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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Part I of an Interview with Andrew Blauner, Editor of Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference

Andrew Blauner, founder of Blauner Books Literary Agency, is the editor of the anthology Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference. He assembled an all-star team of writers—including Ira Berkow, Buzz Bissinger, Frank Deford, Robert Lipsyte, David Maraniss, John McPhee, George Plimpton and George Vecsey—to not necessarily write stories about great coaches but rather to craft great stories about coaches. The result is 25 disparate and fascinating perspectives on the dynamics of the coach-player relationship. You can find ordering information for Coach here. I recently spoke at length with Blauner about this book and the subject of coaching in general.

Friedman: “What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn from your book Coach?”

Blauner: “Many things. There is an axiom that some of the best sports writing is done by people who are not sportswriters by trade. While Coach has (pieces by) some of the best sportswriters—Frank Deford, Ira Berkow and Robert Lipsyte, among others—maybe one of the surprises is how many contributors who are not sportswriters have written these terrific pieces about athletic coaches: people like Ben Cheever, David Maraniss, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the Washington Post, Francine Prose, who is a literary writer and a novelist, Darin Strauss, who I think nobody associates with being a sportswriter, Andrew Soloman—who is probably the most dramatic example; Andrew wrote a book called The Noonday Demon that was a National Book Award winner. I think that this speaks to one of the larger points about the ways in which sports transcend the rest of life and how these coaches, these people in the writers’ lives, transcended the basketball court or baseball field and taught them things and gave them experiences that went way beyond learning the crossover dribble or how to hit a curveball.”

Friedman: “Of the coaches who are featured in the book, which one would you have most liked to play for and why?”

Blauner: “That’s a great question. (long pause) That’s a tough call. The first piece in the book is by George Vecsey of the New York Times and he writes about Casey Stengel. It’s hard to imagine not wanting to have played for Casey--for his wisdom, for his wit, for his experience. That piece in particular is, in a way, an anomaly for the book, because most of the pieces in the book are about coaches who nobody knows about or has heard of because they are not coaches on the professional or college level. (I like) the idea of playing for Casey Stengel or, for that matter, Al McGuire--who is the subject of a Frank Deford piece in the book. One of the little coincidences or ironies about the book is that there is a terrific coach who is written about by Buzz Bissinger; Buzz, of course, is the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He writes about his high school coach at Dalton School in Manhattan, a guy named Al Boyers. When I asked Buzz to contribute to the book I had no idea that he had gone to Dalton, which was the rival to the school that I played for, Collegiate. So I played against the coach that he wrote about. Coach Boyers was always the guy on the other side and Buzz really put a face on him and paid a tribute to him that made the idea of playing for him beyond appealing. Unfortunately, Coach Boyers has since died, but it is a very loving tribute that Buzz pays to him. One of the touching things in Buzz’ piece is that he hadn’t had any contact with Coach Boyers in many years and he literally says in the piece that he doesn’t even know if he is still alive. In fact, he isn’t. One of the postscripts, one of the nice things that comes out of the book is that I think Buzz got in contact with Coach Boyers’ widow and I think that there was a reconnection there of some kind. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to mention that it was my coach—well, I had a series of coaches but it was primarily one coach at Collegiate School, Larry Byrnes--who played an enormous role in my upbringing and in my life and is in my life to this day. He was in many ways one of the inspirations for the book. He coached both basketball and baseball but was also a mentor and to this day I am at his house for Super Bowl Sunday and I would have him at any important event in my life.”

Friedman: “That was going to be my next question. Since you didn’t write a chapter in the book, I was going to ask which coach had the most influence on your life.”

Blauner: “I gave it (writing a chapter) some thought and, obviously, my so-called day job is being a literary agent—this was just a pet project, a labor of love. So, I deal with books all the time and the idea of having an introduction or a foreword or something that I would write doing what you just described was something I thought about but in the end I just thought that I had 25 pieces in this book by wonderful writers, each with a very different voice, and I’ve got Bill Bradley writing the introduction; Bradley’s piece introduces the book and the writers’ pieces speak for themselves and it’s not a book about me, so I am happy to sort of stay in the shadows and have the writing speak for itself—but it’s not because I don’t have a lot to say and a lot of stories to tell or at least feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the coaches that I’ve had.”

Friedman: “That leaves you room to do a sequel or to do another book to address those issues.”

