References

I feel very badly about this, but my retirement has caused a couple of friends to test the job market.  My assistant coaches, Meghan Nelson, Addae Houston, and Chuck Fox will all seek employment in other places.  Chuck probably will stay at Northwest Missouri State with another graduate assistant position other than basketball.  My graduate assistant, Gentry Dietz, will probably remain in that position with the new women’s coach. 

Meghan, Addae and Chuck all asked me to write references for them.  I even had a couple of my players ask for references as they apply for summer work in the Maryville area.  References are crucial when looking for work.  It takes me back to the day I was forced to leave the safe confines of Kearney State College and get a real job.

In the spring of 1973, my run of five full school years and two summers ended at Kearney.  I would graduate with 175 undergraduate hours.  You usually only need about 125 hours to graduate.  However, with a full physical education major and a middle school major with emphasis on science and mathematics, plus a coaching endorsement, I had no trouble qualifying for graduation with that bulk of class hours.

That’s not entirely true.  The registrar called me a week before graduation.  It seemed I needed another class in psychology or art or something I’m sure very worthwhile.  It looked like my prayers were going to come true with at least one more year before I would have to grow up and get a job.  Unfortunately, my advisor scanned my long list of classes and found a substitute. Put me in that graduation gown, I’m walking down the isle of hopeful, future wage earners.  That’s what my parents hoped for anyway.

In 1973, there were only a handful of male elementary teachers.  Also I was one of the first middle school majors as that was a new type of college major.  It allowed me to teach anything in grades 5 and 6, but only mathematics and science in grades 7, 8, and 9.  I could put a whistle around my neck and teach physical education to any school-age kid.  The job prospects were outstanding.

Things were really set up for me considering I wasn’t exactly the public school role model you hope your teachers portray.  I student-taught at Central Elementary in Kearney, NE.  The principal was my high school coach, Don Clark.  The sixth grade teacher, my supervisor, was Helen Johnson.  Helen was an outstanding teacher and she was retiring.  The job was mine, but it had one huge obstacle; NO COACHING! 

I had two motivations in five years and two summers of college.  The first was self-preservation; I didn’t want to go to the jungles of Vietnam right out of high school.  I wasn’t a draft dodger, but getting shot at while trying to avoid foot rot didn’t seem like a positive thing for an 18 year old high school graduate.  If I attended college, I could avoid that fate while I scrambled to pass such academically challenging classes as trampoline or personal health. 

That problem was solved my sophomore year of college when President Nixon decided to implement the draft lottery.  Dates were selected from a spinning barrel like a lottery drawing.  One night in February, the draft board pulled out 366 birth dates (don’t forget leap year).  The order they came out determined if you would be drafted, college or no college.  I hit it big with a draft lottery number of 250.  My dad had fought in the Philippines in World War II, my brother joined the Navy out of high school and sailed to the Vietnam coast.  I would carry on the proud family tradition by supervising sixth grade lunch hours.  Do I get combat pay?

Anyway, my desire to coach took me to Humboldt, NE.  After two years as an assistant basketball coach for the Cardinals, it was time to move on.  I knew I could get an elementary job, but I wanted a good coaching job.  I decided to test letters of applications, a form of reference as I applied for new positions.

I selected 20 possible positions.  Ten were in Nebraska and 10 were in Iowa.  I typed (no computers in 1975) my letter of application to the Nebraska schools.  It was all very official and neat and showed no imagination.  With the 10 Iowa schools, I bought six different colored markers.  In my best penmanship, I printed each paragraph in the letter of application in a different color of marker.  How’s that for imaginative?

I got 10 responses for interviews from Nebraska and not a single response from my multicolored applications in Iowa.  I learned a valuable lesson; imagination is sometimes taken as just being weird.  Who wants a weirdo for a coach and sixth grade teacher?

Since I have become a college coach, I have written maybe a hundred or more references for my players and coaches.  I swear I have never used colored markers and I always try to find the positive in each of the requests.  Some are harder to write than others, but they have been loyal to me so I return the favor.

I use a system for every one of the potential candidates; my first paragraph briefly lists the three positive characteristics that can be found in the candidate.  Of course there are many more than three (I hope), but I don’t want to write a book.  The next three paragraphs will go into great detail, with descriptive examples, of the positive characteristics.  I try not to stretch the truth too much.  Finally, the last paragraph warns the potential employer that they would be an absolute fool not to hire this candidate.  Who said, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story?”

This week, a sixth grade son of a friend of mine asked me to write him a reference.  I’m not sure of all the details.  Zach Patton, a friend of my son, Sam, attends St. Gregory’s School.  They have some government assignment.  Zach was applying to become the head of the Health Department.

For the life of me, I don’t know why a sixth grader wants to head the Health Department.  I thought sixth graders tried to avoid personal hygiene.  This was tricky for me, but I think I wrote him an all-star reference. 

First, I told the Health Department that Zach was an absolute animal about details.  No stone would be overturned.  Then I mentioned that Zach had the rare skill to control his employees like Bob Knight (the former tough-love coach of the Indiana Hoosiers) but be loved like Mother Teresa.  The Mother Teresa should be a good reference for a Catholic school. 

I coached Zach in Little League, along with his father, Jeff.  Jeff doesn’t play; he is a co-coach with me for our Preferred Lightning team.  I used athletics as a reference to Zach’s competiveness.  If the Health Department wasn’t the best in the land, there would be hell to pay.

By the time I was finished, I wanted to hire Zach myself.  Then I realized I no longer needed employees, but rather needed an employer.  Thank goodness Tera (Nelson at Maryville Travel) didn’t ask for any letters of recommendation.  I don’t think I could have forged one.  I can stretch the truth, but I wouldn’t want to flat out lie.

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.