By Bernie Saggau
I truly wish I had the ability to write in a very elegant manner. I do not possess that ability, nor do I claim to have the ability. So if you want to be critical of this article and the way it is written, that is okay. I was asked by a friend to make some comments with regard to the following subject: The coach must be aware that he/she has a tremendous influence, either good or bad, in the education of a student- athlete, and thus shall never place the values of winning above the value of instilling the highest desirable ideals of character. That title is a great article in itself. It says it all.
We have a very peculiar thing in athletics. We give plaques and trophies to the winning coaches, and we should. We should recognize excellence when it takes place. What that means is the coach had athletes whom they coached who were good enough to win the award for the coach. I think those of us who have been around a long time recognize there are good coaches and there are average coaches. You can take an average coach with above-average material, and he/she will sometimes be described as a good coach because of the winning. The reverse of that is you can take a good coach with below-average talent and he/she will not win any state championships.
Let’s forget about the winning for just a moment. I don’t think any high school coach’s contract calls for a $100,000, $200,000 or $300,000 shoe contract. High school coaches will not get $50,000 if they qualify to the state meet, and if they win the first round, they will not get another $50,000; they don’t get a contract for $100,000 for giving 20 speeches. That is a business, and we are not going to talk about that kind of business. Let’s talk about the influence the coaches have on high school students.
Realize we are going to talk about 90 percent of the coaches and not spend too much time worrying about the other 10 percent. That 10 percent, many times, are good people, but the way they handle kids and the values they teach are not part of the 90 percent, so let’s just forget about them. I want us to think about the 90 percent who make the real difference in kids’ lives. These coaches who do it for the love of competition, for the love of kids and for the love of the sport don’t have to be too sharp mathematically to take the number of hours they work and divide that into what they are being paid for coaching to find out just how much their are being paid. So they really do it for the love of working with kids. Half the coaches would do it for nothing. That is what most people never understand, not even some of the coaches.
There are a lot of fine people who coach youngsters outside the school environment. Some are good; some are bad. Most of them don’t get paid for working with kids, but do it for the love, the ego and the need to fulfill their mission. Coaches, many of the kids you coach, some day will give time and talent to coach Little League, etc. So remember, coaches, you are responsible for the 90 percent of good future coaches who will be coaching somewhere, sometime and someplace.
Outside of parents you have more influence on kids than perhaps anyone else in their lives. I know your contract doesn’t call for that, but that is the way it works. Many times you will have more influence than the parents because some parents are too busy to teach character, ethics and values for one reason or another. Many times it might be a one-parent family; it might be a family who is having all kinds of problems and for one reason or another, they do not have the tool that you have to do this teaching – which is athletics. They may have a son or daughter who has a drug problem. They may have a husband who is an alcoholic. They may have someone in their family who has a bad illness. So remember: we get the youngster, and the environment we create – not the environment they come from but the environment we create – gives us a tremendous advantage to influence these young people’s lives with positive attitudes and to help them understand that problems are nothing more than excuses to learn to become better.
The greatest reward you will receive is not your paycheck, but the fact you turned out young men and women who have character and know the meaning of ethics and integrity. If we would ask student- athletes to write down their expectations of you, they would say to teach them to be better players, better shooters, better runners, better kickers. I doubt if any of them would ever write down the real reason we want them out for athletics, and that is to build character, honesty, trustworthiness, and the values of discipline, dedication, desire, determination, courage, loyalty, teamwork, dignity and pride. They would never write any of those values down. Some people say, “We don’t want you coaching our sons and daughters those values.” I will tell you what – I don’t think you can be a good coach and not teach those values. You may never mention those words, but they all take place under a coach who cares abut kids.
I have wondered what would happen to a team that thought it was great for their coach to cheat so they could get into the playoffs or win a game. At the moment the desire to win may seem great, but later on there has to be a sick feeling in their hearts because he/she who cheats to win would also cheat other youngsters.
One of the great things I experienced as it relates to coaches and my work in the athletic association office that has driven home a point to me many times happened many years ago when the athletic association used to have a summer camp for coaches. It wasn’t too fancy, but we did bring in the best talent in the country, and at that time it didn’t cost the coaches anything to attend. We brought in the great John Wooden. I have heard him many times, but that was my first time. We had over 400 basketball coaches on metal chairs in a little, old building. John walked in, and two young, first-year coaches came into the back of the room – late – with brand new clipboards. I immediately found a couple of chairs for them, and they sat in the back of the room and listened as Wooden began his talk. He went from l0 a.m. to 12 noon and did not once mention anything about the press, zone or man-to-man. He didn’t draw any Xs or Os, but he talked about character. He talked about expectations that he wanted these young men to have when he was through coaching them. He also put down expectations for the players: their dedication and their loyalty. He covered the waterfront, and the coaches were spellbound. Those of you who have heard him talk know what I mean. Finally, at 12 noon everyone was still spellbound. Wooden stopped and said, “It is time for lunch. At 1:30 I will be back.” Everyone got up and started buzzing like all coaches do when you have heard something good. I was standing next to the two young coaches who were sitting in the back of the room. When everyone was leaving, one coach said to the other, “I hope this afternoon he tells us how he wins.” You see, they had gone through college thinking success is Xs and Os and all those other things. They had missed the boat. What a shame. Hopefully some “old coach” came along and explained to those young coaches the real reason why they coach, and they didn’t have to wait five or six years before they realized it. I would not give you a plug nickel for a coach who didn’t teach kids to want to win. Wanting to win is the most important ingredient in athletics. It is not the winning that is important, but the wanting to win within the rules, not only the game rules, but the training rules and the rules of good sportsmanship and citizenship with a good attitude.
