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1. Father Knows Best from Al Bernstein’s 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths about Boxing, Sports, and TV 2. What Will You Remember When You Are 90? from Mark Cuban’s How to Win at the Sport of Business 3. Foreword by Cal Ripken, Jr. from Cal Ripken Sr.’s The Ripken Way 4. Valdosta from Mike Leach’s Swing Your Sword
30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths About Boxing, Sports, and TV by Al Bernstein
Undeniable Truth #4: Father Knows Best
OK, this undeniable truth may have some exceptions like Joe Jackson, John Phillips, Marv Marinovich, and any dad who ever let his child sleep overnight at the Neverland Ranch. Yes, there are plenty of fathers that may not know best, but let’s not quibble. How about we just agree that the dads I will talk about in this chapter knew best, and perhaps we can say that on some level the vast majority of fathers have some wisdom to offer to their children. Here’s a good example. On a summer night in 1960 the Chicago Cubs had mounted a rally in the 8th inning against the Cincinnati Reds. They did it at the expense of a young relief pitcher just called up from the minors. After the Reds’ manager removed him from the game, this pitcher was the picture of dejection as he trudged back to the dugout. Watching this scene unfold on television was a ten-year-old Cubs fan. He was so elated that he felt the need, there in his living room, to taunt the dejected pitcher. He got up and pointed at the screen and said, “Yeah, you got nothin’ kid, back to the minors for you.” A moment later the screen went black. The young boy looked befuddled that this rare moment of Cubs-induced joy had suddenly disappeared. His father, normally a gentle and some might say too lenient parent, had shut the television off. In a stern voice he told his son, “Just because your team is doing well doesn’t mean you have to attack that pitcher personally. You never do that to an athlete or anyone else
for failing. Would you want someone doing that to you? If you ever do that again you will never watch baseball with me in this house.” Because his dad had never talked to him that way before, the ten-year-old got the message and immediately felt ashamed for his outburst. He said only, “I’m sorry, Dad.” The game resumed and the boy never spoke that way about an athlete again. The boy and his father watched in harmony as many sporting events as they could after that, but the number was far too few because the father died of cancer less than two years later. The father’s name was Sol Bernstein, and I have never forgotten the lesson my dad taught me on that summer night. Without knowing it at the time, he gave me the cornerstone of my approach to sports writing and broadcasting. I have tried very hard as a commentator to live up to the standard my father set for me that night. If my dad were still alive I am sure he would join me in my disgust for the recent trend in covering sports that allows and even encourages the most vile and personal criticism of sports figures. Even as a ten-year-old I got the point. You can accurately cover both the successes and failures of athletes, teams, or other sports figures, offering celebration of the former and responsible criticism of the latter without making your comments personal and degrading. When you offer only snide and degrading commentary you only degrade yourself. There will be more on that in chapter 8, but please don’t skip ahead because you’ll hate yourself for missing the next few chapters. In those I reveal the answers to three burning questions: 1) Who really shot JFK? 2) Where is the Loch Ness Monster? and 3) How does Mel Kiper get his hair to look that way? Meanwhile, back to this undeniable truth. In addition to baseball I watched boxing with my father. Well, first I listened to boxing “near” my father. When I was nine years old I would get out of bed and sneak down the stairs and sit just out of eyeshot of my dad and I would listen to the Gillette Friday Night Fights on television. I heard the voice of the great Don Dunphy calling the action. As I sat in the dark on that stairway listening and imagining how my dad was enjoying watching those fights, I hungered for two things. The first was to be old enough to go
down and watch the boxing with my father, and the second was to some day grow up and be a sportscaster just like Don Dunphy. Some months into this Friday night ritual I heard my mother come into the living room when my dad was watching the fights. I could barely make out their conversation. I did pick up the end of it, where my mother said with a grudging laugh, “OK, let him come down.” Then my father called out to me, “Buddy boy [his pet name for me] come on down. You can watch the fights.” He obviously knew all along that I was lurking on the stairway, and on this night his lobbying efforts with my mother had finally paid off. I bolted down the stairs and took up a position on the floor near my father’s easy chair. With supreme joy I watched my first boxing match on television. This became a Friday night ritual that I will always treasure. Those Friday night fights featured greats like Emile Griffith, Dick Tiger, Carmen Basilio, Gene Fullmer, and Archie Moore. Those fighters were wonderful, but there was one boxer who completely stole my heart. With the exception of my Chicago Cubs hero Ernie Banks, no athlete then or since has captivated me more than Sugar Ray Robinson. He is regarded as the greatest boxer who ever lived, and equally important he had a panache and style that was impossible to resist. He didn’t have to call attention to himself. Simply by being Sugar Ray he demanded that you pay attention to him. How could you not? He would enter the ring as the embodiment of elegant simplicity. Wearing a tasteful black or white robe tied in the front, his hair slicked back to accentuate his movie star looks, he would move in his corner with an ease and elegance that let you know you were about to see something special. By the time I got to see him he was already thirty-nine years old, certainly not in his prime. Amazingly he was still one of the best middleweights in the world, and he made the night of December 3, 1960, one I will never forget. Sugar Ray fought Gene Fullmer to try and reclaim the middleweight title. Gene was twenty-nine years old and defending the crown for the fourth time. Sugar Ray had knocked him out with a thunderous left hook the previous time they met in the ring, but that was three years earlier. Sugar Ray was the decided underdog for this match.
