Chris Johnson

Coach’s life lessons are never laid to rest

I just returned from being a pall bearer and speaking briefly at the funeral of my high school tennis coach and biology teacher. It came just a week after the funeral for an English teacher at the same school.

I’ve talked before about teachers who weren’t too fond of my nonconformist attitude, but these were two who actually tolerated me. Actually, the English teacher, Linda Beckum, told me I was the best student she ever had. And, no, she wasn’t inebriated at the time. Of course, the English teacher I had my sophomore year said I had the “worst attitude of any student I’ve ever taught.” She taught for about 40 years. She was laid to rest a couple of years ago, with our fence long since mended. At her wake, they even read a letter I wrote to her when she was lying on her death bed.

But this is about coaches – and what they should be. Wylene Webb was what they all should be.

I had quite the mix of coaches growing up in youth recreation leagues. I’d say a couple were above average, one was terrible and the others were middle of the road. One was exceptional, and, yet, I can’t remember his name.

What I do remember was being 12 years old and sitting on the bench, where I should be, during the city’s championship basketball game for our division. We, the Nets, weren’t even close to as good as the front-running Celtics, but we made it into the championship game and were running neck-and-neck with them. Even in this situation, this crazy guy had the nerve to insist that every player should get significant playing time and motioned for me and my friend Shane to enter the game.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that, combined, Shane and I had contributed a grand total of 6 points to our season and probably 117 personal fouls. Shane and I tried to wave him off. We looked at him as if to say: “Are you insane? We’re gonna totally screw this up! Even we have enough sense not to send us into the game right now!” But apparently this coach didn’t think that winning the 11-12 division city basketball championship was a make-or-break item on his resume.

Alas, our team shocked the Celtics to win the title, and a few days later Shane and I were actually able to breathe again after our panic attack.

Coach Webb was my first real high school coach. I wanted to play football, but only kicker. I could kick a 45-yard field goal and thought that was impressive. The new football coach didn’t. “We don’t need just a kicker.” Well, OK then. They won one game that year, by the way. They could have used a kicker.

So, I tried tennis. I figured that ought to be easy enough, especially since I wasn’t very good at it. Certainly, Coach Webb would recognize my ineptitude and reward it with a path of least resistance. But much in the way that coach whose name I can’t remember forced me in to action, Coach Webb had the nerve to overlook my ineptitude and see potential. So aggravating.

She pushed me on the court, made me practice a gazillion serves, required me to run and condition myself and sometimes even shouldered me with leadership responsibilities. That was what a coach should have done, of course, and it paid off as I probably realized more potential than either of us thought I had.

But she also had priorities. School always came first. A science teacher, she took her teaching seriously, and she expected us to take our studies seriously. I never quite realized my potential in that arena, but I sure paid the price in running laps for everything below an A – which means I ran a few marathons in high school.

And in a story I relayed at the funeral, in 1986, just a year after graduating our best players who were all seniors, she kicked off our two best remaining upperclassmen for skipping practice and goofing off. Though she loved to win and had a long string of region championships on the line, she was not willing to win at all costs. Principles came first.

She laid the responsibility of winning on the shoulders of a bunch of sophomores with raw potential, with me being among the most raw. And, sure enough, we broke the string of championships. But we would ultimately be better for it in the years to come. We might not could have seen that at the time, but I think she did. And I think she was as proud of that bunch of Bad News Bulldogs as any team she ever coached.

It made no sense to us then, but makes all the sense in the world now. In this age when so many who are willing to win at any cost, it’s good to remember those who disagreed with that idea … and those who still do.

Chris Johnson is an independent correspondent. He can be reached at