In a culture of discontent across the country, with coaches who either lose, or win, or win the wrong way, it signals yet another sign of an apocalypse at hand with amateur sports.
As if there weren’t enough things to worry about, on the threshold of another high school sports season, ushered in by another high school football season, consider:
1) The annual question of how some under-funded districts can even afford to play football – and whether ‘pay-to-play’ is the answer, or even appropriate.
2) The annual question of how tax payers can, and should, see the value of helmets and shoulder pads as an integral complement to reading, writing, and arithmetic.
3) Or, the annual question (in this day) of how safe is football, given recent statistics on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and the sudden retirement last week of 26-year-old all-pro lineman John Urschel from the Baltimore Ravens. Urschel quit, saying he plans to pursue a doctorate degree at MIT in mathematics and a post-football career in applied mathematics and physics.
And now…the increasingly-publicized question of communities and districts bringing coaches under fire for winning, or winning the “wrong” way. That is, successful coaches whose personalities and decisions regarding how they handle personnel fall short of the cultural demand for a kinder, gentler way.
In particular, the recent case of Ft. Loramie baseball coach Bill Sturwold, who two weeks ago sat on the hot seat at a district board meeting while community members took turns either supporting him…or suggesting that his ways were too demanding, and even humiliating, as it was written in the Sidney paper.
Sturwold is a popular, and somewhat polarizing, figure in Loramie for his 200 career wins, 10 district titles, and a pair of Division IV state titles in 2007 and 2010. They like to win in Ft. Loramie, sure enough, but like so many other districts across the state, there is now the question among some of winning at what price?
“It’s a hard time for coaches who have the confidence to make the tough decision on who can play, how much they play, or whether they can play at all,” said a recently retired school administrator from central Ohio last week, on the condition of his anonymity. “People want trophies, yes, but now that trophy has to be all inclusive.”
A coach at this year’s state basketball tournament added, “You can still win and keep your job, but you can’t offend anyone while you do it.”
Sturwold is a throwback, a competitive personality out of the generation of coaches a generation past who demanded, not asked for, execution in all phases of play and a determined work ethic to improve. And as with the case of my own high school coach at Piqua, Jim Hardman, there are times when some players’ dreams simply come to an end when they’re told that their skills are a better fit with the debate team…or something that doesn’t require them to hit an 85 mile per hour fastball.
I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced the trauma of sports’ lowest moments. Hardman once took me out of a game at Tecumseh as a sophomore and motioned to the circle of the pitching mound as he took the baseball from my hand.
“Take a good look at where we’re standing right now,” he said, without a glimmer of humor. “Because it’s going to be a while before you see it again.”
That wouldn’t fly today. The superintendent and athletic director’s cell phone would melt down. But when I told my dad what Hardman had told me, back in 1968, he simply advised: “Well, you’d better get better if you want to play.”
I did get better, but as I improved the stakes got higher, too. In my freshman year of college I gave up a game-winning home run at Minnesota one afternoon. As OSU coach Marty Karow took the ball from me when I left the mound I made the mistake of telling him that I was sorry I let him down by surrendering the game-winning blow.
“You’re sorry (expletives deleted)?” he bellowed, grabbing me by the jersey. “I’m sorry I brought you on the trip.”
What a difference in culture, eh? And who do you call at that level to complain, when jobs, careers, and salaries are on the line?
But to a bigger point, what’s the incentive for coaches who can teach the game, for coaches who command respect, and for coaches who have the insight to play one over another? Why sacrifice family time and a successful legacy, given the current climate of ‘PC’?
“Winning is the expectation and that’s kept our standard high,” said Newark Catholic’s John Cannizzaro in a Press Pros interview two years ago. Cannizzaro has won eight state titles at the Licking County school, and ironically, he would have ten if it were not for Bill Sturwold. Sturwold and Loramie beat Newark in the finals in both 2007 and 2010.
“Our kids know what’s expected and they don’t want to be embarrassed,” added Cannizzaro. “Everyone knows what’s expected and it’s brought our community together.”
Cannizzaro is one of a vanishing breed, an endangered species as you look at the landscape across the state in all sports, while you question why the “publics” are struggling presently to keep pace with the “privates” in terms of athletic success.
Obviously there is a higher standard at some schools, as dictated by the likes of coaches who not only teach their sports well, but at some point have the temerity to make the good, and tough, decisions on who plays when the game is on the line.
“And almost always there’s a matter of consistency within a program,” said that same administrator who insisted that his name be kept out of this. “In our case we’ve had four different coaches in nine years.” He then added: “But I think we’ve had five principals in the same period, so we’re a coach ahead.”
And when you look at successful programs the fact of consistency is apparently undeniable, and inarguable. Joe Staley has been at Chaminade (basketball) for a long time…as has Tom Held (baseball at Defiance), Bill Nees (Piqua football), Tim Goodwin (Marion Local football), Babe Kwasniak (Villa Angela-St. Joe basketball), Mike Wiss (Minster baseball), and Bill Sturwold, who just completed his 19th season at Ft. Loramie.
There was a time when you could ask any of them why they continue to coach, given their success and longevity. After all, is there not a time when enough is enough? Their answer was invariably, and unanimously…because I can, and I enjoy the kids.
Now, not so much in a day where even success is under fire. And, who can say they’re better for bringing the heat?