Blauner: “Exactly. I had the idea for the book for many, many years, probably going back to the time when I was sports editor at the school newspaper at Brown University, which was 20 years ago, but it just took a long time for it to sort of come together. When it did, I made an ‘A’ list of all the people who I would most like to have in the book and I figured that, like an Ivy League admissions office, you calculate a yield, but I was shocked in the best sense that almost everybody I asked agreed to do it. So that left a lot of people who could absolutely fill a second or third volume or more. I think this speaks to the coach-player relationship and the profundity of this whole arena, because a lot of these writers have a lot of demands on their time, a lot of pieces, articles or books that they could write, but for all they’ve written a lot of them hadn’t taken the time, given the thought or had the opportunity to really pay homage to these people. I am just grateful to all of them. I didn’t want this to be sort of a saccharine—all sugar and spice and everything nice—valentine to coaches because that is not the reality that is out there. I just wanted it to be something of a tapestry that represents the great variety of coaches and coach-player relationships. The subtitle is ’25 writers reflect on people who made a difference.’ One of the other ironies—I suppose you could call it that—is that even though I grew up in Manhattan I was always a devout Celtics fan and I still am. Yet, when it came time to think about who should write the introduction the first name that came to mind is Bill Bradley. I used to always root against the Knicks but I could never root against Bill Bradley, so I rooted for him and voted for him and I just want to thank him again for his contribution.”

Friedman: “You mentioned that you were the sports editor at Brown. Didn’t Chris Berman of ESPN go to Brown?”

Blauner: “Absolutely. He’s a few years older but yes he absolutely did and if you watch SportsCenter or ESPN a lot—“

Friedman: “I thought that he mentions that. The reason I asked is that I wondered, since you were involved with the sports department, did he ever come back to Brown and interact with people who were doing sportswriting?”

Blauner: “I don’t think that at the time I was there—which was roughly ’82 to ’86—that he came back at all but he was definitely a subject of conversation and everybody knew that he had gone there. We all knew that Bill Almon, the baseball player, had gone to Brown; he was one of the few pro athletes who had gone to Brown and when he was an active player Chris would always call him Bill 'Toasted' Almon. To this day Chris Berman, when he doesn’t invoke that he went to Brown, he will bring up the Ivy League more than most people.”

Friedman: “Right. That’s what I thought but I wanted to make sure. I know he brings up the Ivy League a lot and I thought that he had mentioned Brown.”

Blauner: “There is more of a Princeton influence in the book than I had ever intended or imagined that there would be: Jonathan Ames writes about his fencing coach from Princeton; Bradley’s piece; I think that Frank Deford is a Princeton grad. So, I’m ever true to Brown but I think that John Edgar Wideman, who has a piece in the book and is now a professor at Brown, is the only Brown element in the book.”

Friedman: “What common thread would you say is shared by successful coaches? Is there a common thread or theme that runs throughout the book?”

Blauner: “I think that it’s something that Senator Bradley touches on in his foreword: people who can take you to places and get you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do on your own. As simple as that sounds, that is the task and that is the accomplishment and that is the talent (that great coaches have). Then it breaks down to how do you get from here to there, from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ how do you get someone to reach his full potential? I guess the thread, if you can even call it that, is, in a way, not having just one way to do that—to look at the team and the players that you have and gauge what’s best. It’s often invoked that coaches are like surrogate parents; somehow, most of us can hear things better from an authority figure who is a coach as opposed to one of our parents. Whether it is manifested in unconditional love and coddling or tough love, these coaches sort of take stock of who the kid is and what will help him to go somewhere that he might not otherwise be able to go on his own. I was talking about our coach to an old high school friend of mine the other day and asked him, ‘What was it about him for you?’ and he said, ‘I just didn’t want to disappoint him.’ A lot of people talk about coaching by intimidation and that probably plays a role at every level in sports, but when this friend of mine said that it reminded me of something that someone said about Tony Dungy of the Colts, calling it coaching by disappointment or not wanting to disappoint your coach. Our coach used to appeal to our pride a lot. We went to a small, private school and when we would go up against a bigger, public school there was always an appeal to prove these guys wrong, that you are not a bunch of spoiled, rich, private school kids. I think that if he were in a different setting then he would have obviously used a different set of tools or techniques to coach. That is sort of a roundabout answer.”

Friedman: “The answer about not disappointing the coach is really striking because I just interviewed Gus Alfieri (the author of Lapchick).“

Blauner: “Sure!”

Friedman: “You know about his book?”

Blauner: “Absolutely. I have it right here.”

Friedman: “My interview with him is posted at 20SecondTimeout. When I interviewed him, that was one of the things that he said about Coach Lapchick. He felt that way and other players he spoke with who played for Coach Lapchick in different eras all said the same thing, that they didn’t want to disappoint him and that that was such a motivating factor. It is striking to me that you mentioned that in your answer because he talked about the exact same thing.”

Blauner: “That’s interesting, because I actually am in touch with Gus. I know the Lapchick story but I didn’t know that there was that element (of not disappointing the coach) there.”

Friedman: “Yeah, a very strong element that he expressed to me. The interview is actually like a mini-book itself, because I talked to him for almost 2 hours and when I transcribed the whole thing it was over 15,000 words. I published it in five parts.”

