In December of 1979, I coached my first game as a head coach. After six years in junior highs, coaching freshmen teams, and a few years as an assistant coach, I was ready for the big time. The big time meant coaching girls at Wilber-Clatonia High School. The first game of my career was against Geneva High School. They too had a first-year head coach. After 31 minutes and 30 seconds of probably the most boring basketball possible, I had a junior guard hit a 15-foot jump shot that gave my Wolverines the win 29-28. I can’t even begin to tell you the joy I felt when that final buzzer sounded. We were 1-0, and it felt like we had won a state championship.
I coached 102 high school games over five years at Wilber-Clatonia. The 101st game was a first-round state tournament game against Randolf High School. The game was played in the Lincoln High School gym during the afternoon. At one end, the gym had glass bricks. If you were shooting at that end, you needed sunglasses to see the rim. We headed in that direction in the first half and trailed 20-9 at the break. I wish I could tell you my halftime speech inspired a great comeback. We did come back and win that game, but I think the glare from the sun had more to do with it. The Wolverines outscored Randolf 20-6 in the second half and we won 29-26. I told a reporter I was never happier to see my team score 29 points. My first and last wins in high school were posted with a 29-point offensive effort. I was overjoyed at both results.
Winning was fun when I first began coaching. Sometimes it came easy; too easy. When I took my first college coaching job at Doane College, the winning slowed down for three years. Then the Tigers really took off. The biggest hurdle was to dethrone the perennial conference champion, Midland Lutheran College. I proclaimed that after the first win over Midland, I would eat Frosty Flakes in bed. Don’t jump to conclusions. I was single in those days and a few crumbs in bed didn’t really matter to my shabby house-cleaning habits. That win came in my fourth year. After the game, I stopped by a 24-hour grocery store, bought my favorite cereal and ate the whole box in bed. Coaching was definitely fun.
This Sunday, I read an article in the newspaper about Roy Williams, the North Carolina head men’s coach. Remember, last season Williams’ Tar Heels were national champions. This year, they are in serious danger of not even making the tournament. Coach Williams spent many years at the University of Kansas before going to North Carolina. Bill Self is now the Kansas coach. They are the team ranked first in the nation and the odds on favorite to win the national championship. However, like Roy last year, Bill has little time to enjoy the successes. The team either doesn’t win by enough points, players aren’t living up to expectations, the team gave up too many points, or the team doesn’t score enough points. Forget they only have one loss, nothing seems safe. In the newspaper article on Coach Williams, he’s quoted as saying he wished he had enjoyed the championship years more. He said he doubted Coach Self was enjoying this season much despite the great season record and ranking. Coach Williams also said this is as low as he’s ever felt during a basketball season. Where has the joy of coaching this great game gone? I don’t know if it’s the expectations we put on ourselves, but the joy of winning has turned to the relief of winning. I hope this is only true with the coaches. The college players should still experience the fun of playing basketball.
When I got into coaching, my aunt told me to expect a lot of sleepless nights. My uncle had been a high school and college coach like me. My aunt let me know that my uncle had spent a lot of sleepless nights after games in his lounge chair. That’s what my life is like from November to March every year. The wins are still great, but now they’re a relief. Instead of Frosted Flakes, it’s straight to the computer to break down tape of our next opponent. I have to allow myself a little reward for the win. That usually means a trip to the 24-hour grocery store for ice cream. I love to eat after wins.
The losses are horrible for coaches. We take them very personal. Did we prepare enough? Did we watch enough tape? Did we practice too long? Did we not practice enough? Did we play the right players? I could go on for several more paragraphs. What do you always do when you are depressed? You eat. No rewards this time. I sneak to the 24-hour grocery store, grab one of the hand baskets and stalk through all the isles with unhealthy food. That basket is always running over by the time I get to the check-out line. I just hope the person checking me out doesn’t know the game results. I hate to answer questions after losses. I get home with my food stash and turn on the computer. More tape needs to be broken down to make it possible for us to win our next game. However, a little food should help me fell better, right?
The first helping goes down while studying tape. After wondering if we can win another game, I go for helping two, hoping I’ll feel better. Then I get sleepy over the computer, so it’s on to a third helping so I can stay awake. When I finally give up on the tape breakdown, I decide I can fall asleep quicker with just one more round of junk food. What’s better than food to take your mind off your troubles? Naturally, after I have torn my way through 3,000 calories, I have indigestion and couldn’t fall asleep if I wanted to.
There’s one consistent thing about winning or losing for college coaches – we very seldom suffer from too few calories. I envy our new men’s coach, Ben McCollum. It’s his first year as a head coach. You can still see his belt and he probably doesn’t go through as many Rolaids as I do. However, it’ll be the same for Coach Mac as for all head coaches. The highs of winning will seem less and the lows of losing seem greater. Don’t feel sorry for us. I have been earning a living playing a game for 38 years. Thank goodness I never had to work for a living.