These two men were as different as two people could be. Sugar Ray was a dazzling urbanite from New York City who lived the high life. He appeared as a tap dancer on national television variety shows and was one of the first boxers to really cross over as a show biz celeb. Fullmer, on the other hand, was a Mormon from West Jordan, Utah. He was the very definition of a blue-collar type of guy who worked as a welder before turning to pro boxing. Inside the ring they were also a stark contrast to each other. Even at thirty-nine Robinson was poetry in motion, a textbook boxer-puncher who did just about everything right. His movement was fluid, as if he had choreographed the fight like one of his dance routines. And with the beautiful movement came picture-perfect combination punching. Fullmer was a plodding fighter who would bludgeon foes into submission. He was all about the will to win. Make no mistake, he knew how to fight, but compared to Robinson he looked like an unskilled laborer. In his defense, almost everyone looked like that when compared to Sugar Ray. What Gene Fullmer did know how to do was win, and he did so fifty-five times in his career. On that December night in 1960 Sugar Ray Robinson defeated Father Time. Over fifteen grueling rounds he boxed beautifully against the younger Fullmer. He summoned up something special inside that thirty-nine-year-old body that had been through 150 fights in a twenty-year career. He out boxed Gene and out punched him too, landing more punches and the harder shots. Yes, he beat Father Time, but he did not beat the judges. Somehow this match was officially ruled a draw, allowing Fullmer to keep his world title. The referee, who scored back then, made the fight 11 rounds to 4 for Robinson, while one judge inexplicably gave Fullmer 9 rounds and scored him the winner. The final judge ruled it a draw 7-7-1. When the decision was announced I nearly pierced my father’s eardrums by screaming “No, they can’t do that!” Nearly all of the writers at ringside thought Sugar Ray had won the match, and the crowd reaction told us that they thought so too. As a fan and broadcaster I have gnashed my teeth many times since over what appeared to be terrible decisions, but none ever had the impact that that one did on me as a ten-year-old
boy. Perhaps this was good training for being a lifelong Cubs fan where disappointment and frustration is simply a way of life. At the time, however, I was devastated. I cried myself to sleep. Like most sports fans that have seen their favorite team or athlete lose, I let my irrational side take over. I wasn’t just mad at the judges for their act of larceny—I saw Gene Fullmer as the villain as well. How, I wondered, could he even accept such a tainted draw—and have the nerve to say in the postfight interview that he thought he won? How could he even wear that championship belt with any pride? I was a ten-year-old scorned, and Gene was one of the targets of my ire. My preteen and then teenage mind directed me to root against Gene whenever he fought. That would teach him. As I got older I realized that Gene Fullmer was as far from being a villain as anyone could ever be. In fact, Gene is a wonderful guy. When I first met him at the 75th Anniversary Gala of Ring Magazine, he was humorous and delightful and very complimentary of my announcing. That gave me a great feeling, and made me feel a bit guilty for rooting against him as a youngster. I see Gene and his family each year at the International Hall of Fame inductions. Ironically, his wife Karen is a Chicago native who also lives the hard life of a Cubs fan. She is quite simply one of the most charming people you could ever meet. Of course, the man who announced that Robinson-Fullmer fight on television and all the rest of the Friday Night Fight series was the great Don Dunphy. While I had tremendous admiration for Sugar Ray Robinson, I was nearly as awestruck by Don. When I first saw Don on television he was at the height of an amazing career. He had been a versatile all-around radio sportscaster in the 1930s, with great knowledge of baseball and track and field. He had been a distance runner at Manhattan College. Then in 1941 he started doing the Friday Night Fight series on radio and became the voice of boxing. So, Don was my chosen role model and I would find out later in life that I chose wisely. In 1985 The ESPN Top Rank Boxing series was moving to Friday night, and as a part of
that someone came up with the very good idea to have me interview the official voice of those Gillette Friday Night Fights…the very same Don Dunphy. So I was to share the television stage with the man who fueled my desire to become a sportscaster. Along with my excitement to meet him I had some concerns. What if I did not do a really good interview with him? Did he even like my work as a broadcaster? Finally, what if, as so often is the case, up close and personal my hero turned out to not be as genial and supportive as I imagined he would be? I felt like how the character of Rachel Berry on Glee would feel if she were going to meet Barbra Streisand. During preproduction for one of our Atlantic City ESPN Top Rank Boxing shows, Don showed up for the interview. He strode right up to me with the same smile I had seen so often on television and said, “Gee, Al, it’s so good to meet you.” Vintage Don Dunphy—a simple statement uncluttered by extra verbiage. It was his warm smile and affectionate handshake that made me feel he really