Blauner: “That’s amazing. Some part of that speaks something. The subject just kind of lends itself to that (lengthy discussion), because it can just go in so many ways. You start talking about one coach or one team or one experience and, because you are not just talking about Xs and Os, it can just very quickly get into all of these tentacles and all of these elements, whether it is about parenting or overcoming adversity. Again, I didn’t know about that element of disappointment with Gus and Lapchick but I certainly had other coaches where there was no element of that but it was based on intimidation or just doing it for yourself or your teammates but not for your coach.”

Friedman: “Another connection between the two books is that Coach Lapchick coached both McGuire brothers, Al and Dick, who both played for the Knicks. Dick McGuire was the better player but I think that Al McGuire is more famous to most modern readers because he became Marquette’s coach and then did some work on TV. Gus mentioned to me that he thought that Lapchick really had an influence on McGuire’s coaching style. Gus said that some coaches are more Xs and Os guys and other coaches work more from the standpoint of inspiring their teams, like we were just talking about: either motivating the players in some way—and you mentioned the ways that your high school coach motivated you—or just making the players feel like they don’t want to disappoint him. You touched on this a little already but from the various chapters in your book and the coaches who are written about there, talk about how much of coaching has to do with imparting technical information of how something has to be done process-wise to be successful versus how much of coaching involves inspiration and motivation.”

Blauner: “That’s interesting. To backtrack briefly for just a second, McGuire was friends with or somehow knew my high school basketball coach, so Al McGuire actually spoke at my high school athletic banquet and just gave one of the best speeches that I’ve ever heard in my life. By that point he was already out of coaching and was a TV commentator, so I just knew him for his bombastic style. You and your readers probably know that Al McGuire had his own way of talking—his own language--that has kind of been co-opted a little bit today. From everything I’ve heard, he was also a great Xs and Os coach. The Frank Deford piece about McGuire in the book isn’t so much about the technical, Xs and Os aspect of the game. My impression is that he had his own way of motivating and that he was sort of emblematic of a lot of coaches just in terms of his work ethic but he was sort of a character unto himself. To go back to the context of the book, with the exception of the McGuire piece and a couple others, most of the pieces are about coaches at junior high and prep school and levels below college and the pros. John Irving has a piece about his wrestling coach but it doesn’t speak exactly about what you are talking about. The lesson or the appeal of that coach and that story is that Irving learned from his wrestling coach, as he put it, ‘the power of the underdog.’ Again, that is more about motivation and challenges. It’s interesting; I hadn’t looked at it through this prism, but there isn’t a lot of emphasis on, for lack of a better word, the Xs and Os element.”

Friedman: “That actually answers my question, in a sense, because in a roundabout way that is what I was getting at—is the emphasis more on motivation or more on Xs and Os? What you are saying is that, from the perspective of the 25 writers involved your book, their memories of their coaches deal more with how the coach motivated them and the relationship aspect of it; it doesn’t stick out in their minds that the coach showed them how to correctly pivot or—“

Blauner: “Oh, I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. If you take it out of sports for a minute, when we all remember our favorite teachers from school, we don’t remember dates from history class or how to do a calculus problem: it’s more about the relationship and the personality, something that goes beyond (the class work). If I thought about it, I’m sure my old coaches showed me how to reverse pivot and—I played point—how to make a guy go to his left, just an infinite number of things. I’m sure that a lot of the coaches who are written about in the book were terrific tacticians and technicians and knew the game inside out. It’s not to diminish that element of it but when you’ve got a piece by Christine Brennan—the great USA Today writer--about her girls basketball coach in the days before Title IX it is almost absent any element of the technique and the technical parts of the game. It was more about love of the game and about motivation. I’m just looking at the other pieces and, you’re right, that (the motivational/relationship aspect) is what comes out. In Bud Collins’ piece, he talks about his old coach teaching him how to tie a bow tie. Obviously, one of his signatures is his sartorial splendor. Tom Beller has a piece about his basketball coach at Vassar, but, again, you are making me realize that it underscores the point that, in a publicist’s term, the ‘takeaway’ is something that goes way beyond Xs and Os. The second piece in the book is by E.M. Swift—Ed Swift—who is just a fantastic writer for Sports Illustrated and who has written a couple books as well. He writes a piece that is really almost an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ kind of piece in which his old coach—to make a long, great story short—falls on hard times, goes out of the picture, word goes out to his former players that the old coach is in need and the players band together. I think that are so many people out there who identify with the stories in the book not because of things that they learned specifically about basketball or Xs and Os. I don’t like the expression ‘life lessons’ but something that goes beyond the game, put it that way.”

Friedman: “There is a saying that long after you forget what someone said to you, you’ll remember how they said it. So that would be another way of expressing it as well; you might not remember every single word that a particular coach said but you’ll remember how he spoke to you and what that relationship was like. I also recall that Red Auerbach, the great Celtics coach, was asked at one point—I believe in reference to Bill Russell—how would he handle his players and he immediately answered that you handle animals but you deal with people.”

Blauner: “Right. Perfect. He also said about the great legacy and tradition of the sixth man coming off the bench that it doesn’t matter who starts (the game) but who finishes it.”

posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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