There's something about coaches. They're easy to spot, impossible to ignore (even if you dislike what they're saying), and always seem to have a unique way of seeing things.
Earlier this week I attended an event at Fenway Park's EMC Club. It featured a discussion panel of four very interesting coaches: Doc Rivers, Bobby Valentine, BC hockey coach Jerry York, and Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker. Four men, three different sports, two types of athletes to coach (professional and amateur), and four very different personalities. But all with the same basic job. To coach.
It was moderated by WEEI's Glen Ordway and Michael Holley. It was hosted by the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides workshops and training to coaches at the youth and high school level.
You couldn't ask for a more diverse group of coaches with a broader range of experiences. This "Coffee With the Coaches" breakfast was worth setting my alarm to 4:30 AM, and being so groggy that I forgot to wear a belt with my dress shirt and pants.
Before the discussion even started, the personable and ever friendly Jerry York was mingling with people in the crowd, carrying a plate of sausage and eggs, and as usual smiling. I don't think Coach York is physically or emotionally capable of scowling.
The coolness and honesty of Doc Rivers was evident from start to finish. When asked about learning from other coaches, he admitted that he stole a play from his son's grade school team and used it in the playoffs against Cleveland a few years ago. Paul Pierce scored a layup and the play has since been dubbed "Grade School."
He also talked about being a teammate with Patrick Ewing, who "guilted you into practicing," and how good of a teammate Kevin Garnett is. Whenever the Celtics acquire a rookie, Garnett takes them shopping and buys them two suits.
Michael Holley asked Doc about KG's returning to the Celtics. Rivers nonchalantly answered "Absolutely... I don’t know if Kevin is coming back but let’s just say yes." When Holley pointed out the small forest of media cameras at the back of the room, Rivers didn't seem to care.
Although earlier he joked sarcastically about the media and how much he and other coaches "really enjoy the interview in the 3rd quarter" of playoff games.
Tommy Amaker's directness was clear as a bell. He might be the only person in New England who could drive straight in a rotary. He told a story about when he first took over Harvard basketball in 2007. He assembled the parents of his players for a meeting in the locker room. And he told them what he expected their role to be with the team. He asked that they be supportive of their players, and positive during the game. If they couldn't be positive, they should be quiet. And if they wanted to be negative, they could wait until after the game, then they could speak to him and call him whatever they want.
Every answer he gave was direct and to the point. He quoted an AAU coach of his who frequently stated "We can use you or we don't need you."
He wasn't bland, though. He just didn't evade or sugar-coat his honest opinion.
Then there was Bobby Valentine, the loquacious philosopher. Maybe it was his own reflective nature, or maybe he was feeling the effects of a rain delayed game that had ended only a handful of hours before the event, but he was certainly the most abstract member of the panel.
He quoted the poetically phrased rules of Japanese baseball...
He referred to players on a team who understand what to do in order to win as "disciples" who have fully accepted and understood a figurative "scripture."
He alluded to advice from Casey Stengel, who said "The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven't made up their minds."
At such an early hour, his words seemed to wander, but there was no mistaking the fervency and passion behind each response. His words didn't wander because he was being vague or pompous. He was honestly excited about answering each question and giving his opinion.
You'd think with this foursome of different personalities, you might get contradictions. That wasn't the case.
They all agreed that for kids involved in sports, the role of the parent is to support the kid, and to let the coach coach the team. They all agreed that character is an important part of success.
They all talked about important coaches in their own athletic careers, from Doc Rivers' Marine Corps basketball coach to Bobby Valentine being coached by Tommy Lasorda. In fact, when Harvard made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1966, Tommy Amaker sent Mike Krzyzewski (Amaker played at Duke and was an assistant coach under Krzyzewski) a case of wine. That case arrived when Doc Rivers was in Coach K's office discussing his son Austin.
And they all talked about the role their parents played in their development as athletes. Bobby Valentine's father would try to keep him humble after a big performance by telling him that a "kid in California just scored 7 touchdowns," or that "a kid in upstate New York hit 4 homeruns today." I guess we can see why Valentine is so eager to prove himself.
Jerry York's father was a physician ("Back when physicians did everything from deliver babies to take out kidneys"), and York had 9 siblings, so it was difficult for his parents to be at every game, but they tried.
Doc Rivers' father was a cop and would watch his son play standing in a spot by the door, just under the basket. Years later, a referee confessed to Rivers that his father being armed and under the basket always intimidated him.
Finally there was a question about "losing players."
Bobby V on tactic for dealing with 'lost players'
Coaches are asked questions all the time. They're asked about players, about decisions past and future, about injuries, about why they took Beckett out in the 6th, about why they went for it on 4th down. They're asked about their team, their GM, their job status, their city, their opponent, other coaches.
This event was unique. Coaches were answering questions about coaching. It was a rare chance to learn about what goes on inside a coach's mind.
Definitely worth the 4:30 AM wake up, the drive into Boston, the Mountain Dew, and the breath mints to cover up the Mountain Dew breath.