Losing Touch, Getting Stupid

It was probably the fall for 1970 that I got serious about what I was going to do for a career.  I was a junior at Kearney State College (University of Nebraska-Kearney).  Nothing in college made me get serious.  It was three months of “Meat Prep 2” at the Alpo Dog Food plant in Crete, NE.

That was by far the toughest job I ever had, Meat Prep 2 began in the late afternoon and ended about 2:30 in the morning.  I was staying at home that summer.  My clothes smelled so bad, my mom made me take them off outside and leave them on the lawn.  She would throw them in the washer when she got up.

There’s nothing like seeing the alternative to make a college kid get serious.  I decided my career would be in education.  I wasn’t fooling anyone, though.  I would have to go through all the classes and student teaching, but my real goal was to coach.

I made up my mind to do everything I could to get ready to be a good coach.  It started with the coaching theory class, taught by Jerry Hueser, the Kearney State coach.  Coach Hueser won 519 games and 18 conference championships.  I’m not sure he would have won any awards with his teaching, but it was a necessary annoyance if he wanted to coach at Kearney State.

He loved the Pyramid of Success book by John Wooden.  I have to admit it was hard for me to believe anyone could live up to every step in the pyramid.  John Wooden even was a featured speaker at Kearney in the middle of his run of 10 national championships in 12 years.  I’m sure Coach Hueser was the reason he came to Kearney.

The Pyramid of Success didn’t motivate me but learning everything I could about coaching did get me going.  Coach Hueser made us take a subscription for Scholastic Coaching.  It wasn’t just about basketball, but there was always something about coaching that was relevant.

I thought if it was good for that four-month class, it would be good for the required notebook I was putting together.  I think the enough time has passed that I can’t be fined, but I would sneak a few basketball articles out of the Kearny Library.  Remember, they didn’t use copy machines back then.  That’s all I’ll admit.

I put together two great notebooks that impressed Coach Hueser.  He asked me to speak to his next semester’s class about the notebooks.  However, during the Christmas break, I was officiating a recreation basketball game where Coach was playing.

He didn’t like one of my calls and loudly protested.  I calmly told him I’d have to give him a technical if he didn’t stop.  I can’t say the exact words that were used, but he let me know he would consider me a coward if I called the technical, which of course, I did.  That was the last conversation I had with Coach Hueser for several semesters.  I wasn’t asked back to any of his classes.  I still have those notebooks.

One of the big things I did was write letters to three high school coaches that always had their teams in the state tournament.  I simply asked them how they got their team to peak at post season time.  Two never responded, but the one that did was legendary Lincoln Northeast boys’ basketball coach, Ed Johnson.  Coach Johnson won seven state championships.  I was thrilled with the four-page, hand written letter he wrote to me.

His message was simple; fundamentals, fundamentals, fundaments.  I knew a couple of his players.  I think his players were so tired of fundamental drills that they couldn’t wait to get to post season, while peaking at the right time.

One of his former players lived in the same dormitory floor as I did.  He told me Ed Johnson loved the three on two fast drill.  They ran it every day.  As I coach, I ran that or some version of that drill every day, too.

Ed Johnson was successful his entire career.  The other two coaches I wrote flamed out.  Did they suddenly become stupid?  The thing about coaching high school, you are a slave to the talent that shows up at practice.

In a statement about Ed Johnson when he was inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame said, “He had a knack of taking his talent (sometimes tall, sometimes small compared with other teams, sometimes quick and other times not so fast) and using the basics of the sport to mold winners year after year.”

That sounds easy, but it is very, very difficult.  Those other two coaches were told by their bosses they lost touch with coaching.  In truth, those two highly successful high school coaches didn’t lose touch and they didn’t become stupid.  If they had a fault, it was tough for them to adjust to the talent they found in their practices.

One of the coaches I looked up to was a guy who coached for 50 years at Adams High School and later the consolidation of Adams and Filley High Schools, Freeman.  Ken Cook had five state championships in girls’ basketball and won over 600 games.

He also was a legendary football coach at Adams High School and he is in the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame.  He started coaching at Adams about the time I was graduating from Kearney State College.  I decided a career at Alpo’s Meat Prep 2 wasn’t for me.  By the time I became a head coach at Wilber-Clatonia High School 11 years later, Ken was already a legend at Adams High School.

My first year at Wilber-Clatonia High School was a year after Ken’s Adams girls’ basketball team had won a state championship.  I’ll never forget that first meeting between my Wilber-Clatonia team and his Adams team at Adams.

Ken had the better team, but Wilber-Clatonia was much improved.  Not because of their new coach, but because of a couple of six-foot freshmen with a group of good junior guards.  We weren’t going to win the game, but thanks to our press, we pulled to within 10 points in the final minutes.

Ken called a time-out and headed straight to the officials, a couple of young guys, probably still in college.  He let them have it the entire time-out.  When play began, we had a double team on one of the Adam’s players.  It would have been a turn-over, but the officials called a foul on one of my players, even though it wasn’t close.

I was a very green head coach, but I’m still proud of what I did next.  I called a time-out.  Like I said, we weren’t going to win the game, so I went to the same officials to have a discussion.

I wasn’t mad like Ken had been with them just moments earlier.  I knew Ken held the respect that could keep them from giving him a technical.  I didn’t hold that respect.  I simply said, “He got to you, didn’t he?  Ken has a state championship and all I have is two wins.”

When the official said, “I don’t think so,” I knew I had him.  I just smiled and went back to the huddle.  The rest of the game went normally, and Ken had his first of many wins over my teams.

Ken later told me he didn’t know much about basketball.  I thought for a long-time he was right.  His teams ran a 1-2-2 defense and a three-quarter court zone press.  That’s all they ran.  They won, but that’s all I ever saw out of his teams.

I was very wrong.  Along came a kid by the name of Trudi Veerhusen.  Trudi would later play for me at Doane College.  Trudi was a special player.  She could score from about anywhere and could really handle the ball.

Ken recognized that and the fact he only had two other players that were really good players.  As soon as he got a lead, he pulled out his offense, letting Trudi run a four-corner offense by herself.  I think this is right, but Ken won another two state championships with that offense.

Ken Cook knew a lot about basketball, but he knew a lot more about his players.  When he retired, his high school principal, Bob Michl (a former official) said, “I’ve never met a coach who could find so much good in the players he coached.”

Some opposing coaches thought Ken had lost his mind, but if his teams ever didn’t succeed, it wasn’t because Ken didn’t use his player’s talents in the best way.

That’s where coaches get in trouble.  They lose touch or get stupid in the eyes of their critics, but that’s not the real truth.  It’s the coaches that can adjust to their talent rather than the talent adjusting to them that succeed like Ed Johnson and Ken Cook.