My Greatest Mentor

In 1973, I graduated from Kearney State College.  I had taken the long-range college plan.  I had a double major, 175 under-graduate hours, five years and two summers of living the American dream of being a college student and a future job at Humboldt Public Schools.

I needed to keep busy during the summer.  I had a chance to accept a summer position as a Recreation Tech at the Boys Training School in Kearney.  I was told by one of my supervising teachers that one summer at the Training School would be like three years of experience in the public schools. He was right.

Most of the kids at the Boys Training School weren’t terrible kids.  They were like the worst kid in most public school classrooms, but in the setting of incarceration, they mostly behaved. Sure, they would try to sneak in cigarettes and sometimes a bag of marijuana, but they would listen to authority.  Those that didn’t listen usually ended up in the only lock-down dormitory on campus call Dixon.

The kids in Dixon were there for a reason.  These kids couldn’t be trusted in the general population.  They were bad kids and I didn’t see much hope for their future.  Sometimes, my duty of the day was to spend my shift at Dixon.

It wasn’t hard work.  We had the food delivered and they ate in their individual locked rooms.  They had the chance to leave their rooms for short times. At times, they were sent to a fenced in yard for exercise.  I would be the only one assigned to about 10 to 15 of these kids during this exercise time.

One of the biggest kids, a 17-year old, told me he couldn’t wait until he could be sent to the adult prison in Lincoln if he got caught for his crimes.  He had no remorse and assured me he would continue to break the law after he was released.  The kid was intimidating to any of the Recreation Tech hires that summer.

One day I was playing catch with this kid. He was talking tough as usual when I found out he was from Crete, Nebraska.  I had a relative that was a teacher at Crete.  This kid hated education and the teachers.  I expected the same reaction to my relative.

To my surprise, when I mentioned my relative’s name, he instantly softened.  I had never heard this kid call any adult anything but their last name and usually with a four-letter expletives added on.

He looked at me and made sure I was related to this teacher.  This bad-ass kid even referred to my relative with a sir-name.  

When I asked my relative about this kid, I learned that he grew up with alcoholic parents.  The one instance my relative remembered was one class the kid slept the entire class.  Instead of waking him, my relative let him sleep, then asked him why he was so tired after class.  The kid told her he was up all night because his mom and dad had gotten drunk and fought.  They were both arrested, and he spent the night at the jail trying to get them released.  That conversation formed a bond between the teacher and this really bad kid.

I don’t know what ever happened to this kid.  To this day, I have never seen someone that bad a purely bad personality change with the mention of one particular name.  I knew right then that this relative would become my mentor as I began my career in education.

Soon after I began my career, my relative retired from education.  I often stopped by my relative’s house for advice or just to talk.  I learned so much about teaching, coaching and life from these talks, I’m not sure how successful I would have been without them.

Every coach needs a mentor, sometimes more than one.  Bob Bargen was a head coach at Milford High School that was one of those mentors.  I learned so much basketball in just two years on his bench as a freshmen coach.

I attended clinics, looking for any nugget that could give me an edge in coaching.  I give credit to a one-man clinic I saw in Denver as saving my college coaching career.  Bob Knight held that one-man clinic.  Most people just think of Knight as a hot-tempered, chair tossing coach.  I think of him as the man who taught me how to organize a practice to get the maximum production from my players.

There were many mentors along the way. Steve Tappmeyer, the men’s coach at Northwest Missouri State was one of the most significant mentors.  He helped me survive bad time in Maryville and how to build for the good times.

With all these people, none had more of an effect on me than that relative.   The relative retired to a country home in Clatonia.  The relative was able to follow my games and I often paid an unscheduled visit to receive advice.

The relative came to my games and offered advice after them.  I remember the time I was told if I coached, be prepared for many sleepless nights after losses you felt you could have prevented. That prediction came true many times.

The relative died on Labor Day a few years ago.  I found that everyone the relative encountered was better for it.  A visiting minister in the assisted living facility would stop by after a sermon to get an evaluation.  

The relative was a very devout Christian, but in a way never to shove it down anyone’s throat.  I always had to tell the relative about Sam going to Sunday School class.  The relative told me how fun it would be to talk to relatives in heaven who had already passed.  This relative had an unshakeable faith.  I envied that trait.

Thanks to this relative, I was given my first name, Gene.  I’m sure anyone that knows me thinks I’m speaking of my uncle, Gene Else.  Gene Else was a great coach and mentor to me.  I learned a lot all through-out my coaching career.  He was the one that told me, “Players make a coach; a coach doesn’t make players.” He was exactly right.

My greatest mentor wasn’t Gene Else, though.  It was my aunt and his wife, Virginia.  Aunt Tootie to me, I never received a bad word of advice from her. All her students had a hard time calling Virginiar by her first name, even though she demanded it.

When Gene Else would lecture me on the faults of my team, I would keep my mouth shut even when I disagreed.  She recognized that, took me aside, and told me to do it my way.  

Even now, when my closest tie to athletics is to write about it, Aunt Tootie remains my greatest mentor.  I can see a sentence, and in my mind see how to diagram it the way she taught me in English class.  A coach’s greatest mentor doesn’t have to be another coach.