Mary Ann and Tom Van Buskirk.
Mary Ann and Tom Van Buskirk.
John Johnston

Send Me In, Coach!

It was with high hopes and a glowing sense of community purpose that Ryan Mullaney began this past high school baseball season as head coach of the woeful Evergreen Cougars. A former standout athlete himself -- he'd dabbled with a pro football career before being cut by the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears -- Mullaney, 43, had begun coaching several years earlier at the Little League level. Two years ago, Evergreen's varsity football coach, impressed by the ex-pro's personal credentials, had put him in charge of preparing the team's defensive line. Last year, when the school's athletic director asked Mullaney to consider the head baseball job, he'd happily accepted.

Many things about the challenge appealed to him. He knew and loved baseball -- he'd played on a semi-pro team in his younger days -- and his son was on the Evergreen team. With only a single win the previous year, the 2000 Cougars were a team that could only shine by comparison. The money wasn't important, and a good thing, too: The pay was $1,000 for the season.

Mullaney quickly learned not to calculate his hourly wage. The team's schedule often featured a game every day of the week, and the coach found himself putting in time that rivaled his day job as a telecommunications executive. Still, the effort paid off. Although it wasn't a successful season as measured by, say, the 1927 Yankees -- or even the 1999 Rockies -- the Cougars at least were making things close. The team would end the season 6-9, with many of the losses by only one or two runs. "And the kids were great," Mullaney says.

Not so great were the parents. Many Evergreen adults seemed to have strong opinions about Cougar baseball, and the evening phone calls started coming soon after the season began. "Your use of the hit-and-run is ridiculous," complained one dad -- also a boardmember of the team's booster club -- during a late-night call. "You've hit into seven double plays."

"I haven't used the hit-and-run," Mullaney replied, reminding himself to stay calm.

At least the calls to his home were private. Worse were the parents -- dads, generally -- who at the game couldn't help jutting their red faces inches from the chain-link fence and screaming into the back of Mullaney's head about the lousy job he was doing. "You got one team whose fans are cheering and going wild, and the other with a father screaming through the fence at the coach," he says. "Which team do you think would have the better mental outlook?"

Mullaney's ace pitcher's father was a lawyer. As the season wound down, the coach recalls, the dad was looking forward to a game against a particularly tough opponent; scouts were certain to be watching from the stands. The game started out rough for the Cougars' pitcher: He was shelled for eight runs in the first inning. But then the kid calmed down, barely allowing a hit in the second and third.

The father, however, was livid. "He runs over to me in the dugout and starts screaming at me during the game that his son had thrown too many pitches," Mullaney remembers. A few days later, the coach discovered that a formal complaint had been filed against him with the school's athletic director. Although the Jefferson County school district eventually dropped the inquiry, Mullaney found the joy bled out of the season.

Doesn't everyone remember his coaches? My football coaches weren't all brilliant or compassionate -- or even necessarily civil. In my sophomore year, Coach Jamalkowski cursed us out and slapped our helmets regularly. "You screw up," he'd growl during one of his inspirational speeches, "you get the bricks. That's where you dangle your balls between two bricks." He'd hold his hands about a foot apart and then suddenly slam them together.

We got a new coach our junior year. He was short and wide, with thick tortoise-shell glasses and a wide mouth with a metal tooth in the middle. He'd always lick his fingers before demonstrating some skill, so when he'd show us how to explode off the line, by suddenly flicking his fingers outward, the words "Fire out!" were always accompanied by a spray of spit. When we still got it wrong, he'd shake his head and mutter, "Ah, Jees-sus, boys."

These men were not particularly good role models, and I ended up working as a journalist, not in the National Football League. But for the life of me, I cannot remember most of my high school English teachers.

And I'm far from alone. My friends also remember their coaches with a detail and clarity that escape memories of their academic teachers. It's not just that coaches tend to be characters, either. We all tried to get away with things in our classrooms that we wouldn't dare try in front of our coaches. Even some of my classmates who went on to occupy jail space still call their coaches "Sir."

This outsized influence has its perils. When I was twelve years old, my Little League team, the Indians, was doormat to the league. During one game late in the season, we were down by some double-digit margin. There were still a couple of innings left, but our coach, Mr. Brady, began stuffing all of our equipment into his duffel bag, shaking his head and saying, "This is just ridiculous." He quit, and so we did, too.

Tom and Mary Ann Van Buskirk know all this about coaching -- and plenty more. Co-founders of Positive Coaching, Inc., a sort of academy for athletic instructors, with more than a quarter-century of personal coaching experience between them, the married business partners have either heard or seen everything.

Tom: "I was coaching at this one Catholic school. We were having our tryouts for girls' basketball, and the athletic director came over to me with the head coach and asked, 'What do you think of that girl over there? Will she start?' I said, 'No, she'll probably be sixth man.' Then the AD looked around at our brand-new gym --it was a beautiful gym -- and said, 'Her parents paid for a lot of this, you know.'"

Mary Ann: "I remember I was coaching a boys' soccer league -- with girls on the team, too -- and this one time at Congress Park, we'd beaten the other team, and when we lined up to shake hands their coach refused to shake my hand. My kids said, 'Why wouldn't the coach shake your hand?'"

Tom: "I had a coach who saved my butt. I was young, sixth or seventh grade, the only boy with three sisters. I'd begun getting in trouble, and one day the head nun called up my mom and said, 'Tom can't spell his own name.' I was the hot point guard on the basketball team, and my mom said, 'Get your uniform, wash it, press it and turn it in.'