meant what he said. Minus the romance it was the same feeling I would later have in meeting my wife, Connie—I melted. We taped a seven-minute interview (huge in length for an element put into coverage of a live sports event), and it went very well. He offered insights and shared anecdotes that reminded me of why I admired him so much. Then he told me how much he enjoyed the interview and we exchanged phone numbers. From that moment on he became a friend and a mentor. We would talk on the phone and discuss boxing and broadcasting. I started as an analyst, but by the mid 1980s I was also hosting (play-by-play) boxing shows. In developing a method and style of doing play-by-play, I consciously took elements from the work of Don and two of my ESPN partners, Sal Marchiano and Sam Rosen. Later I would be influenced by working with Barry Tompkins, Bob Papa, and Steve Albert. Hey, at least we can say this—I only steal from the best! I don’t mind saying that I was influenced by those talented men, listening closely to what they did as I worked beside them. You can endow your work with elements of what others do without doing an impression of them. You can certainly leave room for your own originality
to shine through. When Don Dunphy worked on television in the 1950s and 1960s, he almost always worked alone. He was not only a skilled host (as evidenced by his work in other sports), but also he knew boxing well enough to add some additional comments that offered viewers analysis of the fight as well. He felt strongly that boxing should be commentated by one person and one alone. God knows what he would think of the three-man announce teams that are so prevalent today. In fact, for the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight in 1971, Don would not share the microphone with a movie star. This event, Don believed, was too important to boxing history to become a mere show business spectacle. The promoters, who came from the theatrical world, had actually hired Burt Lancaster to do color commentating for the event. Don steadfastly told the promoters, “I am working these rounds solo. Mr. Lancaster can talk only between rounds.” Wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Lancaster got a little excited during one round and started to talk. Don simply put his hand over Burt’s microphone to prevent that from happening. Mr. Dunphy had the last word on this. I actually did announce fights on my own at ESPN. In 1986 some decision maker (possibly a descendant of the Marquis de Sade), decided it would be an interesting experiment to have me work a two-and-a-half-hour Top Rank show alone. It’s probably hard for many of you to imagine that happening, but since I am not one of those “drink cocktails at the pool and tell exaggerated stories to a ghostwriter” kind of guy, I can assure you this really happened. It was tricky on many fronts—one being that I also had to interview the fighters after each fight, so it took some creativity to segue into and out of those. I fought my way through it all. I must say, I was impressed with my analyst that night— a very insightful chap. Oh, wait, that was me too. Actually, I was just relieved to get through the night in one piece and get the job done. Don called me the next day and said, “See, that’s the way to do boxing, you don’t need anyone else with you. Tell them you want to do the shows
alone. It was great.” While I appreciated his praise more than anything I could possibly hear, I didn’t have the heart to remind Don that when he did the Friday night fights alone, every show was one hour, and almost always one fight. The idea of doing a two-and-a-half-hour show with three to four fights forty-eight weeks out of the year seemed a little daunting, even to a thirty-sixyear-old who loved sportscasting. Don provided me with the two proudest moments of my career. The first came when Don was asked in a magazine article “Who is your favorite boxing announcer?” He replied simply, “Al Bernstein is my favorite—I really enjoy listening to him.” I remember thinking at that moment, whatever happens the rest of my career, I now had all the validation I needed. To paraphrase Sally Fields at the Academy Awards, “HE LIKES ME!” The other big moment came at the 75th Anniversary Celebration of Ring Magazine. It was a grand event and Don was to receive the award as the greatest boxing announcer of all time. He asked that I present the award to him. As I got ready to go on stage to present the award I wished more than anything that my father could be there to see this. Don had been a link to my father…to those treasured moments we spent watching boxing matches chronicled by the great Don Dunphy. All this came full circle in 2003 when I joined Showtime Networks as a boxing
analyst on the Showtime Championship Boxing series. The director of that series is Bob Dunphy, Don’s son. Like his father, Bob is not only great at his job, but also the most gracious of men. Bob has been the director of the Showtime series since its inception in 1989. He has also had a seventeen-year, award-winning stint as a director for CBS sports where he did all the major sporting events, including major boxing matches. From 1941 to 2012 the Dunphy family has been a major force in bringing the sport of boxing to the public. That’s more than remarkable. Just as I started watching the fights with my father on television at age ten, Bob and his brother Don Jr. (who has also had a successful career in television in New York), started going to the fights in person with their dad. I was excited just to get to watch them on television— imagine how Bob felt accompanying his dad, the voice of boxing, to the Mecca of boxing,
