Randy Tucker: The Heart of Competition

Guest Column:

In the heat of the moment

State tournament is as much about connections, reflections, and remembered competition from long ago as it is about watching the kids on the floor. Sometimes it seems impossible that time has passed so quickly.

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It’s easy to watch the youngsters on the court and marvel at their skill, strength, and stamina, but are they really that much better than players from previous generations? Americans revel in youth. Some sad old guys live in the past and refuse to accept the gray hair, wrinkles, and extra pounds that advancing age brings. I’m not in that mindset, most of my friends are not either. You accept the passage of time gracefully, but it doesn’t care if you don’t.

As a sportswriter, I’m blessed to get to know the kids of this county in their short progression through the ranks from middle school to their final game. I feel a connection to the coaches too.

When I coached, the officials weren’t nearly as accurate as they are today. They always let the other team get away with murder and nailed my kids for the slightest infraction. It’s amazing how they’ve changed for the better now that I’m not on the bench. (Insert sarcastic font)

In the heat of battle, the officials were just an impediment to my team. As a largely unbiased observer these days, I see that officials just call what they see, without malice or regard for one team over the other. They were that way when I coached my first game 40+ years ago, but testosterone, ego, and a competitive spirit wouldn’t let me see that.

I miss those days.

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It’s a question I’m asked fewer times each year as time passes, but I still hear it a dozen times or so as one season merges into the next. “Do you miss coaching?”

I’d like to categorically say that yes, I miss it immensely, but that’s not entirely true.

I don’t miss meddling parents. They still often approach me to mindlessly attack, and attempt to destroy good programs because their son or daughter isn’t getting the playing time, or awards these parents seek to satisfy their own egos. They never leave happy after speaking with me. I defend the coaches to the nth degree and won’t accept any self centered, self aggrandizing attempts to get their child in a position that their skill level doesn’t deserve.

I don’t miss administrators who defend these overzealous parents. Administrators who would not hesitate to destroy a good coach’s career to get some maniacal mom or dad off their back.

What I do miss is the magic of relationships, teaching, and competition.

I’ve had the honor to take hundreds of kids from their awkward 13-year old selves to outstanding high school careers, and a few that have gone on to collegiate competition. I miss those days of teaching youngsters a crossover move, with a drop step, teaching them who to block out, and how to win and lose with dignity.

I miss teaching a clumsy seventh grader how to snap up their chinstrap, how to get into a stance correctly, line up correctly and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

But I really miss those intense moments when it’s just you and your team, in a hostile foreign gym with hundreds, or maybe thousands of screaming fans doing their best to beat you. When those moments come, it’s worth all the early morning sessions, all those hot days in August, those subzero drives to work in darkness both ways in January, and those endless practices where you wonder if the kids are ever going to catch on and whether you have the skills to reach them.

I watched Lander girls head coach Serol Stauffenberg work with his team in the final moments of two games that didn’t come out the way the Lady Tigers wanted. He put his girls in a position to win, that’s all you can do as a coach, give your kids the chance to pull the string and win the game.

I watched Justin Walker do it with the Wind River boys in a semi-final game against Big Horn too. The focus of the kids was riveting. You don’t find many places in schools these days with that level of concentration among teenagers. They both lost, but the effort was a valiant one.

I miss those days. Yes, I’d like to win them all, but as Chet said to his partner Monte in the western classic, Monte Walsh. “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.”

No one gets to be a coach forever either.

I think back to the guys that coached those memorable games against my team. Ralph Winland, Alfred Redman, Ernie Mecca, Steve Olson, and Ben Smith, all guys like myself who would do anything within the rules to win. Those years of battling on the hardwood were our salad days.  We are all grandfathers now and look at life differently. But somewhere deep inside, the fire of competition still burns.

Do I miss it? Of course, I do. The essence of coaching isn’t blowing out the other team, it’s a tie game with six seconds left and you have the ball, it’s putting your best player in a position to win the game, and letting them do it.

It remains all about the kids. But we can still enjoy the action.

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