During the final week of classes during the fall semester this year, our basketball team was scheduled to play at Fort Hays State on a Wednesday night. On Monday night, the first round of two or three snow storms hit the Midwest. We left Monday evening and barely crept into Hays, Kan. The weather had improved a little Wednesday night, but the roads were still icy, snow packed and dangerous, with drifting snow. Just as our game began, I looked in the stands. We had one, lone fan. It was Abby Henry’s father, John. He had driven all day from Des Moines, Iowa, and made it to Hays just before tip-off. John is one very dedicated father and fan.
I’m not sure most people would call John very sensible in taking on a Midwest blizzard to see the Fort Hays game. However, he’s a lot more rational than some of the parents of the players I have coached. My very first coaching job was an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Humboldt, Neb. The head coach also was right out of college. Talk about the blind leading the blind. We lost our best player to a knee injury in the first game of the season. We lost nine straight games before he returned. However, the Cardinals of Humboldt put together a nice stretch run and made it all the way to the district championship game.
In the midst of our winning streak in February, a parent and school board member stopped by before practice. I was sure he was going to congratulate us on our recent winning ways. I was pretty naive back then. You need to know that the parent was a farmer and his son was a back-up player. Instead of congratulations, he accused the head coach of playing only town kids. I learned a big lesson that day – never reason with an unhappy parent. I pointed out that three of our five starters were farm kids. His argument was that one of the farm kids really lived on acreage, and although they raised some livestock, he couldn’t be called a farm kid. I should have looked up the definition of a farm kid before I opened my mouth.
My first head coaching job was at Wilber-Clatonia High School, my hometown school. During my first season in 1978-1979, we became the first girls team at the school to have a winning record, although it was a modest one at 11-6. I was feeling pretty good about what my coaching staff had accomplished. That’s when I learned another valuable lesson – never get comfortable with success. My principal dropped by one day in the spring to bring me some news from a school board member. The school board member’s daughter didn’t even play basketball, so I didn’t think it was a farm kid versus city kid issue. However, it was close. The school board member had stormed into the principal’s office proclaiming his daughter would never play basketball because the coach only played kids from Clatonia. The school was a consolation between Wilber, the bigger town, and Clatonia, my home town of 220 people. This time I didn’t even point out that three starters were from Clatonia and two from Wilber and that most of the rest of the team was from Wilber. What good would it have done?
Wilber-Clatonia High School provided me with several memorable parent tales. My favorite is from Robin, a freshman player on that very first Wilber-Clatonia team. She had been an off-and-on starter for her sophomore and junior seasons. Before the beginning of her senior season, her father stopped me for a little conversation in the fall of the school year. I think his exact words were, “If you let Robin shoot as much as Angie, she could average 20 points a game.” Angie was my star player who would go on to start four years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Fortunately, Robin had a much more sensible approached. She knew her role as a player on a very good high school team. She shot when she was open and spent a lot of her senior season passing to my two all-state post players. We won our first five games of the season before we faced a team that played a triangle and two, pretty much shutting down our two post players. Robin tried, but was not having a great shooting night. I put a sophomore guard in the game and her 12 points helped us win.
After the game, Robin’s father was in a serious conversation with my assistants. Again, I learned another valuable lesson. Parents like to confront assistants, not head coaches. I tried to jump into the conversation, but all it did was make the father more upset. He said to me, “I’m going to have Robin quit. It’ll be just like the past two years.” I went immediately to Robin in the locker room to let her know what her father intended to say when she got home. To this day, this is the best comment I’ve ever heard from a player. Robin looked up to me, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, coach, I’ll take care of my dad.” Robin started every game on a 27-0 team. She hit the first shot of the state championship game and had about five assists to our post players who combined for 57 points. Dad never said another word to the coaching staff.
Sometimes, experiences with parents during my high school tenure could be compared to my time with college players and parents. I once had a sophomore player at Wilber-Clatonia that was a back-up player on the varsity team. She had a birth defect and didn’t have fingers on one of her hands. She did a great job overcoming her handicap, but she still remained a back-up player. After the season was over, her mother wrote me a scathing letter, accusing me of only playing the team members who drank and partied. Can you picture this; I’m sitting in my living room, determining a starting line-up. I determine each player’s role by rumors of their drinking exploits. Another words, the more they drank, the more they played. Her daughter never played her last two years of high school. I guess there was no advantage in “Just Saying No.”
