In the fall of 1973, I walked into an old, brick school building at Humboldt, Nebraska. It was my first job in education and my first real pay check. Just to give you a point of reference, 1973 is the year that gas prices had the audacity to soar to over $1 per gallon. It scared me so much; I traded away my 1966 Ford Mustang for one of the very first Subaru’s imported to the United States. I really wish I had my Mustang back today. My first new car and my first car loan; I borrowed just over $3,000 and was the proud owner of basically a cardboard box with wheels. However, it did get over 40 miles per gallon. It cost at least $10 to fill the tank, but the engine was so weak, the defroster only cleared a 4 inch by 4 inch square for winter driving.
My first boss in education was a superintendent by the name of Montgomery. He was a conservative man who was tough on the bottom line. He was loved by the school board, but not near as popular with his teachers. Mr. Montgomery forced me to make a very tough decision in my first month on the job.
I was the sixth grade teacher, but my real reason for coming to a small school was to coach basketball. I was the assistant varsity boys’ basketball coach, ready and eager to learn all the fine points of the sport. I had spent the summer working at the Boy’s Reformatory in Kearney, Nebraska, where I was required to have a bus driver’s license. I thought that license could earn me a few spare dollars to help me pay off my student loan. However, it soon turned out to be trouble.
Once Montgomery learned I had the license, he scheduled me to drive the football team to Nebraska City for a game. Before we left, I learned that a few of the experienced drivers were angry the rookie got the assignment. It confused me why the superintendent would make waves with other drivers until I learned he wasn’t paying me the going rate. I was to receive no money for the “waiting” time since I was going to the game anyway.
Now I was angry at my boss and the drivers were angry with me. I decided to take a stand against Montgomery. Gaining as much confidence as a rookie teacher can muster, I stomped into the superintendent’s office demanding equal pay. If I was going to be hated, I just as well get paid for it. However, Montgomery didn’t take the bait. He refused to pay the “wait” time. Red-faced and shaking about losing my first job, I told my boss I wouldn’t drive the bus for anything less than equal pay. Montgomery then echoed the words I remember to this day, “Gene,” he sternly stated, “You’ll not go far in education unless you are willing to go the extra mile.”
It scared me, but I held my ground. I lasted two years at Humboldt and loved every minute of it; that is except every time I was required to face Montgomery. I wasn’t sure what the extra mile meant, but I was pretty sure it didn’t involve driving buses. I even survived coaching Montgomery’s son as the junior varsity coach.
The next stop was an elementary school in Pleasant Dale, Nebraska. It was a satellite school for the Milford School District. Pleasant Dale was about 15 miles from Lincoln and we often got some of the Lincoln Public School rejects as their last stop, even as elementary students. I’m talking about sixth graders, but that’s another story.
My boss, Roger, also was the junior high basketball coach, so I begged for him to put me on his staff. He reluctantly agreed to the help. I received no money for working with the junior high. Is this what it means to go the extra mile? The only problem is Roger wouldn’t let me coach. He gave me things to do in practice, but he alone coached the eighth grade boys and his volunteer assistant from the community had the seventh grade duties.
The community guy wasn’t blind. He saw my disappointment and happily handed the game coaching duties over to me. Roger wasn’t very happy about the move. How was he supposed to build a program with such an inexperienced seventh grade coach? I stuck it out, but Roger didn’t. He went into the banking business and I headed for the head junior high position. I had reached the pinnacle of my career. I was the boss and I would decide what going that extra mile meant.
After only one year as the top junior high basketball dog, an opportunity came my way. I lived in Milford, but taught in Pleasant Dale. My elementary principal, a man by the name of Phil, put me in my place. Phil had replaced Roger when my first boss had left for high finance. After my first year with Phil, I asked if I could move into an elementary opening in Milford, just blocks from my house.
I guess Phil didn’t think I had traveled that extra mile. He told me I had potential and that I was good enough for poor, old Pleasant Dale, but way too wet behind the ears for a huge school district and all the pressure involved like the parent school in Milford. Did I mention that Milford had a population I would guess to be near the 3,000 mark? I was hoping to avoid gang activity.
