A non-athletic career


As I sink deeper and deeper into my dotage, I try to husband what brain cells are still functional for what matters most.

That means being discriminatory about what I allow inside my cranium. To start, I pay no attention to popular culture. I absolutely refuse to watch movies or I don’t listen to music if the original composer is still living. I haven’t seen a contemporary TV show in decades, at least not voluntarily.

I do read a lot and often come across a name I haven’t heard before. Indiana Policy Review columnist Leo Morris wrote last week about an amazing gymnast, whose name I have already forgotten. As is my wont, this triggered the bank of memory cells which remembers the past in a selective manner. In this case the memory was of my underwhelming athletic career.

Morris mentioned a study that the average child’s athletic participation ends by age 11. That is certainly true of my stillborn baseball career. My misfortune was to get bifocals at age nine, making it difficult to decide which pitched baseball coming at me to swing at.

Youngsters are resilient, so I transferred my attention to golf by getting a job as a caddy. By the time I reached high school, I was working in the pro shop and playing golf every chance I got. The problem was that those chances became fewer and fewer in number as I was working six days per week from sun-up to sun-down. I think that was probably in violation of the wage and hour laws for teenage employees, but I loved it … except for the unpleasant reality that my inadequate golf skills were deteriorating rapidly due to lack of exercise.

That should have put paid to my athletic career except for a chance discussion years later during a Friday night happy hour over a favorite adult malt beverage. The university that employed me had started a men’s volleyball program and the new coach was trying to generate a following. He asked me to be an honorary assistant coach and sit on the bench at home matches. I agreed despite the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about volleyball at this level.

This went on for a few years until one of the other assistants told me either to become useful or to get lost. I was assigned the job of charting the other team’s offense with the goal of being able to predict the opponent’s next play. At risk of immodesty, I actually became proficient at this. My trademark was a specially built clipboard that held six full size sheets, one for each rotation. (A volleyball rotation is the way the six players arrange themselves on the floor and it changes with each new server.)

I did this for nearly 30 years, helping out during the good years and the bad. The best year was 2007 when we played in the NCAA Division I national championship final match. The experience of walking out on the floor of St. John’s Arena at Ohio State that night is one memory that I will always cherish.

There is something about the camaraderie that develops among a coaching staff which served together for so many years. Long bus rides, killing time at the hotel before an evening’s match and Saturday morning team video sessions all helped in building what have become lifelong friendships among us coaches and our wives.

It wasn’t all fun but even the bad memories can morph into amusing anecdotes given enough time. For example I was personally cited with an NCAA violation for giving a free ticket to the pastor of my church. It seems that the NCAA, guardian of the sanctity of amateur athletics, is quite restrictive on complimentary tickets used by volunteer coaches who must be watched closely lest they err. I stand with pride along such NCAA miscreants as John Calipari, Jerry Tarkanian and Kelvin Sampson in the NCAA hall of shame. Unfortunately, no alumni offered to buy out my contract to get rid of me.

All good things must come to an end so I eventually retired with the other senior citizen coaches and we turned the team over to a younger generation. I still attend all home matches, at least those which allow fans in this COVID world. The current coaches see that my family and I are put on the team pass list. I’ll risk another NCAA rules violation to keep close to the team that received so much of my time.

Would I trade those years for anything this world has to offer? No way, except maybe for more grandchildren.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].

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