About five years later at Doane College, I had a freshman that immediately hit the starting lineup. However, as the season wore on, the quality of her play diminished. First I took her out of the starting lineup, but things still got worse. Toward the end of the season, she only saw a few minutes a game. Before one of the final home games, her father accused me in front of the stands of not playing his daughter because she didn’t practice sobriety. I’m now very confused. I don’t play players unless they party in high school, but then change and don’t play them because of poor social habits in college. The truth lies in the production. If I went by rumors or patrolled apartments and dorms for questionable social habits, I wouldn’t have time to coach. Sometimes, parents need reasons why their daughters are not living up to their standards. Coaches are the most likely target.
One great arsenal for parents is letters and emails. It’s a great way of getting something off their chest without having to face an answer they may not want to hear. The greatest letter writing parent I ever experienced was JessicaWilson’s mother. I usually don’t use names, but I don’t think Jess would mind. Jess was one of my favorite players I ever coached. She was a six foot post player that had one move – a fade away jumper off her left shoulder. In four years, no team ever really stopped her. As a senior, she scored her 1,000th-career point and was an All-American at the end of the year. Her mother was an art teacher at a high school. However, she would have made a great English teacher with the fantastic construction of her frequent letters to me. Even though Jess was successful from almost the moment she began playing at Doane, her mother often found fault with my treatment of her daughter. She always expressed her concerns in a letter. As Jess grew towards graduation with a psychology degree, I came to enjoy the mother’s letters. That doesn’t mean they were any less critical. I also enjoyed talking to her face to face about her latest commentary. My favorite comment from her was, “I tried to reach in the mail box and pull the letter back as soon as I dropped it in.”
I have saved every letter and e-mail I have received since I became a head coach 31 years ago. Parents beware; your letter may become a blog. Sometimes, parent’s reason that their daughter is being horribly mistreated is that I play favorites. I want to let everyone know, that along with every other coach in America, we have favorites. Jess Wilson was one of my favorites. Sometimes that favorite player is the star on the team. Sometimes, it’s the best defensive player. Sometimes it’s not even a player that gets much playing time at all. Tracee (Uldrich) Fairbanks, the Doane College coach, will always be one of my favorites just by the type of person she has always been. Brandi Grigsby-Shannon will always have a special place on my favorites list. During my first season at Northwest, a 4-22 disaster, Brandi, a Wayne Winstead recruit, took every loss harder than anyone. Despite being surrounded by very little talent, Brandi played 40 minutes a game and never let up. I only had her one year and we lost 18 games in a row. That doesn’t diminish, in my eyes, that Brandi was a special player and person.
However, when talking about my favorite players, I have to go all the way back to my coaching days at Wilber-Clatonia High School. Amy Altman loved sports. Her older brother, Dirk, had been a star high school athlete and her younger brother, Dana, is now a very successful head men’s coach at Creighton University. Amy would never be a star athlete. A muscle disease had slowed down her speed to a crawl. She was a very good shooter, but just couldn’t run or jump to allow her more playing time. Amy was a junior during our state championship year. We lost the leading four scorers to graduation, but even then Amy wasn’t expected to see much action. However, Amy never missed a work-out or summer league game. Before we left for a summer league game in July, Amy came to the gym in tears. Her dad had told her she should just quit since she no chance of playing time. Lyle, her dad, wasn’t being critical of me. He was just being realistic to his daughter. Amy asked me what I thought. I told her she could face the facts and still be a leader of our team from a reserve role. I desperately needed her in that role.
In a season where even my superintendent thought we would struggle to win half our games, the team rallied to win 19 games and advance to the semifinal game of the state tournament. Amy didn’t play much, but was a great leader. Leadership from a non-playing role was invaluable. Amy could proudly wear her state championship medal and know she played a significant role in an over-achieving team her senior year. When the 1983 state championship team was recognized by the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame, no one even remembered how little Amy played. All they remember was her leadership and the team’s accomplishments. That’s why she’s one of my all-time favorites.
Coaching is a profession that is always vulnerable to critical opinion. It’s part of the job and it really doesn’t bother me. Parenthood is not an easy job, either. My son, Sam, doesn’t get a lot of minutes for his fourth grade team. However, he never complains and loves to celebrate wins. It makes me proud. Also, as long as Abby Henry plays for me, I’ll enjoy looking in the stands and know John Henry is there for his daughter, no matter what the weather.