Bad Coaches

Chatterbox readers present their horror stories.

Last week, in noting the recent publication of three nonfiction books by prominent authors that celebrate athletic coaches, I invited readers to debunk the gauzy idealization of The Coach as font of all wisdom. I chose my audience well; Slate readers responded enthusiastically. I was intrigued to see how similarly readers described their coaches. The composite would be a burly guy with a bad comb-over smoking a cigarette on the sidelines. When he isn’t dispensing random punishments with an exaggeratedly casual air, he is making passes at the cheerleaders.

A few readers wrote in to defend coaches, most commonly by pointing out that nonathletes like me didn’t have coaches because we didn’t play on any teams. What we had were gym teachers, who wouldn’t be any more happy wasting their time with the klutzes than, say, a science teacher would spending an entire school period trying to explain the second law of thermodynamics to the dummies. Point taken. I did not omit gym teachers from my survey, but I tried not to rely on them too heavily.

The single best coach story I heard concerned a college football coach who purportedly made his players run wind sprints while each one held a single grape between the cheeks of his buttocks. The unfortunate soul who came in last had to eat the grapes. Haunting though this story is, I can’t verify it. My correspondent, a rather distinguished newspaper columnist, said he read about this in a biography of the coach in question that was published in the 1970s. But despite assiduously searching and Google’s book-search page, I was unable to find any reference to the butt-grape ritual, and therefore shall withhold the name of the coach in question. (I think it may also be awhile before I can bring myself to eat a grape.)

Giving the matter further thought, I decided that, in the anecdotes below, it would be best to withhold all names, both of accusers and of the accused. My concern isn’t so much the prospect of a libel suit as it is that one of the bad coaches will find out where I live.

With that, I turn it over to my readers:

The Cold War Coach. When I was in high school (graduated in 1989) the coach/PE teacher always divided teams in gym class into the Americans and the Commies. I had moved to the US at age 13 from France; my best friend in tenth grade a Russian Jew whose mother had gotten out of the Soviet Union somehow. One day the coach divided the class more or less at random for a game of floor hockey. As he watched Marat (my friend was named after that Marat, yes) and me wander over to the American side, he started, and yelled after us, “What are you doing? Get over there with the Commies!” …The Absent-Minded (Assistant) Coach. Scranton Prep’s basketball team was preparing for a playoff game against a team from Wilkes-Barre. Prep’s head coach saw fit to send his assistant coach down Interstate 81 to scout the opposition, which had one meaningless regular season game left on its schedule.”We’re screwed,” the assistant coach said on his return. Then he launched into a litany of the many basketball virtues possessed by Bobby Sura, Grand Army of the Republic High School’s all-state guard. He wasn’t exaggerating. Sura went on to be Sam Cassell’s backcourt mate at Florida State, where he earned all-ACC honors, and he is currently in the midst of a solid, if unspectacular, NBA career. In high school, Sura dominated. He could jump; he could shoot; he could handle the ball; he had one hell of a mullet. “Sura beat Bishop Hoban High School by himself,” the coach concluded. “I don’t know how we’re going to stop him.”The players, a few of whom were exchanging anxious glances during the coach’s speech, all now stared straight at their captain, a three-sport letterman with a fair shot at all-state himself. He shrugged and spoke up, “That’s great, Coach. But we’re playing Hoban.”The Fouling Coach. My high-school basketball coach must have been all of 24. Played NCAA Div I ball at a college in the northeast. His idea of practice was showing us high-school kids he was better than us, by participating in scrimmages—where he cheated. Stepping on feet, shoving, hacking, etc. He was very free with his elbows, to the point where my Old Man (a Studs Lonigan Irish type) told me next time he hit me, I should hit him back.Fortunately, it didn’t happen. Another Irish kid (this was partly an Irish-Italian thing) got in his face and he laid off.The Beer-Drinking Coach. After one particularly hard-fought game, my high-school basketball coach sent me, at the age of 16, to the nearby liquor store to buy him a six-pack. Coors was his preferred brand.

Oddly enough, the liquor store sold it to me.