As luck would have it, the high school math teacher was offered an administrative position at the local college. However, they wouldn’t release him from his contract unless they could fill his position. When I heard the scenario, I suggested the junior high math teacher move up to high school math and they hire me for junior high, since I owned a middle school math major. Five years of college definitely meant I went the extra mile.
The high school principal agreed. I had gone over Phil’s head and now faced the pressures of being a math teacher at the parent school. My coaching position improved, too. The college-bound math teacher was the assistant varsity coach. The junior high math teacher was the freshmen coach. Everyone moved up a slot and now I was on the varsity bench as the freshmen coach. Best of all, I didn’t have to take another insult from Phil. I had a new boss!
Another two years of learning from Bob Bargen, the Milford boys’ coach, made me think it was time to jump into the head coaching arena. Wilber-Clatonia High School, my hometown was calling. It had nothing to do with my tremendous won-loss record, but rather I had experience with a very good boys’ high school team. However, the field changed; I was about to become a coach of females, the Wilber-Clatonia girls’ basketball coach.
Two of my bosses were significant and on opposite ends of the appreciation scale. Ernie Talarico, a wrestler in his athletic days, was my biggest booster. He would call me out of my junior high math classes and tell stories of his adventures in coaching and administration. My superintendent didn’t think I was worthy of such companionship. After three years of winning, but no state tournament appearances, the superintendent informed me of the school board’s ultimatum; make the state tournament or find another school. Ernie was much more supportive, but I could tell he was worried for my job.
I had a great team and they lived up to expectations. We went 27 – 0 and won the class C championship. However, the same ultimatum existed for the next year with my demanding boss. Thankfully, the team overcame four starters graduating to make another state tournament appearance and a top five ranking. Then I bolted for college. That extra mile was elusive for the Wilber-Clatonia superintendent.
I have loved college coaching for 28 years now. I have had great bosses and they allowed me to build programs I am very proud of. However, that first year at Doane College found some nasty moments. Bob, the athletic director, was also the men’s coach. His daughter played for the women’s team. The daughter played a lot early in the season, but I had a couple of volleyball players join the team after the first month. Bob’s daughter now found herself picking splinters on the Tiger’s bench.
After one game at Midland College where the coach’s daughter didn’t get into the contest, I felt something was brewing. After a very icy day in the office, Bob came into my space. He wasn’t in a good mood. “Sit and listen and not one word,” Bob demanded. “My daughter is unhappy, my wife’s unhappy. That means I’m unhappy. Fix it!” When I tried to respond, Bob reminded me I wasn’t to talk.
No one was happy until the next day when Bob’s daughter quit. Now, I was happy, the daughter was happy, the mother was happy, which meant my boss was happy. We should have thrown a party. Instead, I ducked my head and avoided the family for a couple of weeks. That’s what going the extra mile meant.
The senior women’s administrator and assistant athletic director at Northwest 13 years ago, my first year, was Sherri Reeves. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t Sherri’s first choice for the women’s basketball position. Back then, all the women’s coaches’ offices were in Martindale. Sherri’s office was close by and there were a few tense moments.
That fall, I went to the Northwest Hall of Fame banquet. A team of early women basketball players were inducted. During their most successful year, Sherri was in graduate school. However, she had coached them up until that year and unselfishly turned the reins over to another coach. Every player on that team expressed gratitude for all Sherri had done for them. As I learned more about Northwest, I soon realized that most of the great things I had at my fingertips was a result of Sherri Reeves being such an advocate of women’s athletics.
Sherri and I are now great friends. She contributes a lot to our present program, even in retirement. I have come to appreciate all Sherri did for the women athletes, past and present, at Northwest. I even named a college tournament after Sherri (Winstead-Reeves Classic). Sherri had gone the extra mile, even in the eyes of Montgomery, the Humboldt superintendent.