Post subtitle: "The First Season"
It’s not easy being a head coach when an assistant coach thinks I’m one of the players the first time we meet.
So I look younger than my ripe, 26 years of age. And at 5’9”, I don’t exactly possess the gravitas of Phil Jackson, John Thompson or Rex Ryan. The only players I stand above are the foreign exchange students from South Korea.
If these opening paragraphs let on a slight sense of self-consciousness and insecurity, well, welcome to my first year as a high school head basketball coach.
I came into Dayspring Christian Academy with pretty lofty ambitions: being a role model of godly masculinity for my guys, instilling life values through the framework of high school athletics, and turning Dayspring into a basketball powerhouse, because why should football get all the glory? But mostly, with this being my first time since 2005 coaching boys, I wanted them to teach, show and gird them with practical and meaningful insight about what it means to be a man. I didn’t want to just win games; I wanted to make them into men.
Except I had no idea how to do that. Or, at least, not a very intentional or mapped-out idea of how to build them up in the ways they needed to be built up. I was flailing and failing to connect with the older players, the captains. When outbursts and sarcasm trickled through my actions and words as a result of not getting respect or not meeting my exact goals or visions, it became easier to focus on wins and losses and not on how well I was lovingly leading these boys in greater pursuits of manliness and maturity.
As it turned out, the one who learned the most in my first year as head coach at DCA was me. A little about leadership, a little about the game itself, but mostly about my shortcomings, my inconsistencies, and the things I was keeping from God. These painful glances in the mirror were the clearest when personnel issues had to be dealt with, and in my five years of coaching, I have never had a more tumultuous in-house season like this one. My girls’ teams at Thompson Valley in Loveland were less dramatic and contentious.
This first year wasn’t a complete failure, though some of the parents may beg to differ. For the first half of the season I rarely felt like myself, and the team seemed to share in my struggles for authenticity, perspective, self-discipline and faith.
Harley Lowe, the AD, was a much-needed support and sounding board during these early trials. His insights were critical in my own, as well as the team’s, development. Towards mid February, many of the on-the-job lessons I had learned began to bear fruit, and our lopsided losing record began to straighten out. I was being (more) encouraging; the guys began to buy into what we were selling; there was respect and optimism; we were actually looking like a team.
Two games will always stay with me from this season. One was a raucous home win against Longmont Christian, who had beaten us by three back in January. When they came to our place with district seeding implications on the line, we blew them out of the water. My guys played with grit on defense, patience and execution on offense, and our crowd was fantastic. This was the basketball I dreamed about before I was a head coach. This was fun.
With only one game left in the regular season after Longmont, we finally felt our chemistry and purpose coming together. As it turned out, this win didn’t boost us in the district standings – we were basically locked in as the sixth seed – but we weren’t playing like the sixth seed. Heritage Christian would have its hands full with us when districts started in a little less than a week.
Thus, the second game that I will carry with me is the district playoff game against the two-seeded Heritage Christian. We had played Heritage twice during the regular season and lost both meetings by a combined total of 10 points. The recent win against Longmont gave our confidence caffeine high; we had a Cinderella story on our minds. We were a senior-heavy team; Heritage started three sophomores and two juniors. We thought we could handle the playoff pressure better than them. Even though the game was at their place, we knew we could win. After our last regular season loss to Heritage – in their gym – I guaranteed my guys we would beat them come playoff time.
Did I allude to Rex Ryan earlier? My guarantee came up begging. The game started off disastrously: we laid an egg in the first quarter. Yeah. No points. But our defense was playing well enough that Heritage had only scored 11 in that first period. We went into halftime down 15.
I don’t remember exact details from my halftime speech. Looking back on it, I can remember a general sense of what I said. There was a lot of imploring to keep fighting, to stay together, because that’s what we had been doing all year: fighting, playing our butts even when no one believed we could it. This is a football school, look at those poor basketball players, aww, aren’t they special, look at how hard they play. No, no more patronizing. We hadn’t come this far to go out quietly into the cold of late Colorado winter. I think I told them that this comeback would be our finest hour, that life’s great challenges require great resolve and faith, and this was a test of who we were as men.
