The Passing of a Coach

The complicated life of sports’ coaches is well documented in biographies and the media.  Additionally, it plays out every day across America, on college campuses, in high school athletics, and in the club sport system.  Coaches who dedicate themselves to leading a team and developing student-athletes are repeatedly forced to walk a fine line between family and work commitments.  To balance this dynamic, coaches frequently integrate family life into team functions. Children will attend practice sessions, teams come to the coach’s house for pre-game meals, and family members are recruited to assist with fundraising events such as off-season sport camps or tournaments.

(photo courtesy of Dan Pambianco)

Done successfully, student-athletes and coaching staffs become extended families, creating a support system for all those involved.  Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s daughter described her family’s involvement in the Blue Devil basketball program as follows:

I think there was a choice — either we were going to compete against basketball, and against Duke and against those players for his attention, or we were just going to all be in it together…It was a decision that was made by my parents when we were really young. You hear of mom and pop grocery stores and mom and pop diners and this is like a mom and pop college basketball program (Berman & Rosenberg, 2010, para 17).

When students graduate or coaches retire, the focus shifts as daily interactions between a coach’s family members and the team cease.  But occasionally, when a coach dies both families merge again to remember and celebrate a remarkable life.

The recent passing of Tom Wood, the all-time winningest basketball coach at Humboldt State University (HSU) in California, led me to embark on a 12-hour drive from my home in Idaho to Northern California to attend his celebration of life. I discovered there are few things more conducive to thinking reflectively than a long road trip alone behind the wheel.

“Coach TW” as he was often referred to, left behind an amazing legacy at HSU when he retired in 2010.  A member of the HSU Athletic Hall of Fame, his 29 seasons on the court included 463 career wins, 8 conference championships, 11 NCAA tournament appearances, and nine 20-win seasons (“Legendary HSU”, 2016).

More importantly, his legacy extended beyond the court.  Following retirement in 2010, Coach Wood stated,

Interacting with the players, coaching them and preparing them, has been the most rewarding part of this job…That continues with seeing them go on to their own successes in life, and thinking their experience here might have had something to do with that. I’ll miss that the most (“Tearing up”, 2010, para 10).

While, I was not fortunate enough to experience the leadership and guidance of Coach Wood as a student-athlete, I was a member of Coach Wood’s coaching staff for just under two years (2000-2001).  It was the beginning of what became a magical-like time in the program’s history: The result of many factors coming together at the right moment to propel the HSU program into becoming a community darling and achieving national prominence.

Most likely, the groundwork for the rise of the program over Coach Wood’s career was etched in his upbringing and through his own experiences in sport as a student-athlete and later an assistant coach.  What became evident throughout that afternoon’s celebration of life, is that Tom Wood’s philosophy as a coach was shaped by a strong foundation of character instilled by key people in his life.

A person’s character is revealed in their actions towards others.  The collection of family, former student-athletes, program supporters, former colleagues, and even adversaries in competition (including officials and an opposing coach), who convened (fittingly in a gym) to share in Coach Wood’s memory, talked about his integrity and commitment to treating others with respect. And these publicly expressed reflections during an open mic session, reminded attendees of the influence Coach Wood had on all of us.

Family members spoke of his competitive mind-set. His younger brother told a story of his tenacity and savvy as a high school player.  Son-in-law Jeff Temple speaking for the immediate family, shared the traits Coach Wood passed along to his only child, daughter (Ann Wood) and his two grandchildren.

Two veteran basketball officials recalled Coach Wood’s competitive spirit toward officials with tales of heated interactions.  Thoughtfully, each then shared a personal interaction with Coach Wood during moments away from competition, where he revealed his compassion and humility.

A long-time opposing coach spoke of the mentee-mentor relationship he shared with Coach Wood, offering those in attendance insight into the comradery shared amongst coaches.  Supporters of the program (known as the Hoopsters) and even his former high school basketball coach also contributed memories.

Many others shared stories about Coach Wood away from the microphone. Retired Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations and long-time HSU athletic employee Dan Pambianco, often traveled with the men’s basketball team, frequently sharing a hotel room with Coach Wood.

Dan told me about a men’s basketball road trip in Southern California.  Dan was originally from Illinois and at the time his father was battling cancer.  Knowing he needed to be with his father, Dan began arranging his departure from Southern California for Illinois. In the midst of a two-game road trip, Coach Wood told Dan he’d drive him to the Los Angeles airport to catch a flight.

