Behind the Lines – Crossroads

It was a late morning, early afternoon practice each Sunday during my tenure as a head basketball coach. I’d review game tapes downstairs on the VCR attached to our huge, tube-style Zenith television. Many times I fell asleep on those long winter afternoons reviewing the games, taking notes, and keeping statistics on my players.

Often it was fun, but just as often it was frustrating. It was continuing frustration during my final season as the head coach of the Shoshoni Wranglers when we posted a perfect season, zero wins, 18 losses.

Of those losses, we were hammered the first 10 games of the season, but by the midpoint and at the regional tournament we led most of those games, even losing a couple in overtime. The breaks just never went in our favor that year.

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One Sunday afternoon I came upstairs after reviewing the latest last-second mistakes that cost us another game and let this little gem fly to my wife Sue, “Losing is worse than dying,” I said. “When you’re dead you don’t have to wake up.”

Sue wasn’t pleased, and it was one of the big factors in ending my head basketball coaching career later that spring.

While this was a season-ending, and ultimately a career-ending crossroads there are many smaller junctures in the life of a coach and his or her team that quantifies a team, a season, and a program.

No matter how mismatched your team may be against a heavily favored opponent, there still burns a little competitive fire in every coach and player. Just maybe, we’ll be the ones that knock these guys off you think. You don’t say it out loud, but in your competitive heart the will to win stays alive, no matter the odds.

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When the time comes, as it usually does to accept defeat, that fire still rages, but it’s been squashed by reality.

In a similar sentiment, I was offered the head coaching job at Windsor, Colorado back in the 1990s. The Windsor Wizards were a storied small school program in Weld County, a team that won a national championship tournament back in the 1920s and that had fielded competitive basketball teams for a long time.

The Wizards had fallen on hard times, going through a series of coaches, which led my late friend Harold Bailey to call an acquaintance of his who was the athletic director at Windsor and get him to contact me about the position.

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I dutifully filled out the usual teaching/coaching application. What are your strengths, weaknesses, areas to improve, etc.… the same old stuff everyone answers.

I wasn’t that excited about moving to Colorado where I’d have taken a pay cut on an already ridiculously low salary, so I had a little fun with the application.

Under the question, “What is your best attribute as a coach?” I penned this slightly cynical, slightly sarcastic comment. “I can occasionally make chicken salad out of chicken manure (only I didn’t write manure)”

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The superintendent and principal weren’t impressed by that comment, but soon after I arrived at Windsor High School I heard the AD coming down the hall exclaiming loudly, “Is that chicken salad guy here yet?”

I was offered the head basketball job, with my choice of assistant baseball or assistant track, and a head junior high football position with six periods of pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and Algebra II for $3800 less a year than I was getting at Shoshoni. I turned it down obviously.

That job offer was a crossroads, just like a perfect season on the loss side, or a season ending with a net around the trophy after a state tournament championship is when coaching. I’ve experienced all three, and it’s no surprise a championship trumps the other two.

Other crossroads happen in every single game you play or coach. Those in the stands don’t feel it, they’re just observers, and no matter how emphatic they are about the game, they are only spectators, they’re not on stage, not in the belly of the beast of competition. They’re standing outside the fire, the fire of competition that can consume you if you’re not careful.

People sometimes ask if it’s better to get blown out in a game or to lose one in the last seconds. The answer is yes and no, the blowout is painful, it’s apparent your team wasn’t ready to compete, and it can affect a team dramatically in a bad way if you mishandle the defeat.

A close loss is a kick in the stomach, a situation I commonly refer to as “shoulda, woulda, coulda…” In short, if you could change just one possession, one shot, one inbound play or one defensive series your team wins the game.

No matter which style of loss you find yourself in, it’s still a loss, and in the midst of each game there comes a time when no matter what you do, what you say, what strategy you try, or who the kids are that you put on the floor, you’re still going to lose.

In a blowout that can happen as early as the jump ball that starts the game. In a close contest, it comes down to the drama of the final possession.

Either way, the moment arrives when you know you’re not going to win. If there was a minute or two remaining when this crossroads arrived and I had a timeout left, I’d use it one final time.

My final instructions to the boys in that final timeout were always along these lines, “Well fellas, we’re beat. There are two ways we can end this. You can roll over and show them your belly, or you can scratch, claw, fight and play hard until the final buzzer. What’s it going to be?”  The good ones fought to the end no matter the score.

One night during that perfect 0-18 season we traveled to Ethete to play my friend Alfred Redman and his talented Chiefs. We played well in the big gym that now bears Alfred’s name, but we were still trailing by almost 30 points.

With a couple of minutes left to play, the Chiefs were up on us 91-65. Wyoming Indian loves to hit the century mark, especially on their home scoreboard. I wasn’t having any of it. We trailed by 26, but I put my boys in a delay game, and the Chiefs only scored one more basket.

It’s a source of pride that no team I ever coached had 100 points scored on it and I sure wasn’t going to let my buddy Alfred be the first one to do that.

Sure, we lost by almost 30 points, and as we shook hands after the game, Alfred just grinned at me and said, “You weren’t going to let me get a hundred were you?”

Nope, I wasn’t.

Some of the parents, those sitting outside the fire, whined that we weren’t even trying to win at the end. We were, they just didn’t know the game we were playing. The game that night was pride, and we won that battle even if we lost the game.

Crossroads come to us in every aspect of life. How we handle them and how we teach youngsters to face them makes all the difference in our lives and theirs as well.

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