In February of 1968, I was an 18 year-old in the thrones of senioritis and a member of a very average high school basketball team at Wilber-Clatonia High School. Our coach was Don Zeiss. He was a good coach that tried about anything that would coax a win out of a bunch of average athletes.
The most memorable ploy was a Saturday trip to Milford High School on a Saturday night. We had been embarrassed by some team on Friday and Coach had to try something dramatic. He walked into our locker room before we were to begin our warm-ups. Coach Zeiss, with proper emphasis, told us we were un-coachable. He told us if our goal was to drive him out of coaching, we had succeeded.The frustrated coach told us we were on our own, since we didn’t listen to advice anyway. Coach Zeiss stomped out of the room and sat mute on our team bench. We looked at each other and someone suggested we go warm-up. With our new-found freedom, we did exactly the same warm-up as our coach had employed.
A couple of minutes before game time, we went to the locker room like we normally did. To our surprise, no coaches followed us for any last minute instruction. They didn’t even give us the starting line-up. The seniors decided to use the same starters we had used most of the year. The team decided to start in our normal 2-1-2 defense. I can’t believe we didn’t take advantage of the situation and completely change Coach Zeiss’s offense and defense.
We actually played pretty well and went to the halftime locker with a lead. Coach Zeiss did come to the locker room, but all he said is he was finished and the game was ours to blow, like we normally did; So much for positive reinforcement.
As the game neared its end, we had amazingly found a way to lead by 10 points. However, that lead was slipping away under the player’s astute guidance. It was then that Coach Zeiss decided to resume his coaching career. He called a couple of time-outs, put us in a delay game, and guided us to a win.
I have to add that we didn’t exactly stop the Milford star player, Jim Miller, who had a career high 28 points. Jim became a friend of mine in college and went on to a great high school girls’ coaching career at Omaha Marian High School. He always reminded me what team offered him the chance at a career high in points. My comment was always, “Scoreboard.”
Don Zeiss, of course, did not get out of coaching because of that pathetic game we played on Friday. His psychological ploy had worked to perfection. I think it was a risky thing to do. I never tried that idea myself. Don Zeiss, however, is exactly why I became determined to pursue a career in coaching, but not for the normal reasons.
I remember the exact moment like it was yesterday. I was senior in high school without a single career goal. My aunt and uncle, Gene and Virginia Else, were insisting I go to college. However, the only upside to higher learning that I could see was a military deferment. Who wanted to go to the jungles of Viet Nam at 18 years of age? It was then that Don Zeiss provided that fateful encounter that led me to 39 years of coaching.
It was toward the end of the season. The seniors were typically in charge of motivating banners that would be hung proudly from the walls of the Wilber-Clatonia gymnasium. In truth, I always volunteered for this duty because it got me out of study hall. If I ever got in trouble, it would be from my inactivity in study hall. You know what idle hands lead to, right?
A couple of my fellow seniors and I went to the teacher’s lounge where the paper and paint for the banners were stored. Things were a little different in 1968 than today. It was the home economic department’s job to provide sweets for the teacher’s lounge.
The home economics teacher had outdone herself on this particular day. Sitting on a table for all the teachers to see was a triple layered chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting thick as your thumb. The Wilber-Clatonia faculty did not hold me in high esteem so no one offered me a piece of this baking master piece.
About then, Coach Zeiss walked into the teacher’s lounge. He looked pretty haggard from four of five periods of History classes. As I look back on it, it was probably dealing with the basketball team that caused his disheveled appearance. Anyway, he cut a generous piece of triple-layered chocolate cake, poured himself a cup of hot coffee. Coach Zeiss carefully placed the food and drink within arms-length and plopped down, flat on his back on a comfortable looking couch that dominated the teacher’s lounge.
Coach Zeiss spent the next 50 minutes complaining about how tough his job was with the Wilber-Clatonia School District. He didn’t complain the whole 50 minutes, not speaking as he cleaned up his cake plate and drank a couple of cups of coffee and took a short nap.
My buddies and I were nearby, listening to all his ranting and raving. Coach Zeiss was probably using another psychological tactic to motivate the handful of players within ear shot of the coach in the teacher’s lounge. It didn’t help us play any better, but it did convince one seriously lazy high school student to choose coaching as his career path.
It was a light bulb came on right there in that teacher’s lounge. If high school coaching meant spending almost an hour eating, drinking and sleeping in the teacher’s lounge each and every day, then that was the profession for me.
That was the very moment I decided to coach. Nothing was going to get in my way. However, I had a few false impressions. The first was home economic teachers very seldom stock the teacher’s lounge with a single layer cake, let alone a triple layer cake. It also took me over 30 years to develop much of a taste for coffee. Thanks to Starbucks-type coffee, I’ve changed that attitude.
High school coaching was really difficult. You had to use your own car and your own gas to scout your opponents. I discovered it was tough on your career choice if a school board member’s kid didn’t play enough. School boards pressured administrators, who in turn pressured coaches, who in turn pressured players. It was a vicious circle.
I found out coaches have many sleepless nights, worrying your star player wouldn’t get caught with a beer in their hand or cigarette smoke streaming out of their car windows. Coaches have to make the choice to only play the talented players and win despite making many parents angry or playing everyone and losing and making the athletic director angry. Still, I have loved coaching for 39 years. I just wish I had found that triple-layered chocolate cake.