championship in 1994, going 25-3 (16-0 in regional play) with a 17-game winning streak. This achievement netted a congratulatory resolution in the S.C. Legislature. You can Google it.

Of course, I may be a bit biased. However, I don’t have to be related to someone to realize when I’m seeing a good coach.

The first newspaper I worked full-time for was the Hilton Head Island Packet on Hilton Head Island, S.C. My first beat was Hilton Head Christian Academy, which fielded a pretty dang successful boys basketball team. Leading that team were co-coaches Johnny Ullery and Larry Page (I hope I’m remembering the spellings correctly). You couldn’t meet nicer men. Not sure what they made of me at first.

After the first game I covered, I tried to check my stats against their official scorer’s. They told me they didn’t keep individual statistics – not to be snooty or difficult to work with; they just didn’t believe in it. I was cool with that, and they were cool with me keeping my own.

To the best of my fading memory, the HHCA Eagles won or played for a state title that year, which would have been … 1996? 1997? Anyway, Ullery and Page clearly produced winning teams, and I have no doubt they produced good kids, too.

After I’d moved on to the Myrtle Beach Sun News, I returned from covering a game to find a pink message slip saying coaches Ullery and Page had been in town, playing a local Christian academy. The message didn’t include a callback number, which genuinely disappointed me. So, guys, just so you know, I’m glad you called.

In Myrtle Beach, I came across many other good coaches. Two that stick in my mind are Fred Senter and Alan LeForce. Senter presided over a girls basketball dynasty in Mullins, S.C., teaching kids about layups and life. LeForce, after a career many would have considered satisfactory coaching men’s college hoops, came to Conway, S.C., to coach the Coastal Carolina women because he wanted the challenge and he was far from ready to retire.

Both men reminded me, I suppose, of my daddy in some ways. They could be gruff, but their care for their players was never in question.

Later on, at the Daily Press in Virginia, I worked with a slew of other good coaches. My definition of such spans a wide spectrum, from Hampton High football coach Mike Smith, whose 460-plus victories at the school make him the second-winningest active high school coach in the nation, to Heidi Overbay, the boys and girls cross country coach at Gloucester High who nursed injured wildlife back to health in what little spare time she possessed.

I have interviewed giants in the field. Joe Gibbs, who guided the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowls (though our brief time together was less successful). John McKissick, who retired from Summerville (S.C.) High at age 88 with a whopping 621 victories.  Wendy Larry, the pioneering women’s basketball coach at Old Dominion University. Jimmye Laycock, the legendary fixture on William & Mary’s football sidelines.

There isn’t time or space – or, sad truth be told, memory – to mention all the coaches who’ve left impressions on me, who went beyond the pithy quote (always much appreciated, though) to have an obvious impact.

 I just wanted to take a minute to thank all of them for doing what I know can sometimes be a thankless job. You don’t have to be Coach K to be appreciated.