"So I went to my coach to complain. He listened to me and said, 'Sit down. You know, this is your own fault. And I'm not going to let you play until you get your grades up. But I'll work with you, and I'll keep a spot open on the team for you.' Twenty years later, when I was coaching my own team, I saw him across the gym and ran over and said, 'Do you remember me?' And he said, 'How could I forget?'"

The coach's patience apparently paid off, because Tom eventually became an airplane pilot, ferrying corporate executives (and, on more than one occasion, a recent governor and his close female friend who wasn't his wife) about the region. Mary Ann, meanwhile, ran the other family businesses -- a pizza parlor and a travel agency -- "until 1982, when I had my call and I went to the seminary." Today she is a family and marriage therapist, as well as an on-call chaplain at Children's Hospital.

Both became involved in coaching the way most parents do: Their children's teams needed help. Tom and Mary Ann began assisting their three daughters' various sports teams in their spare time, until one game in 1993 changed everything.

"Our middle daughter was playing in a basketball game, part of the Catholic Schools Athletic League, and this coach, who was a nice man, had a 30-point lead with about three minutes to go," Tom recalls. "And there were two kids on the end of the bench crying -- the starters were still in. As a coach, you just don't go for the win all the time. He had lost sight of that. So we decided we wanted to help this league get better."

The Van Buskirks hurried home and wrote up an offer: They would volunteer to train all the coaches in the Catholic School Athletic League for two years. The diocese agreed, so Tom and Mary Ann flew out to Illinois for more training themselves and then dove in. By the time their two-year deal was up, they'd trained approximately 300 coaches. "Most people were receptive," Tom recalls. "Of course, there were some -- mostly older guys -- who knew everything there was to know about coaching."

The Van Buskirks had a feeling they were on to something, and in 1994 they founded Positive Coaching, a nonprofit organization dedicated to showing aspiring -- and veteran -- coaches how to teach the joy of athletics and competition without getting carried away by the fleeting buzz of victory. Since then, Tom and Mary Ann calculate they've coached about 2,200 coaches across the state, from peewee soccer dads to high school football trainers. (Colorado requires any high school coach who doesn't have a teaching certificate to go through a program like the Van Buskirks'.)

On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen men sit around several tables arranged in a semi-circle for the day's Positive Coaching clinic. Six posters with collages of newspaper articles are taped on a wall. The headlines are ominous: "When 'Kill the Umpire!' Is More Than a Taunt"; "Coach Accused in Team Sex Case"; "Soccer Chief on Firing Line."

Mary Ann introduces the clinic by reporting that out of three million people coaching across the country, about 2.5 million are untrained. "Some people think that sport is frivolous, so coaches need little, if any training," she says. "Or, if you could play the sport, you could coach it -- and the better a person played, the better coach he is." The profession has a 40 percent attrition rate, she adds.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. Most attendees are football coaches, including a group of second-year assistants from North High School, whose schooling costs will be picked up by the district. (Mary Ann says one recent session was attended by football and cheerleading coaches. A sort of detente was reached when the cheerleading coach taught the gridiron guys a move.)

One attendee found himself coaching football in his rural district after the school threatened to mothball the program because no one had stepped forward to lead it. With two sons in school who loved the game, he felt he had no choice but to volunteer. Another student explains his goals for the course: "I really need some new techniques to deal with parents."

"We'll try to show you some legal ones," Tom promises. "Then, after class, we'll take you out and teach you the effective ones."

Next, we examine some of the pressures faced by coaches throughout the season; at any given time, you may expect to hear from parents, athletic directors, athletes, other coaches, officials, administrators and -- on occasion -- lawyers. "Lotta rules. Lotta demands," concludes Mary Ann.

"If it weren't for the pay..." Tom adds. Everyone laughs.

The course continues throughout the day. It combines discussion about general topics ("How do you gain a parent's respect?" Tom asks. "Shoot them," suggests one student. "Win?" guesses another) with specifics: "Any of you who've coached girls know that yelling doesn't work," notes Mary Ann.

The course is by no means comprehensive, and there's no guarantee that the men attending it will turn out to be the next Joe Paterno, or even the kind of coaches their students will remember when they are forty. Yet the most valuable aspect of the class may be simply to remind the participants of what a complex and important task they face.

There are the traditional coaching concerns of how to keep order and impart athletic knowledge (keep it short and simple, explain why you need the skill, demonstrate it for both righties and lefties). But today's coach must also know about nutrition (what would you do if you knew your star forward was bulimic?), drug use, sexual abuse and liability (never, ever be alone with your charges), and keeping one's temper in check (unless you happen to coach basketball for a university in Indiana). "Like it or not," Tom points out, "we're role models."

Finally, of course, you need to know how to handle your standard, modern, over-involved parent -- a subject Ryan Mullaney never could master.

"It seems to be worse in affluent districts," Mullaney says today. "The more affluent the neighborhood, the more vocal the parents feel they can be and tell you what to do. The kids seem to be playing more for their parents, and the parents expect perfection. And these days, when you've got 35 kids in a program, you can have anywhere from one to four parents per kid. You have to deal with 90 parents in one program."

As the season wore on, juggling baseball as well as all those adults proved exhausting. "I went into this having a bunch of friends at the beginning of the year," Mullaney says. "Now I have almost none."

So last month, at the end of his first season, he says, "I just decided it wasn't worth it to expose myself to that kind of pressure and abuse."

And the coach quit.


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