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Monday, October 16, 2006

Part II 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. In Part I , we talked about some traits that are shared by great coaches and how the coach-player relationship involves a lot more than just conveying techical information about how to play a sport.

Friedman: “My next question is kind of the opposite of one of my earlier questions, when we talked about some of the commonalities among successful coaches. What common thread—whether it relates specifically to coaches in your book or just thinking about the subject in general—is shared by unsuccessful coaches? I don’t necessarily mean coaches who aren’t winning but rather coaches who do not develop those kinds of relationships or engender those positive memories that we just spoke about.”

Blauner: “That’s a great question. The first word that came to mind as you were asking that question is ‘callousness,’ but I’m not sure if that is the most apropos word. The second thought, maybe the one that is more applicable, is a bigger point, going back maybe to something that I foreshadowed: coaches who have their own way of doing things and don’t tailor that in any way.”

Friedman: “Inflexible.”

Blauner: “Exactly. That’s a good way to put it. As much as I had great experiences with my coaches, I know plenty of people who just (had bad experiences)—like you said, sometimes it’s the way something is said, or the timing of it. In the introduction, Bill Bradley says that a well timed ‘well done’ from a coach can go so far. Especially when we are at school-age, confidence is just such a critical element. Leading to the analogy that a lot of people like to make from coaching to business today, it is said that the best managers or bosses are those who bring you up when you are down and take you down a peg when you are riding too high. The only time that I can remember my old coach sort of getting ticked off at me is when I had a quote in the school paper in which I basically said that we played well enough to win or that we played to the level of our competition—something like that. That just struck a chord and didn’t play for him. He said that, no, you don’t just play well enough to win or play to the level of your competition; that is the exact opposite of what we are trying to do or what you should want to do for yourself. He had all of these great expressions—‘Don’t measure the size of the man, measure the size of his heart.’

There are a couple of pieces in the book that are a little bit subversive: Francine Prose’s piece about her old phys ed instructor or gym teacher who was just cruel in some ways and how it took her a long time to forgive. That gets into another element which, for me at least, was an interesting part of putting the book together: How are we even defining what a coach is? Today, there is a whole industry of personal coaches, business coaches, life coaches. Some of the writers who I invited to contribute responded that they would love to and wanted to write about an oboe instructor or math teacher and I thought that it was so interesting that they took the invitation in that direction. In the book, the sport that is written about the most is basketball, but there are also stories about horseback riding, wrestling, tennis—in addition to baseball, football, basketball—and something about that was interesting to me, about how people view what a coach is. When I invited Ben Cheever he said that he could write something but didn’t think that I would like it. I asked why and he said that it wasn’t a very positive piece, so I also found it interesting that people inferred that all I was looking for are valentines to coaches, which was not the case. In one case, David Maraniss—who wrote a great biography of Vince Lombardi and also one about Bill Clinton—said that he would love to write for the book but he didn’t have a coach. That led to a stream of thinking that there is a population of people out there who have ‘coach envy,’ who have read stories in this book or elsewhere about these great relationships and wish that they had had that. Maraniss ended up writing a piece about what he calls his ‘coach less’ youth. People use the expression ‘chick-lit’ for these pink covered novels by women about women, and you could almost say that there is ‘coach-lit,’ with (Gus Alfieri's book) Lapchick and Halberstam’s book about Belichick and Michael Lewis wrote a book about his old coach. There is a book about Joe Paterno, who went to Brown. I don’t know if there is sort of an opening up or a new understanding or appreciation for coaches but it certainly seems to be manifesting in more books being written about the subject.”

Friedman: “Paterno and Belichick are two of the most fascinating coaches to me. Is part of the reason that they are not represented in your book the very thing that you just mentioned, that they have been written about and discussed so much and you wanted to go in a different direction? You mentioned that most of the coaches in your book—other than McGuire and Stengel—are probably not as well known to the general public.”

Blauner: “Exactly. I’m a huge Joe Paterno fan. In fact, I sent him a copy of the book and got a very nice note back from him; the same with Bobby Knight and some of the best coaches around. When I first started telling people about the book, some of them understood it to mean stories about great coaches, meaning Lombardi, Bobby Knight, Paterno, but obviously, with very, very few exceptions, there are not a lot of—let’s say--accomplished writers who became pro athletes or who were even great athletes in college who played for those kinds of coaches. In other words, if there had been a great writer who played for Bill Belichick, then that person would probably have been at the top of my list.”

Friedman: “Instead of looking for stories about great coaches you were looking for great stories about coaches, whether or not that coach was great in terms of national acclaim.”

Blauner: “Precisely. Coming from the world of books, on some base level, it is a book that I wanted to read that I found didn’t exist. In a way, it is a collection of 25 mini-memoirs but, with all due respect to pro athletes and great college athletes who go on to write books—you know the old expression in basketball, ‘shooters shoot’?”

Friedman: “Yes.”

Blauner: “In my role as a literary agent, I’ve always had the comparable idea that ‘writers write’ and shouldn’t be asked or expected to do more. Obviously, in this industry and culture they need to be promoters and business people and all these things. It actually reminds me of some expression that our old coach had, something about you are either a carpenter or a plumber—something about doing what you do best: if you are a big man, don’t bring the ball down the court, just go to the blocks and set up. If you are a point guard, don’t go to the low post. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t want stories about great coaches but there was anything but a premium on them being famous coaches. I’m as thrilled to have Ed Swift’s piece about Coach Ward who probably no one has heard of—although I hope they do soon, because the piece is supposed to go on SI.com. With the exception of the ones that you mentioned (none of the coaches are famous) and one other, a short piece by the great Robert Lipsyte, formerly of the New York Times, about his day playing tennis with Althea Gibson, the great, pioneering tennis player. She was his coach for a day. Unless somebody has read Pat Conroy’s books and feels like they already know his coach from the Citadel, about whom he writes in this book as well, then none of the names of the coaches will be familiar. Like you said, I was looking for great stories, but by writers, not by athletes. If there was a writer out there whose work I admired, who happened to have played for Joe Paterno, I would have absolutely included him.”