Madison Square Garden. All this during a golden age for the sport. Bob said, “I remember going to The Garden and my brother Don Jr. and I were sitting about ten rows back when the crowd started buzzing. We looked around and there was Sugar Ray Robinson, with a gorgeous woman on each arm. He walked down the aisle to his seat and waved to the crowd. They went crazy.” Bob, who played the outfield at Notre Dame, learned about baseball, boxing, and television from his dad. And he learned discipline that was enhanced by both his and his father’s education at Catholic schools from grade school to college. Don was not an authoritarian as a parent—he was a soft-spoken and gentle man (much like my father). Still, he had a no-nonsense approach to getting the job done that was passed on to his sons. Bob learned something from his dad’s straightforward, no-frills approach to covering boxing matches. “When directing a live sports event you can mess it up by being too creative,” Bob said. He added, “You have to make sure you present the event properly. You can’t make a terrible fight better with creative directing, but you can ruin a good fight.” The idea is simple— serve the viewer. That was Don Dunphy’s credo. While Don was not a negative announcer, he also refused to try and make a terrible fight better by selling it too hard. Bob remembers that at one point some executives at Madison Square Garden were upset with Don’s call of a not-so-thrilling fight. He said, “The New York Post ran a story defending my father, and in that story my father said, ‘I won’t fake it if a fight is not good.’ He did not back down.” Just as my father taught me a lesson in civility in my own living room that would help me as a sportscaster, Don taught lessons by example that his sons would put to good use in their television careers. His dad’s work and his legacy is never lost on Bob. “I always travel with my father’s credential from the George Foreman-Joe Frazier fight. I keep it in my briefcase and it goes with me to every boxing match I direct. It always will.” I have one child, a twelve-year-old named Wes. He did not get the memo that his dad is a sportscaster. His passion and talent is in acting and music. If you mention an Oscar to him, he
does not think De La Hoya, he thinks Academy Award. I have no problem relating to his interest because I love theater and music as well. Even if I didn’t I would still be watching the show Glee with him every Tuesday night to share the experience. That’s why dads were invented. One of our yearly rituals is watching the Tony Awards together. To us and to millions of others it is a magical night when the best in theater show respect to each other, dazzle us with their talents, and often reveal something of their soul. In some ways don’t boxers do the same? Wes and I revel in those Tony moments the same way my father and I did while watching those Friday night fights. Whether it’s the cast of Memphis bringing the blues to life through song and dance, or a thirty-nine-year-old Sugar Ray Robinson finding the fountain of youth against Gene Fullmer, both are moments worth freezing in time. I look at Wes watching the Tony Awards and I know he is dreaming of one day being on that show, just as I watched those fights and dreamed of being Don Dunphy. Some of the most enjoyable moments for me a sportscaster are when a father and son approach me to say hello or take a photo. I hope that in some small measure I am a part of some special moments for them, just as Don Dunphy was for me and my dad.
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How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can by Mark Cuban
What Will You Remember When You Are 90?
Unique opportunities. How many of them will you have in your life? One? One hundred? The thing about life is that it’s impossible to know. You never know when something you never even considered could happen, will happen. As someone who has been incredibly blessed, let me just tell you that the things at the top of my list are not numbers or dollars. They are my family and the things I had fun doing. A lot of people think I’m crazy, or chasing publicity, or whatever. I don’t care what they think. Before I do any of the many things that I get asked to do, and that I think might be fun, I have one simple question I ask myself. When I (hopefully) turn 90 and look back at my life, would I regret having done it, or not having done it? Before I started Motley’s Pub with Evan Williams when we were at Indiana University and I wasn’t even old enough to drink, this was the question I asked myself. Before we sold MicroSolutions. Before I spent the money to buy a lifetime pass on American Airlines when I was 29 and then retired to travel the world. Before I bought the Mavs. Before I did The Benefactor on ABC, or Dancing with the Stars, or Survivor, or WWE’s Raw, or any number of other fun and amazing things. It’s the question I have always asked myself. To me it’s part of being successful.
When I’m 90, will I smile when I think back, or will I frown and regret not having done it? Success is about making your life a special version of unique that fits who you are—not what other people want you to be.
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The Ripken Way by Cal Ripken Sr.
