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Coaching Not Just a Sideline

April 22, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

They coach year after year and decade after decade, refusing to call it quits. They devote enormous amounts of time and energy trying to influence teenage athletes in a positive manner.

Along the way, there are many obstacles. Parents who won't accept their child sitting on the bench. Athletes who squander the opportunity for a college scholarship by failing to do homework. Teenagers who decide partying is more important than practice.

A coach's frustration level can reach a crescendo of kicked trash cans, slammed doors and smashed chalk boards.

"There's times I pull my hair out, 'Why am I doing this?' " said Carolyn Gunny of Granada Hills High, a softball and basketball coach since 1971.

"I go home sometimes at night shaking my head," said Bud Murray of Hart, a baseball coach for 38 years.

Why do coaches keep coaching?

It certainly isn't for the money. City Section coaches haven't received a raise in their coaching stipends in 10 years.

"It's close to slavery," said Reseda football Coach Joel Schaeffer, referring to the money coaches make compared to the hours they work.

Schaeffer has coached for 32 years and plans to continue coaching, regardless of the pay.

"What else am I going to do--be a game-show host?" he said.

Coaches are known for complaining about anything--facilities, officials, uniforms, long hair, facial hair, green hair. If they had nothing to complain about, people would assume they were ill.

But coaches have learned to embrace the positive stories in their world of turmoil.

"I enjoy the kids who have a sparkle in their eyes, who jump up into the air and don't come down until you tell them, or are willing to run through a wall for you," Schaeffer said.

"I love watching them improve," said Steve Miller of North Hollywood, a basketball coach since 1963 and now golf coach for the Huskies. "I would coach for free. Money has never been a factor."

Movie directors seeking quality actors should recruit coaches. They play so many different roles. They're fathers, mothers, teachers, salesmen, psychologists, counselors, drill sergeants, philosophers and fund-raisers.

Why do coaches keep coaching?

It's the competition, the friendships and the camaraderie that exists on good days.

But most of all, it's the thrill of teaching kids something new and discovering they really listened.

El Camino Real baseball Coach Mike Maio, a coach since 1961, remembers several ex-players coming back to say hello after the Gulf War. They told him the Air Force taught them how to fly, but their high school athletic experience taught them "how to follow orders, how to handle stress" and gave them "the courage to do what they did."

"I felt overwhelmed," Maio said. "You don't think you touch somebody that way. You feel good. You might feel a little embarrassed, but you say, 'That's one of the reasons why I coach.' "

Miller will forever thank Leonard Johnson, a former basketball player at Fairfax High, for teaching him to take a second look at himself.

"He came from a poverty-stricken family," Miller said. "He was a wild, very talented player. I wasn't winning games. I asked Leonard, 'Why can't I win?' He said, 'Come over to my house and see what we go through on a daily basis.' It was, 'Wow.'

"I learned how to be much more positive than negative. I learned how to relate to players. I learned to coach for my players and not just for me. He opened my eyes to what a coach should be like."

Darryl Stroh began coaching football and baseball in 1964. He retired from coaching in 1996. He was known for his fiery speeches and his strict team rules. In his later years, he complained that athletes weren't as dedicated as in the past. Now he's back as football coach at Granada Hills.

Was this an April Fool's joke?

"It's interesting work after you get by the frustrations," Stroh said. "I think you have a unique opportunity to reach kids in a way a lot of people don't have. There's always frustrations and the frustrations nowadays outnumber the victories, but when you do reach a kid and see him respond and start conducting his life in a positive manner, it's really rewarding."

Antelope Valley football Coach Brent Newcomb started coaching in 1965. Suffering a heart attack last year didn't stop him from returning to the sideline.

"Coaching didn't hurt my heart," he said. "It's not that easy to get out. You can't beat the Friday nights. It's one of the greatest things. It becomes a way of life. It just becomes part of you."

Newcomb found that as a coach, everyone cares about his health, whether they like him or not.

"My heart attack was the most publicized heart attack [around]," he said.

Why do coaches keep coaching?

Granada Hills' Gunny kept coaching when she was pregnant with her two sons.

"I remember telling the doctor, 'I need to have this baby because I have a playoff game,' " she said.

Gunny keeps coaching because there's no more invigorating feeling than seeing a teenager mature.

Sometimes it takes weeks, months, even years, but when it happens, it's a moment to savor.

"It was a young lady I disciplined in softball," Gunny said, recalling her favorite moment. "She'd been a gifted athlete but never been sat down. I benched her for two games. Two years later, she came back and said, 'Thank you.' She told me that I was the only one who ever had the courage to bench her.

"It meant I had reached a goal in my life. Coaching is more than winning games. It's helping them deal with life."

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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