By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) “Coach K … his singular and extraordinary success as a coach and teacher, his equally passionate commitment to academic achievement, and his service to Duke, and to the country, over more than three decades,” Duke vice president for public affairs and government relations Michael Schoenfeld on head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski
“College football coach Nick Saban, known for teaching life lessons at every opportunity, gives a group of young campers the business.” – from a CBS News piece
“I believe quite honestly in treating the children as poorly as possible and letting them understand they are here strictly to make me look good.”— Curt “Coach E” Ehrenstrom to the Golden Apple Foundation
One of those things is not like the other.
Curt Ehrenstrom called on me once in his class, and I stared at the jibberish on the board until I said, “I got nothing.”
“Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand,” he replied.
“So you’re not paying attention and you’ve never seen Cool Hand Luke?” he said. “You really are the poster child for birth control.”
The coach-as-teacher thing gets tossed around in print and on airwaves quite a bit, especially when referring to coaches who have had enduring success with a program and thus must be “doing something right” beyond X’s and O’s. Current and former players who toiled under these coaches who more often than not are much different in a game and practice environment than they are looking into a camera will readily say, “S/he was more than just a coach. S/he was a teacher, too.”
I so rarely hear what these players were actually “taught” by coaches, though. How to embody a win-at-all-costs attitude? How to model themselves after adults who become teflon dictators at their institutions? What does a Coach K teach an athlete away from the game that isn’t megalomaniacal?
Ehrenstrom was a teacher who happened to be a coach at Mt. Carmel High School for 30-plus years. He was my teacher. College algebra and trig, honors physics and AP physics from 1998 to 2000.
The first day of school my senior year I walked into “Coach E Land,” a science classroom that looked more like a TGI Friday’s gone horribly awry — newspaper clippings of student accomplishments and artwork slapped across the walls among so much random kitsch-like still-packaged Biblical action figures; sciency beakers and stuff gathered on the back table; pictures of Coach E with Sean Astin during the filming of Rudy (the former’s head greets the viewer in the first scene with Rudy’s final high school practice); notes all over the chalkboard; the yardstick, Excalibur, used for whacking the board to drive home a point or to touch ever so gently on the pinpoint spot on the crown of your head; a sign over the door quoting Dante: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”
“I know you have various mental issues, Bender,” he said, referring to me as the smartass malcontent from The Breakfast Club (so much has changed since). “But don’t tell me you’re lost already.”
“You got me for another year,” I sighed, absolutely dreading AP physics because to this day I hate math and science and never really got them despite giving a solid 50-60 percent effort in those classes.
“Get out of here and go in the journalism class where you belong,” he said.
I stayed in AP physics, partly because my parents made me (journalism didn’t receive honors credit) and partly because I wanted to be in Coach E’s class, even if he was teaching astrophysics or Farsi. The subject title was irrelevant with him. Yes, he was a brilliant and outstanding teacher in his subject areas (which even included an occasional English class), and thousands of kids have come out of Coach E Land better at math, science, writing, football and water polo than when they walked in. But Coach E really taught you stuff that mattered. He was a teacher who happened to be called Coach.
He taught me that learning is fluid, and knowledge is subjective. He taught me I didn’t need to walk out of his class knowing the falling rate of an object in a vacuum is 9.80 m/s (I think?) as much as I needed to appreciate the genius of Monty Python. He taught me that it was worth the effort to head over to the University of Chicago after school to get a print copy of this great thing called The Onion.
He taught me that looking the part of the typical high school coach — big goatee, barrel chest, necktie that looked like it was won at a carnival — didn’t mean having little respect for yourself as an academic. He taught me to be constantly questioning critically, constantly reading, constantly learning about whatever piqued my interest, be it sports or Shakespeare or social issues.
He taught me to not take myself seriously and that I’m not special. He taught me to be humble yet vigilant. I emailed him in May of last year to congratulate him on winning the Golden Apple, unaware that he was sick, and his response was to immediately deflect from his achievement to tell me how much he enjoyed reading my columns and begrudgingly sometimes agreed with me (I said he was brilliant, not smart).
He taught me that while I’m not a precious little snowflake, I am also not a number. I’d visit his class once in a while after I’d graduated, and he’d be quick to pull up my saved grades on the projector for the current crop of youngins to laugh at while also letting them know those Cs and Ds and Fs hardly defined Bender.
He taught me to coach. Not any sport, though. I once told him that I needed a new title for him since he didn’t coach me in any sport. “Life is a sport, you (something not fit to print).”
He taught me to treat students like human beings and not Faberge eggs. He taught me when I was being an idiot and needed to be called out on it, and he taught me when to give compliments for busting my butt to get a B on that inclined plane quiz. He taught me that when they’re laughing, they’re listening.
Coach E taught me not to care about being cool or even being liked, especially as a classroom teacher. There were plenty of graded exams I got back that for which I very much didn’t like him. He taught me that underachievers fear confidence and will try to bring you down. He went out of his way to applaud me in the first class I had after starring in our school’s musical because he knew I was deathly afraid of how guys in the cool click didn’t do musicals. He taught me to embrace change, and Coach E Land was constantly evolving to include the latest technology he could use for student learning.
He taught me that being an educator, a coach of football or life or whatever, can be the best damn job in the world if you take it seriously and put your entire real and not fake self into it, even if you have “all these little insufficiencies that keep (you) from getting a better job,” as he joked to the Golden Apple folks.
He taught me to laugh amid death.
“I don’t buy green bananas,” he said in an April 24 interview about three weeks before his passing on Monday.
He taught me dignity.
“Everybody asks me if I’m mad,” Coach E said. “What’s the point in that? Better me than my wife. What are you going to do? It just happens. It’s part of life. Why me? Why not me?”
I’m not a teacher today if not for two people. One is my late mother, a classroom teacher herself, who would have turned 57 on Thursday. The other is Coach E, who I saw in a casket Thursday.
And while I felt pretty empty yesterday, I realized at least I was taught to know when I’ve been left with a real cool hand.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.