“… Let me start by thanking my dad. He inspired me with his commitment to the Oriole tradition and made me understand the importance of it. He not only taught me the fundamentals of baseball, but he also taught me to play it the right way, and to play it the Oriole way. From the very beginning, my dad let me know how important it was to be there for your team and to be counted on by your teammates.” Those are my words, from the speech I made on September 6, 1995, at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, after I had broken Lou Gehrig’s record by playing in my 2,131st consecutive game. I paid tribute to a number of people that night, but I started with my dad because, well, that’s where the Streak, which ended in 1998 at 2,632 games, really started. Would there have been a streak had it not been for the lessons of discipline, dedication, determination, and desire that my father taught me? Heck, there might not have been a career were it not for my dad. There might not even have been a big-league appearance. I probably had the talent, genetically speaking, to be a pretty good baseball player. I most likely would’ve had enough ability to get drafted, but beyond that I could very well have been a statistic, like most minor leaguers—about three percent of whom actually make it to the majors. Without Dad’s influence I might not have made it all. I almost surely wouldn’t have had the career that I’ve had. I certainly wouldn’t have had the desire to be in the lineup every day, or
understand the importance of that. Dad impressed upon me from the beginning that in order to do anything well, you have to work at it. And in order to work at something you have to really love it and understand the value and the product of your work. Obviously, in baseball, you have to have the talent first, but once you have the talent the thing that makes you better—in baseball or in anything you do—is hard work. That lesson was the biggest and best gift that my dad gave me. He also gave me his passion for the sport, the great feeling of wearing the uniform, his love of the game, his willingness to work at everything he did, and his satisfaction in the rewards of that work. I came to understand and appreciate all of those things at a very early age. You can’t truly understand it all unless you’re willing to work. You have to be willing to lay it on the line first. But once you do, there’s a very complete and satisfying feeling, and nobody can take that away from you. Without my father’s influence, though, without that real strong guidance, I probably would’ve washed out of baseball eventually. The funny thing is, as valuable as these lessons were, I don’t think Dad even knew he was giving them to me, because he wasn’t teaching me directly, he was simply showing it all to me by being himself. My dad has always been a great teacher of the game of baseball. He does that with words and demonstrations, almost like a teacher in a classroom would. But many of the big things I learned from him—in baseball and in life—I learned just by watching him. For instance, you can speak of a work ethic, but how do you really teach that? The only way you get it across is by showing it, by living it. And that’s how my father has lived his life, how he has gone about doing things: his routines, the way he dives in, organizes and just attacks any kind of work, his ability to identify the things that need to be done and do them. He’s a real hands-on doer in all facets of his life.
I’ve always been willing to work hard to get better in baseball, and I’m willing to do that in most areas of my life. My dad is the same way—that’s his personality, that’s what he does. And I really picked up on that.
When the Orioles moved to a new spring training site, they needed to decide how to set up the ball fields, where the dormitory was going to go, and so forth. Dad always took on the problems and became the foreman of the job, but he was also out there doing the work, too. He’d actually be digging out fields, measuring the bases, cutting the diamond, leveling the infield, putting down the grass seed, pouring the concrete for the dugouts, and putting the backstops up.
That’s so typical of him. When the Orioles moved their spring training camp from Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville, to Biscayne College (which is now St. Thomas University) in the Miami suburb of Opa-Locka, Dad supervised the construction crew— and did a lot of the work himself. This was all while spring training was going on, and he was running the camp at the same time! He’d be a baseball guy during the day—starting with his morning meetings and all the way through to the game or whatever activities ended the day—and then he’d go to work on the construction job. He wouldn’t even take his uniform off, he’d just take a little time to eat a bit of a sandwich or something and then jump on the tractor. Sometimes he’d work so long that he had to turn on the tractor’s headlights. People can talk about work ethic, but the more they talk about it, the less they do. My dad’s not a talker, he’s a doer. So I just watched him, and that’s how I found out how to do the right thing. I learned that if I wanted something done the right way, and I wanted it done to my own high standards, only I could do it. And I think that’s a great, great trait. He passed on his love of baseball to me in the same way: by example. As a kid I had a chance to witness it by going to the ballpark with him and being in his environment. Sometimes,
at home, it could seem a little like a business. He had a lot of administrative responsibilities, such as typing out paperwork for the organization. He was required to file daily reports on each player, in triplicate, and include the box score from the local newspaper. I still remember Old One-Finger, as Mom called him, pecking away on that Smith-Corona. He didn’t have as much time to play with us as he would’ve liked, but we could see his joy for sports when we had the opportunity. When I had a chance to ride in the car with him to the ballpark, I could see his whole world open up. I wouldn’t call it a personality change, but once Dad put that uniform on, there was this comfort, this joy, this passion for who he was and what he was doing that was just a great thing to see. He used to say, “There’s something to putting this uniform on. These are my work clothes.” And he really meant it. The first thing he did when he got to the ballpark was put that uniform on, and he did it very quickly. When he walked through the door there was no BS’ing, there was no walking around being sociable. He put the uniform on, then the day started. The last thing he did before he went home was take it off. But at the end of the day it was difficult to get that uniform off his body— he didn’t want to take it off. That’s the kind of love for baseball that I took from being around my father. I discovered it for myself, by being around him, and then I started to feel the same thing. He never preached it, I just watched him and I saw it. It was almost like he had a secret that the rest of us didn’t know, and I was curious to find out what that secret was…
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Swing Your Sword by Mike Leach
Chapter 8 Valdosta
Hal was hired as the new head coach at Valdosta State in Valdosta, Georgia in 1992. We’d spent three seasons at Iowa Wesleyan College together, transforming what had been a winless program into one that, in our final year, won 10 games and advanced to the NAIA playoffs for the first time in school history.