Andrew Garcia played point for us most of the year, but it had been a massive struggle. Last season’s starting point guard blew out his ACL playing football, and Andrew, a natural scoring guard, was forced to learn how to lead a team. Kind of like his coach. A game or two before the Longmont win, we moved Andrew to the 2-guard spot and Thomas Martin, another senior, to the point. We liked how the experiment had worked so far, but nothing could compare to what happened in the second half.
Andrew came out of the locker room swinging. Three after three after three. Our crowd got into it. Heritage played tentative basketball. We chipped, chipped, chipped away at the lead. In total, Andrew hit six 3’s in the second half. He should have been playing this position all year. With a little over three minutes left in the fourth quarter, we were only down six. We were really going to do it.
But a goose egg in the first quarter of a district playoff game is too steep of a hill to overcome. I think we lost by eight or nine. Heritage hit their free throws down the stretch. When our bus pulled up in front of our school around 10:30 that night, Andrew approached me with a strange request: “Can you open up the gym?” I said I would, but asked why. “I want to say goodbye,” he said.
So he said goodbye, and the tears were still on his cheeks when he exited the gym for the last time about 10 minutes later. This was the same kid who volunteered to help a teammate finish running his 45 suicides because he was 45 minutes late for practice. A kid no more.
Can I get a redo? Can I start this season over again, so I can give Andrew the senior year he deserved? Can we restart this whole thing over again with the perspective, lessons and attitudes that I now have? Please tell me something is redeemable from all of this. I want another shot.
The line between success and failure is very blurred when I look back on this season. There is nothing wrong with failure. It’s a great catalyst; the best of all teachers. It is the best motivator to check where your joy, identity and fulfillment are grounded. But I’m still left wondering about what could have been.
Part of me believes that the reoccurring struggles throughout the season were manifestations of larger stresses in my life. Work wasn’t helping my overall mood and outlook on life. I was coming in early and working through lunches in order to be able to leave early for practice or games. On game days I wouldn’t get home until nearly midnight, and was up in a few hours to start it all over again. I sensed a giant bulls-eye on my back, and the bosses were constantly taking aim at me. On top of that, I was beginning to look for a new place of employment anyway. I had been at AMG Creative since graduating from CSU in 2008, and three years of writing dental laboratory copy can be a little wearisome. I wasn’t checked out mentally, but I had my books in hand and was looking in my wallet for the library card.
And at the time, Lindsey and I were subletting the basement of a house owned by an 87 year-old lady. She was demanding and angry. There was so much going on – basketball issues, work issues, an incredibly delicate situation at “home,” and, oh yeah, I’m married. Our next date night, babe? Try two months from now. Lindsey was more than a trooper; she was so patient, so supportive. I don’t know if I’ll truly know how hard this first season was on her. She was a renewing spirit throughout it all.
Naturally, due all of everything going on and no time for any of it, my quiet times and prayer life suffered. How could I be a godly role model to these boys if I wasn’t being a role model to myself? I was so unbalanced; life was moving too fast. I was running a spiritual deficit: imploring and teaching principles and values that I myself wasn’t practicing in my own life. I honestly don’t know how we got through it, or how things improved later in the season. God’s grace was pulling overtime. I don’t know if I fully realized it at the time.
Coaching is for the young. But the life Lindsey and I were living is for the dogs. We couldn’t keep up that pace. It’s no wonder that God pulled the rug out from under us only a few days after the season ended, but I’ll explain more about that in later posts.
This offseason, I’m reading all I can on leadership and resting in God’s joy. Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx is an invaluable read for coaches, parents and boys; it was convicting and inspiring all at once, and has provided a paradigm shift in my approach to coaching. I’m also reading Tony Dungy’s The Mentor Leader and N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. Dungy’s book is tremendous, and Wilson’s is, well, it’s “poetry with testicles,” as he would say. Get all three of these books.
So, you ask, here at the end of this bittersweet tale: Do I think my first year as a head coach was a failure or a success?
With a record of 7-and-10, it’s easy to say it was a failure. But one thing I’m learning is how to properly define “success” and “failure.”
This season was a success – but only because of the failures.