Jerry Wainwright (who?) (a whistle-blower’s last request)

Yeah, well, I didn’t know who Jerry Wainwright was, either. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, Jerry Wainwright was the author that I nearly gave credit to for my last “He Said/She Said”, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I (think I) got it right in crediting Martina Navratilova, instead. In sourcing the “Wainwright” quote about winning in sport (and life), I learned about the man, which was interesting in the context of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Wainwright was a Division 1 head coach for nearly 20 years.

He had moderate success at two middling schools, occasionally qualifying underdog squads for the “Big Dance” of the national tournament, until his dogged success might have gotten him higher on the basketball coaching ladder than he’d have wanted, in hindsight. He took the headman’s spot at Chicago’s DePaul University, leading a program that had once been something of a national power but which has struggled in recent decades, a weak sister in a strong conference. As it had done with several other hires before him, the position ate Mr. Wainwright, bringing massive stress and even hate – ah, the shining ideal of sport in America! – towards him and his family. The Blue Demons lost more than they won.

I will get to the point, to his quote, after a little more context. (Who doesn’t love context, after all?) Jerry Wainwright was a good coach: knew the game, taught it well, cared about the kids. What more could be asked? (Wins, idiot! Wins. University prestige. Money.) The daily two hours with a whistle around his neck, or the twice-or-thrice-weekly pressure cookers with a school-coloured tie knotted ‘round his neck – that was just a start. There were alumni to schmooze, post-game scrums with media hungry for a juicy quote (now, you know the feeling, too!), endless high school gyms to haunt looking for the next recruits and, perhaps more than anything else, tall teenagers to befriend (or be-father) and mothers to charm. Here, Coach Jerry was no smooth-talking Calipari, no Midwest-handsome Self, no aw-shucks-and-perfect-hair Williams. He hadn’t even the weirdly charismatic intensity of Duke’s Krzyzewski, and future pros didn’t come his way often.

DePaul University, inevitably, fired him. He thought he was done, but a rising coaching star at Marquette, a bald-headed Williams known as “Buzz”, hired Wainwright as a wise old head and counsellor to the Golden Eagles team and staff. I ran across this pleasant story while learning about Coach Wainwright, and it ended with a quote – yeah, finally! – that made this old ball coach nod in appreciation. It’s humble, but it values teaching more than salesmanship, and emphasizes learning rather than recruiting profiles. Though the game hasn’t always been good to him, he loves basketball. Coming from a much happier place than he’d inhabited during the Blue Demons years, he mused to a young interviewer:

“Have you ever thought about what should be on your tombstone? I just want mine to say, ‘Here lies a great practice coach.'”

Jerry Wainwright, a modest man of 67 for whom the best moments weren’t always in front of rabid college crowds.

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