A Genuinely Great Coach

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Shock, anger, frustration, disgust, and disillusionment. These are just a handful of the reactions in the wake of the stunning child abuse scandal at Penn State University, a scandal that has irreparably harmed many innocent victims and tarnished a football program long respected for its tradition of hard work, sportsmanship and fair play. Legendary coach Joe Paterno was peremptorily dismissed. It may be premature to draw final conclusions on his culpability, but one is reminded of Warren Buffett's famous observation that "it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Much of our cognitive dissonance in the Penn State tragedy is tied to our disbelief that a program and coach shrouded in glory and admiration could be tarnished. Our faith in human nature is jolted.

However, I have not come to throw more kerosene on a media firestorm, but to explain how I found some solace in the life lessons from a real, yet now obscure, coaching legend, Oswin ("Ozzie") Wadewitz. Ozzie recently passed away at the age of 88, over forty years removed from his fame in Georgia high school basketball circles. The two high schools where he enjoyed his greatest success no longer exist; his death notice was tersely buried in the October 18th, 2011 issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But, his accomplishments were no less real and certainly not forgotten for the former players who packed his memorial service to pay homage to this cerebral, wise, and compassionate man from the hardscrabble town of Slinger, Wisconsin. Coach O's game demeanor was Wooden-like — cool and collected, not fire and brimstone. Games were the canvas to celebrate and enjoy the physical and mental preparation that took place in practice. His teams always played smart and never played scared. His litany of success was impressive: back-to-back state titles for Sylvan High in the early 60s, nearly another one several years later when he was at the helm of Northside High and a host of his star players progressing to the next level at vaunted collegiate programs, including Auburn, Louisville, Davidson, and the University of North Carolina. Coaching success ran deep in his blood. His younger brother Richard steered his Wisconsin high school team to a state title the same year as Ozzie, an unprecedented coaching daily double.

Wins and losses, xs and os are never the measure of the man, however. Far from it. Ozzie's legacy shone through in so many other ways, many recollected in a flurry of emails and phone calls after his decease.

Perseverance. A former star forward remembers Ozzie's insistence on his daily several mile run regardless of how harsh the weather was. On one particularly raw, windy and sleety day fit for only Iditarod sled dogs, Ozzie donned his faded sweats and ratty purple sweatshirt to head outside into the miserable conditions. "Coach, you never make the PE classes run in this kind of weather, why do you run when it is like this?" "Vickers, I have learned that if you let some thing stop you, you will eventually let any thing stop you", as he silently turned and trudged out to the track.

Respect. Pregame prayers never asked that we win but that we play with character and sportsmanship on the floor. Suicides were always run if anyone cursed in practice. If we couldn't show self control and discipline in practice, we had no chance of being poised in the heat of a closely contested game. Archrival Coach CC Jones of Carver High, the preeminent African American program at a time when Georgia high schools were segregated, noted that Ozzie's building was the only one where his team never traveled in fear as Ozzie had a zero tolerance policy at a time when racial taunting was the norm. He must have intuited Pope's dictum that "To err is human, to forgive is divine" as no one can recall him attributing a loss to poor refereeing or immediately benching someone for an errant pass or poor shot selection. Shortly after cuts were made in our first season in varsity, Coach O, already esteemed as a master strategist, comes into our first skull session and catches us totally off guard with the following admission, "We will start out doing things my way. I don't have a monopoly on good ideas. But I have been doing this for longer than you have, and we have to start somewhere. So we will do it my way. If you have a better idea on how to do something, tell me about it when we have time to think. And if your way is better than mine, we will try it." Sure enough, in the closing minutes of a closely contested game, Coach O, on the suggestion of our star guard, switches to a defensive scheme that forces a turnover and preserves the victory. He was still the chess master and we were still his pieces, but he taught us that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Intellectual humility is the foundation of intellectual progress.

Self-control. No one can recall him losing his cool or uttering a profanity, even under his breath, and high school boys certainly could test the limits of his self control. He worked tirelessly to instill such self-control in us, particularly when it came to complaining about referees' calls. One player on our team was our designated moaner. So Coach O made him start refereeing our scrimmages to appreciate the difficulty of calling fouls. When that ploy didn't work, he then made the player run a few laps every time he complained in practice. Stymied again, the punishment escalated to having the whole team run sprints each time the offender complained. After a couple of sprints, our team's enforcer said there will no longer be any talking to the refs. Pretty soon, we were all model citizens on the court. Coach O's policy of graduated persuasion and consensus building had made a lasting impact. Perhaps, his finest display of self-control and poise occurred after a hard fought road victory played at a hostile site. Opposing fans rocked our bus as it was pulling out with one causing a serious head wound to one of our cheerleaders. The bus was pandemonium and terror. Coach O stood up and in calm but stern voice told the driver to "Drive." The bus driver hesitated, Coach O raised his voice and said "I have done the head count and we are all here, DRIVE!" "I will go to Grady Hospital," the driver said. "No, Coach O said, "we might have to wait there all night, go to Crawford Long." And with that, he calmly went back to check on the cheerleader and the rest of the squad. Shards of glass were everywhere, and the team was stunned. He took charge, never swore or said anything derogatory about the opposing team or its fans. He just knew what to do and had calmly prepared for every contingency.

Humor. Coach O had a wry sense of humor beneath his sober exterior of Christian piety. Once he wanted to switch practice time over the Christmas holidays so he started calling all his players at home (we were not cursed with email or Facebook in those days). A number of boys were not reachable and were all at the house of our starlet cheerleader, Harriet. When we somehow all showed up at practice at varying times, he smirked and said "I have learned that when you kids are not with Ozzie, you are with Harriet."

Love. Above all, Ozzie instilled in his players a love of the game and a love of team. Nearly forty years later the bond among my former teammates remains as strong and as unbroken ever. Ozzie forged those bonds. We will never forget you. Legends do exist. You just have to search hard to find them.

Steve Berger resides in Hingham and was the assistant girls' varsity basketball coach at Hingham High during the 2010-11 season. He was ably assisted in this article by former team member and keeper of the flame, Vickers Chambless.

Steve Berger [send him mail] manages a hedge fund in Massachusetts.

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