Bill Little commentary: Coaches coaching coaches
March 3, 2011
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
When Mack Brown walks out of his office during the next several days, he will be venturing into a time capsule, both from the past and destined for the future. It is one of the very special weekends of the year for him.
That is because Thursday, the 14th Annual Texas Longhorns High School Football Clinic begins, with over 400 high school coaches spending the better part of three days working and listening. The weekend also marks the first of two consecutive pilgrimages to Austin by high school teams, fans, and a plethora of coaches for the UIL State Girls and Boys basketball tournaments.
There are times in life when we function because of duty, and there are times when we function because of roots. The latter is the case for Mack when it comes to high school coaches. His story began, of course, as a youngster dressed in his tiny letter jacket, seated on the front seat riding a yellow school bus to the games of Putnam County High School, where his granddad, Eddie “Jelly” Watson, was the head football coach. It includes the heritage of Watson, who became the winningest high school coach in middle Tennessee. Mack’s dad also coached, and one of his role models growing up was his high school coach, Bucky Pitts. So the legacy, and the commitment to the profession, run deep.
I was reminded of all of this when I had a chance last fall to attend my Winters High School class reunion, and got to see W. T. Stapler, who was our high school coach. Stapler went on to become a legend in the high school ranks in Texas, and still watches as much football as he can, because he misses the game.
The trip also brought back memories of small town life, and it was good to see a new gymnasium—a multi-purpose facility—replacing what we knew as the “New Gym.” That one was built in 1954.
But as I sat with Coach Stapler (you never grow out of that title of respect) in the spruced-up football stadium and toured the new sports complex, I couldn’t help but think of what W. T. Stapler and Freddie Gardner had meant. In a way, this is the beginning of two weeks of tribute to folks like them.
The Mack Brown Clinic this year is particularly exciting, because it will feature the new Longhorn assistant coaches, as well as programs and a panel featuring state champions and currently successful high school coaches.
They, as well as W. T. and Freddie, represent what is good about sport—and they represent their fellow teachers at a time when frightening budget cuts threaten the fiber of our schools. That is because teachers teach, and coaches coach—not for the money or the fame—but because they care.
They are there, in the classroom and in the arena, to challenge young people to think…to solve problems…to achieve great things. Mack’s respect for high school coaches comes from his understanding that they, more than coaches at any level, labor with what they have. Where college coaches recruit and pro coaches draft, the high school coach gathers the young people of their community and proceeds to form a team.
W. T. Stapler was young when he coached in Winters—it was his first job. And I can’t remember the number of games that we won, but it wasn’t very many. I do remember that we mattered to him, and from his trek back to the old school fifty years later, we obviously still do.
Freddie Gardner mattered for the same reasons, although Freddie’s teams were actually more successful. What Freddie taught was about life. On Sundays, Freddie would sit about midway back at the edge of a pew at the Church of Christ, and the rest of Freddie’s life was about the kids and the sport. Her kids. Her sport. Freddie Gardner was the women’s basketball coach.
I caught up with Jody Conradt this week and asked her why, in small towns in Texas, the W. T. Staplers and the Freddie Gardners mattered.
“Because,” she said, “more than anything a young person can do, sport teaches life skills. It teaches you how to win and how to lose, how to interact with teammates, and how to carry yourself with class - win or lose. It teaches you the value of commitment, the importance of intensity, and the value of seeing things all the way through.“
I think what Jody said was, never give up.
When the high school coaches come, with their brightly colored warm-up suits, logo shirts and varied caps, they bring all of that to a common area to learn, to teach, and to exchange ideas.
At a time when the teaching profession is under a huge microscope, they come with a desire to learn, so that they can go back and help young people.
I am reminded of a moment almost 20 years ago now when we held a “Symposium on the Integrity of Sport” here in the spring of 1994. The University had invited journalists, professors, and a myriad of others to be a part of a panel discussing sports as we headed into The University’s second century of athletics competition.
One of the invitees was H. G. Bissinger, who had become famous for writing one book—the highly critical “Friday Night Lights”, where he assailed sports in general, and Texas high school football in particular. That book remains his greatest claim to fame.
Bissinger that day was seated at one end of the long table of panelists stretching across the LBJ Auditorium. He had seized the moment to rail against the evils of sport, and he was carrying on about the over emphasis of sport. That was when, from the other end of the table, the cavalry arrived. Or, better said, the “Voice of God” spoke. Barbara Jordan, the former congresswoman who had returned to teach at the LBJ School and had become an unabashed fan of Texas athletics, had heard enough. She slammed her hand down on the table, and the room stopped.
"Why does sport matter so much?" she boomed.
"It matters because sport is vital, it is viable, it is basic, and it is essential. Sport is not a frivolous distraction as one may first, without thinking, believe. Sport is an equal-opportunity teacher. It is a non-partisan event. It is universal in its application.
"I see sport as an antidote to some of the balkanization that we see occurring in our society; everybody wanting their own private little piece of turf; an absolute abandonment of any sense of common purpose, of common good. It is almost a cliché to say there is no “I” in the word “team.” If you are so focused on self, you cannot have any awareness of the common good.
"Another reason why I believe sport is essential is self-esteem. In order to be a contributor to American life, each individual needs to have a high regard for himself or herself first. Sport can do that. If you get out there and you have never been recognized for anything before in your life, if you show some capability, some particular tilt and talent for a sport, it gives you self-esteem.
"I believe that sport can teach lessons in ethics and values for our society. It is attractive to the young, and how many times have we heard someone despair over the plight of our young people. If you give them something to engage their energies, you would see that it might be something which lures them into the community of mankind and womankind."
I figure Bissinger must duck every time he flies into Austin and walks by the statue in the Barbara Jordan Terminal.
Coaches, however, do not duck. They do what they do, work with what they have, and believe that through their sport, they can make a difference for young people. It is what they do. Teachers teach. Coaches coach. Because they care.