The Mentor

The other day the Maryville baseball team played Bishop LeBlond High School. I stopped to talk to Michael Evans, the LeBlond coach about summer baseball. I asked him about the health of a friend of mine, Steve Vertin. Steve had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. His coaching days were over, but he fought cancer like the fiery coach he was on the basketball floor. I just hadn’t heard much about Steve in the last couple of months.

I knew Steve when I coached in Nebraska. He is just a couple of years older than me but became a celebrity among basketball coaches almost immediately. His Nebraska team, Grand Island Central Catholic boys’ team, won a state championship. It really didn’t matter if Steve’s teams won or lost, he would hold court during every state tournament and every coach’s clinic in August.

Steve moved to Missouri the same year I moved to Maryville in 1999. I was on his email list for a while, but lost contact when I retired in 2012 and my email address changed. It didn’t matter, the second he would spot me at a Bishop LeBlond game and it was like I was his best friend. You just couldn’t forget a guy like that.

Steve died this week, 13 months after being diagnosed with cancer. It was ironic I had just asked about his health just a day earlier. I didn’t know until I read the paper that Coach Evans had played for Coach Vertin.

People will throw around compliments after people die like he could command a room or you never saw him down in the dumps or he always had a smile. Whatever compliments people throw around about Steve now after his death are absolutely true. Steve was quick with a story and quick with a lesson from that story.

Steve was always that bigger than life coach I strived to become. I just never knew what a great educator he was until I read part of his Hall of Fame induction speech. Put on tape because of his health. What he said is so relevant in every form of education or competition.

In that speech, Steve said, “We gotta turn out products that, pure and simple, must be coachable.” In explaining what he meant by coachable, Steve said, “They (kids) learn how to take correction as a compliment and that’s it.”

I’m sure that Coach Vertin’s players had to get used to his style of coaching with his intimidating size and his very loud way of instructing. Once they overcame that, his players were coachable because they treasured whenever he took time to help them become better players and people. It was Steve’s compliment to his players.

Steve was a mentor as I looked to define myself as a coach. My professional mentor was Bob Bargen, a high school basketball coach at Milford High School in 1975. He had taken over for his brother, who moved to a bigger school. It wouldn’t be easy to follow his very popular brother.

I came to Milford with a desire to coach but started very humbly as a junior high school boys’ junior high assistant coach. Bob tried to tell the junior high coach what he wanted taught in the seventh and eighth grades. However, the head junior high coach didn’t agree and there was friction among the two.

That junior high coach left for a banking job and I moved up to the head junior high coach. I went to Coach Bargen and told him I would teach whatever he wanted his future stars to learn. The main teaching point he wanted made in junior high is for the players to become better man to man defensive players.

My teams weren’t very good at man to man, but we never even taught a zone. In the championship of a junior high tournament, Bob didn’t think the junior high could keep up with a great point guard, so he said it wouldn’t bother him if we put in a zone.

I decided to stick with the man defense. I had a certain kid match up with the point guard. My defensive star did such a great job defending him, the frustrated point guard got a technical for complaining about the defense. It after that game that I knew Bob would accept me as a coach that could help his program.

That summer, Bob’s assistant coach had an offer to move to a better job at a college. They had to find a replacement for the assistant coach before he would be allowed to break his contract as a math teacher.

No one knew that I had certification to teach math through ninth grade. In a social meeting that summer, I threw out that I could teach junior high math and the junior high math teacher could move to high school math. It was too simple and very lucky for me. I was now the freshmen basketball coach and directly under Bob Bargen.

That’s where my real learning began. As my mentor, Bob put me in about any kind of situation you could imagine. I was given more responsibility than the assistant coach and I loved it. There were some funny learning moments along the way.

Before first game I coached from the varsity bench, Bob gave an inspiring opening game speech prior to taking the floor. It didn’t have the effect he wanted for the players but I knew why. In all the excitement of the first game, Bob had left his pant zipper down. First lesson, always check your fly before games.

Bob took me everywhere he went. Since there was no film exchange, Bob and I were on the road scouting in all weather. During one very cold night, I volunteered to take my car, a Subaru to Friend. We were going to scout a conference rival.

Those first Subarus had many problems in cold weather. That night, the wheels were frozen and wouldn’t go forward. I could back-up, though. Bob and I must have backed up in the school parking lot for five minutes while the ice in the wheel mechanism melted. We made it to Friend on time, but I wasn’t sure how the rival fans would handle the sight of my Subaru backing its way back to Milford.

Bob taught me a lot of X and O basketball, but more importantly, he taught me the coaching life of a successful mentor. Sometimes a serious situation is something we laugh about today.

Bob was the master of handling officials. He could get to the brink of a technical foul, back off and always seemed to get the 50/50 call. One night it didn’t work out that way. The official was the University Nebraska’s offensive line coach, Mel Tenopir.

Bob was good at not crossing that line, but what he didn’t realize was Mel’s line for coaches was much shorter. When Bob crossed that line, Mel gave him a technical foul. The free throws were made. Eventually, we lost by one point and Bob blamed Tenopir.

Of course Bob blamed Mel for the loss. After the game, Bob wanted to confront the football coach. I had to almost anything but tackle Coach Bargen. I wasn’t worried about Tenopir’s safety, but the safety of my head coach.

Coaches have many stories to tell because of incidences like these two. There’s more to coaching than calling the right defense or offensive set. Spending two years with Coach Bargen were the most important years in my career. It allowed me to stay in the profession for 39 years.

Steve Virten put coaching into the perfect prospective. Bob Bargen gave me a life of experiences in two years. My mentors help me have a career that never seemed like work. Everyone needs a mentor.

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