Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Tragedy and the Triumph: A Tale of Two (Dead) Coaches

This past week has found the sports pages filled with two very different stories of great coaches who died young. The first is a montage of international intrigue and murder in the seemingly benign world of cricket; the other about how a heroic local high school coach's heart failure was the catalyst for a heartwarming tale of hope in a small town in Wisconsin. Let us begin ...

Bob Woolmer, the head coach of the highly rated Pakistan national team, was also a former star cricket player in England, and, at 58, no stranger to the passions and pressures of World Cup competition. Still, even this seasoned vet, could not have envisioned the troubles he would face when his team lost to the upstarts from Ireland. First, irate Pakistani fans who had traveled to Jamaica to watch the Irish upset demanded Woolmer be arrested. Meanwhile, back in Pakistan, the streets began to fill with mobs who burned Bob in effigy. But the true topper came the next night when Woolmer (apparently by someone he knew, since there were no signs of forced entry), was found strangled to death in his hotel room.

But on the other end of the continent (and spectrum), a tale with quite a different ending was unfolding in by-gosh Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Steven Randall, the beloved long-time basketball coach of OshKosh West High School left the close knit community stunned when a usually routine angioplasty found him dead at the age of 53. But if that event shocked the town, what happened next was even more amazing. Steve's son Lance, at 33, on the fast track to a Division I head coaching position, left his assistant coach's job at St. Louis University and came back home to take his dad's old job—and in doing so, took a $50,000/yr. pay cut.

Initially everyone thought Lance was crazy, especially when the mythic storybook ending did not take place. Having moved his wife, Pam, and daughter, Evelyn (then 22 months), in with his mom since he couldn't afford a place of his own, Randall did inherit a strong team that was ranked #1 at the end of 2005, Lance's first season. But Oshkosh West lost early on in the playoffs and everyone thought Lance (especially with his top two players graduating) would move on.

Instead, Lance dug into his decision to honor his father even deeper. He got a degree to teach Special Ed kids during the day, and at night, his team made the whole town feel special, winning games in miraculous fashion, including one contest on a 75 ft. prayer that made the highlight on SportsCenter. This time, his underdog team (to the fans' chants of "STE-ven RAN-dall" when his Wildcats played at home) did win the state title—and repeated the feat again this season, bringing the people to their feet and according to Randall, "made a town of 65,000 feel like 500."

And what lessons do we take from these quite different teams? The first typifies everything wrong with modern-day sports; greed (besides salaries, huge sums of money are wagered on cricket, always leading to the temptation of match fixing) winning at all cost, and of course, out-of-control fans. As for Oshkosh, the Randall story (Lance's three sisters still live in town as well) shows how the discipline and sacrifice of a sports team can still bring a family or town together, or as Lance summarized, "It only goes to show you that if you do what's in your heart and do it with passion, things will work out." While Notre Dame football, with the Lady on the Dome acting as its "number one fan" is perhaps the only team that can bring fans together on a national level without (as in the case of Pakistan's cricket team) becoming a tool of Nationalism, the Randall family/Oshkosh West saga (yes, the movie rights have already been sold!) shows that any sports team, given the right motivation, can still transform a city of strangers into a community of friends.

No comments :