Summer Lessons

Like any college graduate in education and especially wanting to coach, I was sure I knew everything. I had a friend tell me if I took a summer job at the Boys’ Training School after I graduated, it would be worth five years of experience. Maybe I didn’t know everything.

I officially was a Rec Tech. That meant I would babysit the boys’ confined to the grounds at Kearney, Neb. as the state tried to give them a little exercise in their life. I took the incarcerated boys to the movies, fishing, golfing and would escort them to baseball games.

The baseball games were the best job. I didn’t get the job right away. The Legion coach at Kearney let some of the boys at the training school try-out for the senior legion team. Three boys made the team.

After their first game at Holdrege, two of the three players decided it was as good of time as any to not return to their dorm rooms. After the game they disappeared. The Rec Tech in charge was fired and I got the job for the single boy left.

He seemed like a good kid from Friend, Neb. Of course, you are not the greatest kid if you are spending time at the training school. As I drove the kid to games, he loved to brag about his burglaries, some he was caught doing and others that were unsolved. He never ran away on those trips and I got a lot of overtime driving him to games and watching the team play.

There were a couple of tough moments when I wasn’t on baseball duty. Everything from a potential racial situation to one of the kids wanting to fight me gave plenty of lessons in my first summer out of college. I suppose it was worth it, but my next six summers gave me the lessons I needed to help in my coaching career.

After finishing my first year of teaching at Humboldt, Neb., I was asked to run the summer program. I did everything from lining the ball fields for all games, running the concession stand, organizing a morning summer programs for youth and coaching three different teams.

I was paid $800 and even came up with a way to pay for my salary. Here’s where the lessons on coaching started. I brought eight summer high school fast pitch softball teams to Humboldt for a tournament. I had games going at the Humboldt and nearby Dawson, Neb.

I think almost everyone complained about anything you could imagine. I tried to set it up with the College World Series bracket, which back in 1974 was very complicated. Then rain hit Humboldt Sunday morning, but it didn’t at Dawson. We moved the whole event 10 miles and the weather was perfect.

The one line a coach told me in the middle of all the complaints has stuck with me until today. This Lincoln coach whose name I have forgotten said, “It’s your tournament. Run it any way you want.” I have used that attitude in running or playing in events since that wet Sunday in 1974.

I felt good about what we had accomplished in Humboldt until my benched pitcher’s mother told me on my last work day of the summer, “I’m glad you are leaving and I hope you never come back.” You think it was because a soft throwing bar owner’s daughter and a left handed seventh grader had passed her by?

I ran the same type of summer program when I moved to Milford, Neb. Leon Williams, one of my softball player’s parents, jumped on board for the tournament. We always ran it over Memorial Day. Although it rained most Memorial weekends, we found a way to get the games played.

During those six years, I have never been yelled at that as badly, had my name thrown in the mud that always followed me through Memorial Weekend, felt disorganized but felt the satisfaction when the tournament was over. Thanks goodness for Leon Williams. He was like a bouncer for all the unhappy coaches and fans, plus he knew how to make a buck.

During my four years as summer rec. director at Milford, the town never had to pay a dime for my services. The tournament always covered that expense. Also, that Memorial Weekend event provided a tuition fee education that helped me through the next 33 years of my coaching career.

There was one day that I learned the biggest lesson of any summer. An old general in the Nebraska National Guard had donated land for a baseball/softball complex. He was very old and not in great health.

I wanted to get the complex started and planned to have one softball field completed for the Memorial Weekend tournament. For the field itself, I had a farmer disc the diamond early in March. I spent the next couple of months dragging and dragging until the perfect softball infield had formed.

A backstop had been erected, I had made benches for each dugout and snow fence lined the foul lines. The tournament began on Friday evening. Early Friday morning, I had taken a city tractor and drug the field one last time. It was a thing of beauty. Now all I had to do was put the tractor away, line the field and it would be ready for its very first game that evening.

In the 10 minutes it took to put the tractor away, disaster struck. For some reason, the mayor had told a councilman to spring tooth the infield. He hadn’t ever been to the complex, but someone told him the infield needed work.

By the time I returned, the councilman had torn up the infield so bad, it looked like a plowed corn field. I am sure that’s the closest I ever came to committing a crime punishable by the death penalty.

I was a crazy man in my agony. I threw dirt clods at the tractor and screamed at the poor councilman. He had no idea I had planned to use the field that night. I think I scared him so bad, he stayed at that field all day. He drug and packed the chopped up ground until it was fine dirt. He somehow arranged for a fire truck to spray it with a fine mist of water.

I lined the field at 4 pm and it looked great for the 5:30 start. It took until after the tournament to realize that my crazy behavior actually saved the field. Despite being young, I could demand certain things. That was really true if I demanded certain things from my players. The more I demanded, the more games we won. Just one of the lessons learned in the summer.

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