John Tucker, Rest In Peace

Coaching is a funny profession.  If your team wins, a coach can do a lot of things that are considered colorful.  If that coach’s team is losing, those things are called distasteful.  Many times, a coach’s biggest critic are the parents of the players you desperately need on your side.

A former Northwest player, Gentry Dietz, called me this week and we talked about that special 2011 season where we advanced to a Final Four game.  She laughed and asked if I remembered the time I told her and another player if they didn’t get their head out of a certain part of the human body, we couldn’t possibly win a game.

Neither player thought a thing about it.  I think they thought their coach was just blowing off steam.  They never mentioned it unless it was in stories about that great team.  Sadly, a year later, my Northwest team struggled to win games.  During one game at halftime, I used the same terminology on one of the same players as the year before.  By halftime of the men’s game that followed, the parents had expressed their opinion of my vocabulary to the administration.

Such is life for a coach.  I coached at different levels for 39 years.  I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.  Sometimes I would be warned about potential problems with parents before I signed a player.

That was true when I recruited a great point guard at Doane College by the name of Trudi Veerhusen.  Her dad, Cliff, was almost a legend as a vocal parent.  One story had Cliff locking Trudi’s older brother out of the house on a cold winter night after a bad shooting performance in a high school game.   The brother told the true story at his father’s funeral.  He was locked out after doing some extra shooting.  The reason was Cliff had fallen asleep and couldn’t be aroused.  His son spent a chilly night in the barn.  A legend was born.

Cliff was a legend, but only because he cared so much for his kids.  The only coaches I ever heard him criticize were the opposing coaches.  That wasn’t true for Erin Demuth’s mother.  Barb had not been kind to her daughter’s high school coach.

Erin was over six feet tall and very athletic.  She played for Seward High School.  I felt I had a good chance to land this talented post player.  I knew her high school coach pretty well because I had at one time taught with his brother.  He warned me in the strongest terms not to scholarship Erin.  The reason was Barb would come as part of the package.

Just like my warnings about Cliff, the coach was very wrong.  Even though it took a couple of years for Erin to get much playing time, Barb never missed a game and never said a word.  I became good friends with Erin’s family and still am today.

However, the worst kind of parent is one who previously coached their kids.  Many times, the father would be his daughter’s club coach.  A lot of those club teams have try-outs, get the most talented players on their team and steamroll most of their opposition.  It gives the father a feeling that the coaching profession is very easy.

I had put up with several of those types of parents.  Even after wins, they would have coaching suggestions on how the win could have been easier.  I always listened to assistant coaches, opposing coaches, even retired coaches.  I very seldom took advice from a club coach.

In the 1990’s, I recruited a guard from Waverly, Nebraska.  Her name is Jess Tucker.  No one warned me about the parents.  They seemed like great people as I signed Jess to a basketball scholarship.  Just like with Erin, it took Jess a while to get significant playing time.

When Jess did play, those Doane College teams were special.  I’m not absolutely sure of this fact, but I think Jess played on three Final Four teams.  She had some big moments in those games.  She hit a three-point field goal to clinch a win over a 37 – 0 team in a national Elite Eight game.

It didn’t matter whether Jess played a lot of minutes or just a few, her parents hardly missed a game.  Her father, John Tucker, owned a hardware store in Waverly.  He always had a smile on his face.  Some people fake that they are genuinely happy to see you.  There was nothing fake about John.  When he would shake my hand, I always felt how sincere he was to see me.

About a month ago, Jess’s teams were inducted into the Doane University Hall of Fame.  Of course, Jess came back for the ceremony.  So, did her father, John.  Of all the people I shook hands with that night, I’ll never forget John’s greeting.  He had that grin on his face, the intensity of the greeting and the knowledge he was truly happy to be back at Doane.

Last week, John and his wife Janet were returning home from a night out in Lincoln.  He had a medical emergency.  John passed away at the age of 70.  Of course, I was shocked to hear the news.  I was even more shocked to read the stories of John’s life.

John had been a club team coach.  I knew he did something with Jess’s youth teams, but I had no idea he had been a volunteer coach for the Salvation Army League in Lincoln for 35 years.

The story was on the front page of the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper.  It gave details and tributes to John and how he had helped hundreds of the area youth learn basketball and gave them life lessons.

Most club coaches stop coaching when their kids leave the program.  Not John Tucker.  He had stayed a volunteer until his own grandchildren played on the teams.  John never once in 35 years had a try-out.  If a kid showed up, he took that kid on his team no matter the talent level.  There were many testimonials that every kid improved their basketball skills.   They also became great individuals with John’s guidance.

Not a single person warned me about John Tucker.  Almost any club coach like John would be tough to keep happy for any college coach.  Yet, I had no warning from parents or even hints John was one of those typical club coaches.

I should have been warned because then I would have learned of John’s selflessness before he passed away.  John Tucker might not have been a certified coach at any educational institution, but the coaching profession could use a lot more John Tuckers.  Like they said in the newspaper, “Rest in peace, Coach.”

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