“It was a game day, and he had a lot to do, but he insisted on driving me all the way in to LAX, which is at least an hour from where we were staying,” Pambianco said. “But that was typical – prioritizing his friends above what he needed for himself. He was extremely unselfish, and very sincere in how he treated others.”

All of these reflections provided a snapshot of Coach Wood’s impact beyond the court.  But a coach’s greatest impact is often felt among those he leads into competition and those at his side in the process.  Players took to the microphone and spoke of second chances, a firm hand when they needed it most, or his ability to connect with them regardless of their background. Others referenced specific moments or shared one of his famous “Woodisms” – little sayings Coach Wood said frequently throughout this career, sayings that linked players from different decades (Van Mullem, 2015).

Coach Wood had a lasting influence on those who crossed his path even if the time with him was short.  Players can participate in a program for one to five years.  Assistant coaches come and go (myself included).  So when the long-time assistant coach and current head men’s basketball coach at HSU, Steve Kinder took the microphone, we all knew the special connection he shared with Coach Wood.

In Coach Wood’s 29 seasons at HSU, other than his immediate family, no single person had spent more time professionally or personally with Coach Wood.  Steve had been a part of the program for 24 of his 29 seasons as a student-athlete or as an assistant coach. Steve shared how his own family became a part of Coach Wood’s family and subsequently the extended lumberjack family. Steve said, “Coach Wood was my mentor, he was my friend, he was a second father to me.” (Penza, 2016, para 9).

I saw Coach Wood a couple of times this past year.  My first visit was at the hospital during the early stages of chemo treatments for stage 4 cancer.  It was a difficult time for him, but his health was heading in a more positive direction. I recall it being difficult to say goodbye, unsure of his prognosis for a healthy recovery.  Hesitant on what to say, I told him I would be back in the summer and we would meet up in a better place. He agreed, displaying his knack for humor with a smart aleck remark about his current accommodations.

I returned in July on a family trip and visited Coach Wood at his home.  Although he was still battling cancer, his mind was sharp, he was in good spirits, and had a plan to get back on the golf course.  He carried the conversation lamenting about getting old, but mainly reflecting on past players and recent interactions with people visiting him. I listened, much like I did when I worked for him, enjoying the insight, humor, and life wisdom.  When I left him that day, I anticipated I would visit him again – I was wrong.  He fought his cancer with same determination he competed in games, fought for student-athletes on-and-off the court, or supported a friend when they needed help in their personal life. But eventually the cancer overwhelmed him.

Any loss of life is a time of grieving.  However, it can also be a time of celebration if we recognize our good fortune: To have known a special person who positively impacted our life. The gathering of Coach Wood’s family (immediate and extended) gave all of us time to reflect on his legacy

Whenever we think about our experiences with others, we remember moments, stories, and events. But encounters with special people change our lives forever. When I remember Coach Wood it will be for the trust and confidence he placed in others, and especially me when I was a new young coach.  He understood how influential leaders can be.  So today, I hope I can honor him by practicing what he modeled. Thank you, Coach Wood.

References

Berman, J. & Rosenberg, S. (2010, June 8). For duke’s coach k, basketball is a family affair.  ABC News.  Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/mike-krzyzewski-duke-basketball-coach-fans-love-hate/story?id=10849629

Legendary HSU basketball coach Tom Wood passes away (2016). Retrieved from http://www.hsulumberjacks.com/news/2016/8/12/general-legendary-hsu-basketball-coach-tom-wood-passes-away.aspx

Penza, D. (2016, August 16). Former Humboldt State’ men’s basketball coach Tom Wood, 68, passes away. Eureka-Times-Standard. Retrieved from: http://www.times-standard.com/article/NJ/20160816/SPORTS/160819903

Tearing up the floorboards: Head basketball coach Tom Wood retiring after 29 years, Humboldt: The Magazine of Humboldt State University.  Retrieved from: http://magazine.humboldt.edu/spring10/tearing-up-the-floorboards/

Van Mullem, P. (2015). A coach’s legacy captured in words. Pelinks4u (Online), June/July, 17(6).  Retrieved from http://www.pheamerica.org/2015/a-coachs-legacy-captured-in-words/

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