Reading about the termination of Illinois football coach and the search for a new coach brought back memories of my first year of coaching. I was hired as head basketball coach at Colusa High School. The school had won a total of three varsity games in the previous two years. Tradition was that since most of the players lived on the farm, practice was held during Physical Education time because the boys were need to help with the chores. I told those who wanted to play team basketball that practices would be held after school hours and not during P.E. No one showed up for the first practice. I called a meeting the following day at P.E time and told the boys “we practice after school or I cancel the season”. I guess the farm families got together because everyone showed up the next day for after school practice.
The captain of the team was a senior who was dating one of the cheerleaders who was the daughter of the School Superintendent. The tradition had been that if you were a junior and a starter last year, as a senior you would be you could expect to again be a starter. To shorten this story, near the close of the season, my starting lineup included a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors. We won five games. Three years later, Colusa High School won their first ever Hancock County Championship with the freshman a senior the star of the team. They never went back to practice during physical education. I was not asked back the following year because as one board member said “we didn’t like a stranger coming into our community and making changes”. (Each year I get invited back to their alumni reunion. This year I plan to go).
Fortunately I was playing that summer in the Bloomington-Normal Municipal baseball league were I played with a couple of kids from Heyworth who asked me to play on their team in the Sangamon Valley Sunday afternoon league.(We won the championship that year). The coach of this Sunday afternoon league was the principal of Heyworth High School, who later asked me if I would be interested in the head basketball coaching job at Heyworth as they wanted to make a coaching change. To shorten the story I became head coach of high school basketball and head coach of all grade school sports at Heyworth. My varsity team had 46 wins and 27 losses and my grade school teams won 27 trophies including a 2nd in the state. (Two years after I left Heyworth to coach at McLean-Waynesville, Heyworth won consecutive McLean County High School Championships). The sports editor of the Bloomington Pantagraph wrote that I was the most successful grade school coach in Central Illinois. One of my wins was over Armington (84 to 42) where Joe Stowell was head coach. Joe later became a successful head coach of Bradley University.
Now back to the Illinois football and a new head coach to be named shortly. One of the returning starters for next year is quoted as saying he once had a new high school coach who didn’t play any seniors and he was worried about his playing time next year under the new Illini coach. Not to worry, I say, just forget what year of school you are in and go out and “make” the team. Varsity sports are not intramural activities where everybody that shows up plays. The after school hours varsity sports programs should have a goal of using the best players who can win games. Sometimes the players, who start, are not the best individual players but the best team players. Team play is what counts. I’ve followed that practice all my life and it has worked and is working now. Freshman often times are starters. No one should come to practice thinking they have secured a starting spot on the varsity just because they played last year. I suggest this returning Illini football player had better work hard between now and next year and he probably won’t have to worry about a spot on the team. But he better adjust his attitude because Illinois has tolerated mediocrity in their football program for too long a time!!
That’s why I believe that people who have played sports under good coaches often turn out to be some of best leaders. There should be no seniority or tenure in sports or life. Bill Gates said in a speech on November 7, 2001 to some high school students “Your school may have done away with winners and losers but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they will give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life”. I suspect this returning football player will next year learn one of the best lessons of his entire college career.