Hal asked me to come join him at Valdosta. I knew he was going to rise in the coaching world. He had enthusiasm, focus, and optimism. He was clearly a cutting-edge guy. We were on the brink of something big. I jumped at the chance to go with him.
Valdosta, which is located just north of the Florida border, was an NCAA Division II program. The area was known for its high school football. The coach at Valdosta High, Nick Hyder, had won seven state championships and three national titles. At the time we arrived in Valdosta, Hyder, who was a terrific man, had won six state titles in a 10-year stretch. You can feed off that kind of success.
Whenever people talk about how football is a religion in the South, Valdosta (pop. 43,000) is what they have in mind. Football links generations and connects all parts of their
community. The New York Times wrote about how football helped usher the town through integration in the ‘60s. Sports Illustrated had done this big story on Valdosta High football a few years before we arrived. The town had nicknamed itself “Winnersville.”
Still, what we were doing offensively was radically different from what the folks down there were used to. There was a mixed reaction about us bringing a more wide-open attack into the Gulf South Conference. Though some people were excited, many more were skeptical. The supporters were friendly enough, but they just weren’t sure about us. The local newspaper didn’t think our offense would work at all. Sometimes people would come up to me at the coffee shop and say, “I hope you guys do well, but you know, you’re gonna have to run the ball up the middle here.”
I’d say, “Well, we’ll see how it goes.” And I’d usually leave it at that, but if they got too aggressive with their skepticism, I’d point out, “That run-it-up-the-middle stuff had already been tried there and it hadn’t worked. So let’s see what happens when you try to attack all portions of the field and utilize all of your offensive players, not just the guys in the backfield.” If they didn’t buy that, I’d tell them the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
It was fun chatting with them because we knew how much they were into it, and we had no doubt we were going to win big. Plus, the people were so warm and friendly. The first time we visited Valdosta, I was in a restaurant with my family and we were talking about where we might live. Someone overheard us. They said, “Hey, are you looking for a place?” And they gave us all of these suggestions. Right away, we were touched by how everyone in the town treated each other like family.
“Mike is the only reason I even applied for the Valdosta job. I was working on trying to get the University of South Dakota job. Mike comes to me, “You oughta go after this Valdosta State job. They have a swimming pool right next to the football offices!” I said they’re provincial, Mike. They’re not gonna hire anybody from Iowa, especially when they find out I’m from Texas. But if you really want to, you can send them my information.
“One month later, I get a call from this real estate person in Valdosta trying to sell me a house. I’d forgotten about the Valdosta thing. I didn’t know I actually got the job till that person called.
“Then our first Christmas in Georgia, we’re all at a party. The AD’s wife tells me the reason I got the job was because of the video I had sent with my résumé. That was the first I’d heard of any video. Turns out, Mike had included this video of our highlights at Iowa Wesleyan that he had made and set to music to send out to all our alumni, to try and raise money to offset the costs of our ﬂight to Morehead, Minnesota, for the NAIA playoffs. She tells me her husband would watch that video at night and go, ‘I can sell this.’” –Hal Mumme
Valdosta State usually hovered just above .500. They had really good players. A lot of what they did system-wise paralleled what they were doing at the University of Georgia, right down to their red-and-black color scheme. On offense they were a power running team, also similar to Georgia.
The quarterback was a 5-foot-10 guy named Chris Hatcher, who had just finished his freshman season as a starter. He was a very smart guy, real accurate too, but he was shorter than what most programs like for their quarterbacks to be. His best attribute was his leadership. He had the whole team behind him.
I learned a lesson that first year at Valdosta. We tried to do too much. We lost three of our first four games and finished 5-4-1 in 1992. Our players had good speed, were aggressive, and very committed to football. We made the mistake of assuming that since they were talented and passionate about football, they were sharp enough to retain as much information as we could throw at them. They could not. They didn’t necessarily pick it up any faster than the guys at Iowa Wesleyan. Yeah, they could run faster and lift more weight than the players at Iowa Wesleyan, but they still needed time to let what we taught them sink in. We tried to install too much too quickly.
One of the biggest mistakes coaches make is over-tweaking the playbook. They mess themselves up by constantly tinkering and putting too much in, or by trying to run too many different plays, and they end up overlooking what they really need to do. It’s not about tricks. It’s about execution. You need to get sharper running the plays in your bag by focusing on technique:
Are our hips low? Are we getting our heads around? Are our eyes in the right place? Where were our hands?
How can you be precise with all of the detail that’s vital to making a play work properly if you’re giving them dozens of different plays to digest? You can’t. We need all of that detail stuff to become second nature, so the players can just react and do precisely what they did in practice.
