Behind the Lines: A dozen orphans

I heard a disturbing term recently, a comedian was delivering his monologue on the biggest ide threats facing America today, and one of his top four was something he called the “trophy generation.” It’s an easy image to see in your mind’s eye, overzealous parents giving every kid in a competition an award, no matter how hard, or how little they contributed, everyone gets a ribbon. It is as woke as woke can be and while it’s not exactly a sign of the apocalypse, it is an annoying trend that will eventually bite society as a whole, just as we are now “benefiting” from the self-esteem movement of a generation ago. No, it’s not a benefit, just ask any teacher or coach.

I’m thankful that my career began when you could still teach, coach, and work with young adults in a setting that fit your skills, techniques, and areas of interest. That’s not the case in much of the educational world today. It’s no surprise that there are currently 800,000 unfilled teaching positions nationwide and that a recent survey indicated that 56% of active teachers were looking for careers outside the classroom. It’s not as bad in Wyoming, but there are still 42% of the teachers in our 48 school districts trying to find something else besides the constraints of the classroom.

The outside pressure from overzealous, snowplow parents and clueless politicians began after the Nation at Risk study was published during the Reagan administration, it only got worse when No Child Left Behind led to the insanity of constantly testing children to prove that teachers were doing something. Imagine if that extended to any other industry, the blowback would be tremendous.

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The “good ol’ days” had their share of parents trying to wedge extra playing time for their kids. I had one in my second year of teaching tell me he was calling Jerry Spence to sue me because his son had an F in my class and he couldn’t play football until his grade changed.

When I told him all Troy had to do was turn in his work and stop majoring in detention, he was furious. When I asked him if Spence needed my phone number or address, he stormed out. The funny thing was, that I was the kid’s position coach in football. You don’t get far when you’re flunking the coach’s class.

Troy played football at 150 pounds, but when wrestling rolled around his dad made him cut weight to wrestle 119, his goal was 112. The kid was so emaciated, with his hip bones and ribs poking out of his singlet that he looked like he was just liberated from a Japanese POW camp. He didn’t have a great season and didn’t place in the post-season. I’m not sure he ever graduated, but I am sure that now in his mid-50s he’s still blaming everyone else for his problems. It’s a lesson his old man taught him well, one of the few he learned.

These stories are why in my later basketball career I preferred team camp basketball to the actual winter season. In off-the-record talks, many active coaches share the same sentiment. In the summertime, it’s just you and your team, no parents, no administrators, just you and the kids playing other teams. Those fellow coaches on the other bench were friends of mine and the respect, and camaraderie extends between the coaching ranks today.

If you pay attention during June and early July you’ll find local teams playing each other regardless of classification. Riverton head coach Beau Sheets and Wind River head coach Justin Walker have their teams face off several times during the season. Open gyms are another opportunity for the boys and girls from Lander, Ethete, Riverton, and St. Stephen’s to square off and play a little ball, without coaches, referees, or adult supervision. It’s the best way to play, but it is quickly vanishing in the snowplow generation of constant parental supervision. Kids can’t be kids when they’re always being manipulated by someone trying to relive their careers through their children. It is sad to witness, and often heartbreaking when a dad who never amounted to much in his playing days is all over his son or daughter to make the big leagues.

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My teams played in Lander at a camp run by then Tiger head coach Jim Shafer a few times.

At the Lander camp we often tangled with Star Valley, Rock Springs, Lander, Worland and a few other much larger schools. For those that think a game, even a summer league game doesn’t get noticed we played the Tigers one afternoon, and trailed 51-49 with just three seconds left in the game.

I had a hot 3-point shooter in Chad Haggerty on that team. We set up a play for Chad to throw the ball into Jon Picard who kicked right back to Chad. It worked, Chad drained a 28-foot trey at the buzzer and we edged the Tigers 52-51. Jim told me he had parents complaining about losing to Shoshoni all summer.

We played in Douglas in a five-day affair with the coaches and players staying in the state fair dormitories. I arranged with my friend and fellow coach Alfred Redman to play in the big house at Ethete a few times with Big Piney, Pinedale, Thermopolis, and Worland, but my favorite came was at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado.

It was a long drive down to Rawlins, then over to Baggs before reaching I-70 and following the Colorado River into the Junction, but it was a fabulous experience.

We stayed in a campus dormitory with teams from Colorado, Utah, California, and New Mexico. The “Mighty Wranglers” were the smallest school there, playing the likes of Golden, Brush, Trinidad, Fruita Monument, Delta, and Las Animas, all schools with more boys in their freshman classes than we had students K-12 at Shoshoni. We didn’t care.

On my first trip, I coached the Wrangler JV while head coach Chuck Wells won the tournament with a perfect 11-0 record against their much larger schools. My JV went 7-4, wearing uniforms reminiscent of the teams Hickory played in the classic film “Hoosiers.”

I wrote earlier that coaches are friends, but there are always a few outliers in any situation. The guy coaching the Golden JV was the son of the head coach, and so cocky he was hard to like. He bragged about this incredible man offense he had all week. On Thursday we played his squad. I packed in a 2-3 zone, with a 2-2-1 half-court trap, and played deliberately on offense, only shooing after five passes or on a breakaway layup. We won 29-24, a low-scoring game no doubt, but a win.

He was fighting back tears when the game ended, “Why did you run a zone in team camp,” he mumbled.

“I believed you,” I said. “We just didn’t want to test that awesome man offense of yours.” We never spoke again.

We went back to Mesa two years later and had another outstanding week. They didn’t have a culminating tournament that year, but we did go 7-4 against those same Colorado 4A and 5A giants. The boys told me the kids from the other towns all wondered where Shoshoni was and if we were a conference game for Cheyenne East, Cheyenne Central, and Laramie. They didn’t believe it when the kids told them we had fewer than 100 kids in school.

Those summer camps remain a favorite, with my final one our second trip to Saratoga where we packed in five games a day for a three-day camp run by my friend Mike Nerland.

There is something to be said for what many coaches call a dream team, a squad of a dozen orphans.

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