Friedman: “I have one more question, getting back to the issue that we discussed about Xs and Os. I’ve always been interested in both aspects of coaching, the motivational aspect and the technical aspect. A subject that I have written about and often discuss with people concerns when most coaching is actually done. I think that the layman’s perception—exacerbated by television showing coaches jumping up and down and doing all these gyrations on the sidelines—focuses on what is happening during the game but I believe that the most significant aspect of coaching happens during practice and preparation. If a team is properly prepared, then they go out and execute. If they haven’t been properly prepared, it’s too late by the time the game happens. I would be interested in your perspective on this. You mentioned your high school career and you have read all these stories about coaches. Expound on that subject a little bit.”

Blauner: “I love that subject. In fact, every time I watch a close basketball game, college or pro, when it gets down to the last possession or two if a team has a timeout left and doesn’t use it, the announcers say, ‘You have a timeout left. Use it.’ The first time I remember being aware of this is with Bobby Knight’s teams at Indiana. Knight’s philosophy, if it’s not too much of a stretch to call it that, goes to what you are saying, which is there shouldn’t be anything new that I can introduce in a 45 second timeout. All the work, all the preparation has been done in practice long before that point in the game, before the game even started. If there is one characteristic of all successful coaches—if this is not way too much of a blanket statement—it is this almost obsessive work ethic. The classic stories, not necessarily in this book, are about the coaches who go back to the office after the game, watch game film, sleep at the office and if they weren’t doing this they don’t know what they would be doing. This is what they were born to do: it’s a mission, it’s a calling, it tears their insides out when they lose or when a kid doesn’t develop. For so many of them, whether it’s Belichick or—“

Friedman: “Joe Gibbs sleeping on the cot in his office, at least during his first time as Redskins coach. When he started there, he had a cot at the Redskins facility and I don’t think he went home for like five months, supposedly.”

Blauner: “Yeah. Over the years, for different reasons—not just for this book—I’ve wanted to contact a college or pro coach and almost every time the response that I would get from an intermediary is that I should wait until the season is over, because during the season the coach just doesn’t deal with anything. He can’t lose his focus and his concentration is all on the last game, the next game, today’s game. Now there might be no window because even during the offseason, depending on the level, there is scouting or recruiting; it’s become sort of a year round profession and obsession. That’s not a bad lesson to impart, even if the coach is not saying, ‘Look how hard I’m working or how much time I’m putting into coaching you guys.’ In the book, it comes out that the appreciation for what these coaches did, not surprisingly, is not felt at that time. The classic thing is that a coach gets on a player and is just riding him and riding him and the player cannot understand what he did to deserve this. It takes either someone else seeing it and saying it or it just takes the passage of time and some perspective to realize that the reason was that he cared about you and you weren’t working hard enough or he saw some potential in you that you didn’t see and weren’t going to actualize yourself. If you didn’t like him at the time because he was riding you, then so be it: it comes with the territory. The ones who were on me during my youth and riding me and driving me crazy were the people who, when I got to be an adult, said that if I ever got into a jam or needed a place that they always had a room for me. What is the expression, ‘home is where they always have to let you in’?”

Friedman: “I think so.”

Blauner: “I literally have a couple coaches who I could show up at their doorsteps today and it has nothing to do with Xs and Os or sports—they’d take me in like family. To go back to the real genesis and basis for all of this—maybe burying the lead a little bit—is that part of the reason that I and a lot of other people have these kind of relationships with coaches is there is so much divorce and kids often end up spending more time with their coaches than they do with either of their parents. There is sometimes that need for some other authority figure or connective tissue or whatever you want to call it. It’s not going to come from your parents and it’s not going to come from your teachers. There is something that comes out in the passion for basketball or whatever the sport is and that’s not just a surrogate: that is the person who you are looking up to and learning from. It’s not to sentimentalize any of this; that’s just reality. It sometimes seems like not a week goes by without a story in the New York Times or a national magazine about someone wanting to pay back or pay tribute (to their coaches), whether it’s Avery Johnson with the Mavericks or some CYO league kid who credits his coach for keeping him alive or off the streets and out of trouble. There are some people who will always dismiss or diminish sports and the ‘jockocracy’ or whatever you want to call it, but I think that if you read this book and read these stories (you will think otherwise)—partly because these are not just professional writers, but wonderful writers who not just have great stories to tell but who tell them so piercingly, insightfully well.”

Friedman: “What you mentioned about work ethic is interesting. On my website, I wrote a couple articles called ‘Basketball, Chess and Boxing.’ Part II ties into an article in Scientific American by Philip Ross, who is an expert level chess player and whose daughter is a master level chess player. He talked about what he called ‘effortful study’ and how research has shown that the common thread among people who are successful—chess players, musicians and so forth—is years and years of study—of course, not years of non-productive work, but years of concentrated, focused study. I think that relates to what you are talking about in terms of coaching and work ethic and the single mindedness that the coaches have. I think that it also applies to great players and not just to great athletes but to people who are successful in other fields."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:03 AM

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