(March 16) The death last week of my old high-school cross country coach reminded me just how much of a lasting difference coaches can make in our lives.

A coach who is a bad fit for a player, at a bad time, can do real harm. A good coach can do even more to vastly improve the lives of his students in ways that resonate many decades later.

One of the latter coaches was Richard Wood, who came to Isidore Newman High School in New Orleans in the fall of 1978 to coach track and cross country and assist in football. I was a freshman and new at Newman, feeling like a peon after having enjoyed the previous year feeling as if I all but owned my elementary school, Trinity Episcopal, which I had attended for ten years. Amid my unaccustomed peon-hood, Coach Wood’s cross-country team was the first group to make me feel at home.

Just last month, having no idea Coach Wood was ill, I was trading stories with an acquaintance in which I told of that freshman year of cross country as being still, all these years later, one of my favorite and most important memories.

Coach Wood wasn’t perfect. He sometimes had such an air of distraction that, riffing from the David Bowie song, we started singing “Ground Control to Coach Rick-Wood.” Like so many coaches, he did things that drove us crazy or made us laugh (or both), such as giving seemingly contradictory instructions. To the better runners, he would load them up just before race-time with instructions such as “go out fast early on,” “try to stay on Dubroc’s heels,” and “pick up the pace at the one-mile mark,” only to immediately follow by saying “and remember, run your own race!” (What if “our” race was to go out slow, don’t worry about Dubroc, and then wait for the final mile to turn on the jets?)

Or, mid-race, as we ran past him, he’d yell encouragement: “Good job, now bear down, go faster, run harder, you can do it now, relax!” (Were we supposed to bear down, or to relax? High school students aren’t Zen enough to do both!)

Still, although he often baffled us and always challenged us relentlessly, he could not hide that he was an essentially kind man, truly caring about his pupils.

Coach Wood coached both the boys and girls teams. We all did warm-up jogs and stretching together before we split up by gender for different workouts. We became a very close-knit group, boys and girls together, and we did well. By the time the state championship rolled around, our girls looked ready to finish fifth or fourth in our mid-sized school classification in Louisiana, with a possible reach for third. We boys were thought likely to finish fourth or third, with a not-unreasonable chance at second.

And I, as a freshman, barely made the team’s top seven runners, meaning I would participate in the state meet, but wasn’t likely to count in the team’s actual score, which only encompassed results from each school’s top five finishers. My self-appointed job was to be the silly freshman who kept everybody loose by insisting in goofy ways, against all evidence, that we could actually win the whole darn competition.

All classifications of schools, both boys and girls, ran their state meets at the same place, the LSU golf course, on the same day, one race right after another. Just as our girls took the starting line, an expected cold front moved in as fast as you’ve ever felt it. The temperature, already uncomfortably chilly, literally dropped nearly 20 degrees in 20 minutes, and by the time the race was half over there was a driving rain as well.

Somehow, our girls beat all the odds and finished not fifth or fourth or third, but second. It was as if an electric charge went through us. If our girls could so exceed expectations, maybe we could, too!

This is where Coach Wood showed his mettle. As conditions worsened, he made us warm up while wearing extremely bulky, space-suit-like gear that kept our muscles loose. As other teams froze and grumbled about the drenching cold, he wouldn’t let us remove the suits until about 30 seconds before race time, leaving us barely enough time to become unencumbered – but still toastily warm – before the gun sounded. He sent us off with a laconically understated, but eerily confident, single sentence: “Okay, fellas, let’s win this thing.”

Meanwhile, he had stationed the girls, some junior varsity runners who had made the trip, and a parent or two, all in pairs – two each at strategic, remote points of the course, to cheer us on at just the spots where we were likely to be wearing down from the cold, the rain, and the churned-up mud through which we were slogging.

Whatever the alchemy was between training, space suits, strategic fan positioning, and psychology, it worked. By a tiny 4-point margin, we did indeed “win this thing.” In a rather large upset, we were state champions.

Yes, dadgum it, we won State!

And Coach Wood, wearing a distracted smile, just kept nodding and saying somewhat under his breath “Good job, boys, good job.”

A good coach, a wonderful coach, can teach kids how to believe in themselves, how to work together, how to care for each other, how to exceed their own expectations, and how to enjoy the striving and the challenges for their own sakes. That’s what Coach Wood did for us. That’s what so many great coaches have done since time immemorial, bringing out the best from those in their charge.

Not all coaches are great ones, and many aren’t even good. But those who are among the excellent ones, those like Richard Wood, are tremendous blessings to us all. I for one am grateful that Coach Wood ran his own race in ways that we could share.

[That, above, is the full column. A slightly different version, but only slightly, ran here.]




Tags: , , , ,