What's so great about coaches?

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Jan. 6 2006 4:39 PM

The Coach as Culture Hero

What's so great about the guy with the whistle around his neck?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Narrative nonfiction has lately gone gaga over coaches. Michael Lewis, who ordinarily writes in an elegantly skeptical vein, pays homage to the tough-loving jock who taught him persistence in Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. David Halberstam, whose The Best and the Brightest skewered the blind arrogance of the Vietnam War's Ivy-educated architects, takes an altogether different stance toward authority in The Education of a Coach, about the lessons one coach learned from his father, who was also a coach. A new anthology titled Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, invites John Edgar Wideman, Pat Conroy, David Maraniss, Charles McGrath, and Francine Prose to ponder the centrality of coaches to their lives.

There is surely no American archetype more preposterously overpraised at this cultural moment than the Coach. He has become a vessel of redemption, a wise old pappy who could tell us a thing or two about this thing we call life if only we'd bother to listen. The Coach is the voice of dedication and grit, of giving 110 percent, of never saying no to your dreams. His subject is the playing field, but his message is universal. Persist and you will either prevail or go down knowing you gave it everything you had. It's all about heart.


Not every contribution to the Coach anthology is warm and fuzzy. Prose expresses loathing for her coach, one Miss G., an authoritarian bitch who undermined Prose's fragile confidence in her physical self and gave her an F that nearly kept her out of the college of her choice. Prose's grumbling is kind of refreshing. My own chief memory of high-school coaches (in my case, they were all physical-education teachers, since I was never on a team) is that they enjoyed being mean to the fat kids. That kept skinny-but-uncoordinated kids like me out of the line of fire.

Even in stating her lingering resentment toward her coach, Prose joins the anthology's other contributors in overstating the importance of coaches. I can't even remember the names of my coaches; in my mind's eye they all blur together into one sunburned composite who wore sunglasses even when he was indoors and overused the word "outstanding." As far as dispensing life lessons went, one of them was quoted in the Los Angeles Times earlierthis week praising Jack Abramoff's work ethic.

Do you remember any coaches who were unwise, sadistic, or negligible in some humorous way? Please send anecdotes under the subject heading "coach" to chatterbox@slate.com by 9 a.m. ET Jan. 9. I'll publish the best ones next week in a futile attempt to counterbalance the hero worship currently abroad. Anecdotes about Coach brand leather goods, or about flying coach, will not be considered.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.


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