Technique is more important than scheme. People wanna say, “scheme, scheme, scheme.” No matter what plays you run, technique is always more important. You have a chance
with whatever you run, if you have great technique. If you have a great scheme but you don’t execute it well, you have no chance.
Coaches are their own worst enemies. We constantly draw ourselves into the trap of doing too much with a play. It reminds me of watching TV as a kid. I’d be sitting there enjoying some show. Then my dad would come in and start monkeying with the picture. Pretty soon, nobody could watch anything.
When that first season ended we spent a day with Raymond Berry, one of the best receivers in the history of football. He said in his career he hardly ever lined up on the other side of the field. He viewed that as a big asset. He was able to really develop his skills by catching the same balls from the same positions.
“Raymond drew up the formation in the ground where he played, and where (Baltimore Colts wide receiver) Jimmy Orr played, and where (Colts tight end) John Mackey played, and he says, ‘I caught all the passes in my career from this side. It’ll work, coach. It’ll be real good.’ So we did it. Our quarterback Chris Hatcher went from completing in the mid 60s to being an over-71percent passer in one year. A lot of it was just because the split end and the tight end caught the ball from the same side of the field and we had cut the reps in half for those routes. We’ve been doing it ever since.
When we tell people that’s how we do it and why, they have this paranoid look. Like somebody’s gonna know what you’re doing. I always go back to something I heard from Bill Walsh one day. He said you know it’s not a rule in football that you have to have a symmetrical offense. Just ’cause you run a play to the right doesn’t mean you have to run it also to the left. I always adhered to that.”– Hal Mumme
Raymond Berry didn’t ﬂop sides. Almost every fade route Raymond ever caught was on the left. He really developed his skills and got good at catching balls over that shoulder because he had twice as many repetitions to work on it.
The other thing we realized is that just because we had a play from the right side, it didn’t mean we had to run the same play from the left side too. Lots of coaches think if you don’t run the mirrored version of a play (like having a Student Body-Right to go with your Student BodyLeft), the other team will be all over what you’re doing. But our quest wasn’t about trying to fool ’em. We wanted to out-execute them. You’re better off having the play run from one side and giving your guys a lot more repetitions at it, so they learn to execute it better.
One significant advantage offense has over defense is that the offense runs their package more than any defense works on defending it. An offense can run the plays that they rep every day, providing they’re not changing things all the time. A defense has to work against a variety of different offenses throughout the season. They can’t work against the same offensive scheme every week because the teams vary. They simply don’t have as much time to fine-tune their execution as the offense does.
It’s not that you should feel above “tricking” them, but there’s no long-term pay-off with that method. If the play works, it’s usually a one-shot deal. However, if the play is based on technique and execution, you can run it many times in the course of a game. Changing formations and motioning players helps disguise the same play. It’ll look much different to the defense, but there is very little change for the offense, leaving them to focus on their technique and execution.
That first season at Valdosta we averaged 25 points per game. In each of the next two seasons we averaged 41 points per game. In 1994, our third season at Valdosta, we advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in school history. Hatcher, our quarterback, won the Harlon Hill Award, which is the Heisman Trophy for Division II. We made it to the quarterfinals before losing to North Alabama in double overtime, and only after they blocked our field goal attempt that would’ve tied the game.
Word about what we were doing had started to spread in the football circles. They saw we were near the top of the national rankings in most offensive categories. Coaches from all over the country said they wanted to come in and watch film and talk football with us, or have us visit them to share ideas. We met with coaches from Auburn, Florida State, and Georgia, among others. We were pretty open about explaining what we were doing. After all, it’s all on film, and for the most part college coaches are typically open about sharing this stuff. I suspect it’s partially because they aspire to coach at other places and bigger schools, and they’re eager to let others know how good they are. We were happy enough to talk because we loved what we did, plus, we figured we could learn from them, too.
Valdosta was a great place to coach. It’s the one school that I’ve worked at where, when we lined up, we were usually physically better than the guys across from us. Everyone in town embraced our offense once they saw the results we were getting.
I’d tripled my salary from Iowa Wesleyan, going from $13,000 to the high 30s. But we had two kids to feed, daycare costs, and big, hungry student loans to pay back. In the off-season, I took classes so I could defer my student loan payments. I took Greek Philosophy, History of Cuba, History of the Caribbean, and Contemporary Art. I would’ve kept teaching, as I’d done at Iowa Wesleyan, but Valdosta State had a rule against football coaches in the classroom. I felt a
lot of pressure because money was so tight. My salary had increased a little. Our expenses had increased a lot.
The nomadic existence for coaches at smaller schools can really rattle a family. I have the utmost respect for football wives and the sacrifices they make to hold everything together. Being a coach is not a 9 to 5 job. The hours are brutal. The recruiting travel is insane. Back at Iowa Wesleyan I’d be on the road three weeks at a time. It’s easy to be completely consumed by the job. That’s why coaching marriages have a higher divorce rate than the national average.