Coaches, we arc finding out now more then ever before that young people want structure. We have gone the opposite direction except in athletics. They come to practice and know exactly what you are going to do. They know exactly what you expect, and everyone comes with a positive attitude, because you see you can’t influence kids with a negative attitude – it has to be positive.
I had a seventh-grade football coach who is still alive today. His name is Coach Clarence LuVoss. One night we were going to play a football game under the lights. It was the only time we had the opportunity as junior high students to play under the lights – once a year. With all our family and friends there, everyone was excited (and when I say everyone we are probably only talking 350 people, but to a seventh-grade boy that was a lot of people). We were just about ready to start to play and Coach called us all together, and one of my teammates said, “Coach, should we pray?” It kind of startled us because we had never been involved with prayer at a game before. He said, “Please bow your heads,” and he said, “Oh God, let these young men learn something tonight that will make them better men tomorrow!” What a powerful message.
Today in school we cannot use the word God, but I think you could say part of your philosophy is to let these young people learn something today that will make them better human beings tomorrow. To be a better human being you don’t teach cheating, you don’t teach excuses, you don’t teach profanity, you don’t teach violence. You teach kids dignity. You never destroy dignity and self-esteem in a youngster. You teach character. You teach ethics. I am more convinced than ever before in my life that what you coach reflects the kind of person the athlete will be. You are a “role model” That is your most important job in being a coach. Your contract does not call for this and you will never be given trophies or awards for it. You will get back hundreds of times over the real reason you coach from the kids, and the word “coach” will mean something good, honest and pure.
I have taken that message through all my life, and at any high school or college game I ever played or worked. That was the last thing I ever said to myself because I had a coach who believed it. I trusted Coach LuVoss because he was my coach. I believed him. He was a great role model.
As we all grow older most everything we want we can buy or earn, but are can’t buy character. We can’t buy integrity. It is not for sale. No one tells you what it is. You have it or you don’t have it. You earn it, and you don’t write it down on a piece of paper and say, “This is what I do.” Kids who are athletes learn it from their music (coach) teacher, their debate (coach) teacher, their English (coach) teacher, their chemistry (coach) teacher; all good educators are coaches. The students have to learn it someplace. We have too many holes in the net. Too many kids are falling through who never have a chance to really find out what character is all about. You, the 90 percent, I don’t think you will ever realize how important you are until you have kids of your own. Then you will realize how important it is to be the kind of people you are.
I have said many times at athletic banquets, when you call someone “coach,” it doesn’t come from the voice box. It comes from a little bit lower; it is in the heart. If you truly teach character and you make young men and women fierce competitors, do it always within the rules. Let them know that failure is an opportunity to do better tomorrow; let them know it is not life and death to play a game. It is a learning situation. If you always make it hard work, but fun, these same young people will go forth in life, find jobs and have the same fun they had in athletics, even though it may mean to some people working extremely hard. To the individual, the love of the game, the love of the occupation, is worth the price. People ask the question, “How do you learn this?” Well, I have to answer you, there is no textbook that has ever been written that teaches it.
Coaches, don’t stop coaching when the game is over. Let me give you a couple of examples. Not many years ago, we were playing our championship football game indoors. With three seconds left on the clock, a team called time-out. The ball was on the 10-yard line. They brought in the field-goal kicker. If he makes it, they are state champions. If he misses, they are runner-up. He kicked, and it was extremely close. The official waved it off. The crowd of 15,000 people was stunned. All of a sudden, the losing coach came running out onto the field. Many people thought he was going after the official, but he didn’t. He ran to the kicker, shook his hand, hugged him, and continued around to each player, shaking their hand, tapping them on their helmet, hugging the seniors. That is what we call a “teachable moment.” That coach could coach my son or daughter any time he wanted to.
The opposite took place at our basketball tournament. We had one of our 90 percent coaches, a great guy with a lot of enthusiasm. He got into the championship game; he coached the whole game, really into the game. He shouted to his players. You could tell they believed in him; he had control. They eventually got beat, and as they stood there when the trophies were being presented, they all stood with their heads bowed, towels around their necks. I looked down at my friend, and he had quit coaching. He was standing with his head down. I would have given anything if he would have walked over and slapped a couple of those seniors on the rear, put his arm around them, hugged them. If we are disappointed, can you imagine how the kids feel after a game? I really hope some day he will be back at the state tournament. If he doesn’t win the championship, I hope he will take advantage of a teachable moment that he missed the first time.
Coaches, isn’t it interesting? I have continuously talked about teachable moments and expectations. Coaches, the rest of the educational field is trying to catch up with us. We had expectations when I was a boy, and we had teachable moments. My junior high coach proves that. I can honestly say that I had four or five coaches who truly made a difference in my life. They taught me all the things I mentioned in this article. As a matter of fact, they reinforced all the things my mom and dad tried to teach me. They were trying to teach the boy pride so someday he would raise his children with the same type of character. All these things I have said can be summed up simply by saying I don’t believe there is a greater thrill than to have some young man or woman come up with their family and say, “This was/is my coach.” They will shake your hand and sometimes put their arms around you. When that happens, the championship trophies and all the awards that come with winning are not too important, for you will know in your heart you made a difference, and that is why you are called Coach.
(Reprinted from the Summer 2000 issue of NFHS Coaches’ Quarterly)
About the Author: Bernie Saggau was executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association from 1967 to 2005. He was an innovative leader in the area of sportsmanship, ethics and integrity through his position with the IHSAA. Saggau is a member of the National High School Hall of Fame.