I handed the entire six-pack over to him. He offered to pay; I said it was on me; he told me to feel free to take a can for myself.The Scholar-Athlete Coach, Part 1.At my Tennessee high school in the mid-1970s, the head football coach taught “Earth Science,” which was a kind of physics without math for the slower kids. One day, several students confirmed, he declared without irony (an alien concept to him) that light travels faster downhill.The Scholar-Athlete Coach, Part 2. My high-school football coach was mystifyingly weird. He made me a tight end/receiver in ninth grade because I was big and tall. Only problem was, I couldn’t catch the ball. The only—and I mean the only—instruction I ever received from this guy was after I would fail to catch a pass in practice. He would say: “You gotta catch those!” I remember thinking, “Gee, thanks coach! That’s, like, totally helpful. I thought it was OK to drop it!”The puzzling thing is that he was also the best history teacher I ever had, at least until my senior year in college.The Exhibitionist Coach. I tried out for crew and skinny kids like me made a team, “The Sixth Four.” There were only six boats, and ours was the worst; bathtub-wide, slow, built out of heavy marine ply and patched with pitch, shellac, crude fiberglass. We were hopeless, lost all our races. Our coach had the kind of retired bachelor chic that in retrospect screams predator: windswept comb-over, roll-your-own smokes, stained shorts, Jesus sandals, emphysetic cough, punch-your-arm hello. The other coaches avoided him.For a while he insisted on sitting in the coxswain’s seat. It made the whole boat sag and, with a wind up, water came over the gunwale. I was the guy facing him. He’d say “stroke” and we would row, he’d nitpick, and warn us about “catching crabs.”

I figured out later why he sat there. It wasn’t to give us his wisdom close up; it was to show us his balls. Every time I looked down at my feet, there was one of them staring back at me through a gap in his shorts, legs spread wide. They were shiny and sick-looking. Even when I tried not to look, there one was, lurking out, weird as Sputnik. I lost my timing, I was relegated to the back of the boat and thankfully I never saw them again.The Undisciplined Coach.In junior high and high school there was a guy in his mid-20s who was the favorite coach of a lot of classmates of mine. He coached Little League, ran his own summer sports day camp, took kids on trips to amusement parks and even had sleepovers. Lots of kids loved him.

He was my coach when I played on our city’s summer all-star baseball team. That’s when I realized that he not only enjoyed the company of teenagers but had the maturity of one as well. During a practice, I was playing second base when, without warning, he whipped a ball right at me. It struck me in the face and broke my nose. He came over and said, “Got to get your glove up.”

Recently, he was sentenced to prison for arranging over the Internet to meet a teenage boy to have sex.

The Unlamented Coach. I was the fat kid you alluded to in your piece today. Many years ago when I was a seventh grade boy trying to play baseball, my coach chased me around the bases with a baseball bat, swatting me in the butt, because I wasn’t running fast enough to suit him. Not long after this, he was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was not among his mourners.

I direct any readers who wish to pursue this debunking further to the delightful 1997 song, “Hey, Coach, Don’t Call Me a Queer,” performed by the a cappella group the Bobs.

[Update, 10:34 a.m. ET: A couple of readers have alerted me that one source, and possibly the only source, of the butt-grape story is Lance Rentzel’s 1972 book, When All the Laughter Died in Sorrow. Rentzel was the Dallas Cowboy who, despite being married to the bombshell singer/dancer Joey Heatherton, found it necessary to expose himself to a 10-year-old girl. Before Rentzel entered the pros, he was a college player for the University of Oklahoma, whose coach, Charles B. (“Bud”) Wilkinson was a famously tough customer. According to a review  of the book that appeared in the Harvard Crimson in 1973,

The season ended with the notorious “O” club initiation, a ritual for all first-year varsity lettermen. The initiates were ordered to crawl backward for fifty yards with “grapes up our asses,” forced to drink menstrual fluid, and constantly shocked with battery-powered cattle prods. Coaches observed these activities to ensure that the proceedings “didn’t get too sadistic.”

Note that the grape ritual, if described accurately by the reviewer, involved crawling backward, not running forward, and note, too, that there is no mention of the horrible fate that reputedly befell the loser. Moreover, the entire passage carries for me the whiff of folklore, even before one remembers that mental stability was not the author’s strong suit. (On the other hand, I suppose such maltreatment might conceivably help explain Rentzel’s subsequent aberrant behavior.) Chatterbox will strive mightily to keep you informed of further developments in this fast-breaking story.]