I can see why a lot of guys don’t stay with college coaching. The money can be better and it is a lot more stable if you’re working at a high school program rather than working your way up from a small college program. Even if you are fortunate enough to rise up the college ranks, your family is going to end up moving around a lot. With the exception of Joe Paterno, the question isn’t if you’re gonna move, it’s when you’re gonna move.
Did I ever thinking of walking away and going back to law? It crossed my mind, especially in Iowa, but I took comfort in the knowledge that I could always go back and practice law if all else failed. Initially, I’d figured I’d give coaching two or three years and then assess where I was. But we kept advancing. Our team was getting better. We were building and that was exciting. I kept getting sucked in more and more. Each year was either a better job or an improving team, and the promise of next year always seemed worth the chance.
At Valdosta my family was breaking even financially, but our student loans still hung over us. We’d get these threatening calls and letters from the lenders, but I always saw my coaching career as a process. I was blessed that Sharon stuck with me. She was always steady.
Anytime I sounded like I was wavering, she was really supportive and totally solid. Knowing the sacrifices she was making brought us even closer.
Sharon worked as an administrative assistant. We shared one car—an old, white Cadillac Deville that I’d bought in Mobile, Alabama, for $1,500 before I even got into coaching. It had almost 200,000 miles on it, but I rarely drove it. I’d bike to work so Sharon could use it. We were really busy all the time and we were quickly outgrowing our little two-bedroom, two-bath apartment.
Valdosta, though, was a fun place to live. I loved that town. I loved the pride of the place; they were committed to everything they did, whether it was cooking, telling a story, or digging a hole. I loved how football was so important to their way of life.
The Deep South is a lot like the state of Wyoming, except in Wyoming we had worse weather and bigger mountains. In both places, everybody drives a pick-up truck. Everyone hunts and fishes. Everyone takes so much pride in what they do. They’re tough, committed people.
It was also the time in my life when my kids were growing up. My son Cody was born there. My oldest daughter Janeen went to this predominantly black elementary school. I really liked that she was exposed to people who were different from her, and different from what she already knew. I didn’t want to shelter my kids. It would help toughen her up, make her more self-reliant. She was young for her grade, the youngest one in all her classes. But she never batted an eye. She got along great with the other kids. Years later, Janeen told me that whenever she heard people talk about how there was racial tension in the Deep South, she would remember how when she lived in Valdosta she never felt any of it because everybody got along well there.
When I wasn’t coaching, I’d work with her on softball. I’d come home from work at 9 or 10 at night and wake Janeen up. We’d walk over to this tennis court that had lights and practice for an hour or two every night. We’d work on throwing, catching and hitting. I’d play Add One/Subtract One with her, where she had to throw 25 good fastballs, 10 good change-ups, and 10 good drop-balls. If she threw a good pitch, it counted. If she threw a bad one, I’d subtract it from the running total. I told her, if you’re going to do something, you’re gonna be good at it. And she was. Even though she was often one of the smallest on her team, she was always among the best.
I thought it was important for her to do well in sports. I knew we were going to move around a lot because of my career, and if she was always the new kid in school, softball would help her adjust socially and find friends more quickly.
For all of the clubs that exist on a school’s campus, none equal an athletic team insofar as working together. You develop a competitive attitude and learn to battle through adversity with your friends by your side. Those are great lessons to learn. At the same time, the blending of people from different backgrounds can make an impact on a person that extends far beyond sports. Athletics have done more to bring people together than any government or law. Nothing has done more for race relations than athletics. Nothing.
I started with Janeen when she was six and we practiced together all throughout our time in Valdosta. She later became all-district as a pitcher for four straight years and is now a doctor. Growing up in Valdosta was great for her. It was great for our entire family.
In 1996, we averaged 39 points per game. We broke the school record for rushing in a season with over 2,000 yards, and almost broke our own school record for passing again. Lance
Funderburk, our quarterback after Chris Hatcher, was the runner-up for the Harlon Hill Award. But we lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs to Carson-Newman. It would be our last game at Valdosta.
Three days after the loss to the Eagles, Hal was hired to be the head coach at the University of Kentucky. I heard through the channels that a lot of people were surprised that he landed that job. I wasn’t. Hal always believed in us, and in himself. We were doing things in a big way.
I could’ve stayed in Valdosta and possibly become the next head coach. I was intrigued by the idea of doing it on my own, but experience-wise I knew I had to go to Kentucky. I still had things to learn, not to mention it was an opportunity to make inroads into Division I. After all, it’s easier to maneuver in the pond you’re already in.
We’d gone from NAIA in Iowa, to Division II in Georgia, to a team in the toughest college football conference in the country, the SEC. I was excited about the challenge, but it was bittersweet. I’ve lived in some great places. I’ve lived in some horrible places. Valdosta, Georgia, is the only place I’ve ever cried over leaving.
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