Coaches Can Make an Impact – Remembering Coach Bob

For those who have experienced the joy of playing lacrosse, particularly at a competitive level, no doubt somewhere along the way, you encountered some interesting coaches.  And in playing the game, you will have met and been impacted by some genuine characters.  One who impacted not only my life, but the life of many of my team-mates was Coach Bob.

Coach Bob was very likeable.  He had a wicked sense of humor.  His knowledge of the game of lacrosse was as good as any my cohort of team-mates would ever have the opportunity to be coached by.  The fact that he was eventually inducted into both the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame and the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame, is testimony Coach Bob was truly an accomplished coach.

As a small business owner in Kingston, Coach Bob had learned the wonderful skill of being able to "deal with people".  He could make almost all of his players, better players.  Coach Bob knew how to get the most from a player.  Some players required a pat on the back; some players required the proverbial kick in the butt.  Coach Bob knew how to handle his team as a group, and his players, individually.    And although we were grateful to Coach Bob for making us better players, what I, and my team-mates would remember most about Coach Bob was how he taught us lessons about life and how he made us laugh, sometimes intended, sometimes unintended.

At the beginning of every Junior lacrosse season, Coach Bob would assemble the team and give us an introductory pep talk about his style of coaching.  He would tell us..."There are  times, if I become frustrated with you, I may get angry with you.  If that happens, I will likely call you something nasty.  I want you to remember it is nothing personal.  I will have forgotten about it, less than 30 seconds after it happened".  And that happened with Coach - to be called an idiot, a goof, and worse was Coach's style of letting you know he was not happy with you.

One season we had lost three games in a row and Coach Bob was exceptionally dissatisfied with the team as a whole, so the verbal ragging at practice was more harsh than usual.   On that occasion, one of the team's best players and Assistant Captain Bryan, took it upon himself to call Coach Bob out on his constant criticism and name calling.

Coach looked at Bryan and exclaimed, "Do you remember, at the start of the season, I told everyone, that when this happens, it is nothing personal, I hold no grudges, and will have forgotten about it within thirty seconds.  Bryan replied..."But Bob, how can you call someone an F-in idiot and the person not take it  personal?"  Coach replied. - "Because I told you, it's not  personal - Don't you understand  that?  What, are you retarded ?"  For Coach Bob, his response was simple logic.  For the team, it was hilarious.  Coach was being genuine - his name calling was not intended to be a personal slight; it was simply his style of communicating.  (Obviously, it is a coaching style that would not be tolerated in sports, in today's world).

Our team captain was a fellow named Fern.  Coach always called him Vern.  Eventually, one of the players asked Coach - "Why do you call him Vern and not Fern -Surely, as our team captain - who you appointed - you must know his name?"  Coach Bob responded, "When I was a player, the very best coach and lacrosse man I knew, was a  man named Vern Williams. So, out of respect I call Fern...., Vern".  The inquiring player noted, "But his name is Fern,  not Vern."  Coach Bob's response, "I know. But to me, he is Vern, and he will always be Vern".

One of my very best friends Dan, who was quite athletic, but had never played lacrosse, decided one season to play for the team.  Dan had super speed and as Coach Bob would assess "could run like a deer".  Although only 20 years old, Dan had false teeth. His entire upper row of teeth was false, so before games, his teammates would see Dan remove his upper plate, stick a mouth guard in his mouth and play.   His very first game, Dan got into a fight.  Let's just say, he did not win the fight, being the recipient of an upper cut from the opposition player who was easily 5 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Dan.  Dan ended up being knocked down by the impact of one of the punches. Despite Dan’s willingness to continue to battle, the referees intervened and that was the end of the tussle. When the fight ended, the referee came over to our team bench and said to Coach Bob, “You better get that young man to the hospital right away, he was hit so hard, that some of his teeth were knocked out, he must have swallowed them". 

With the knowledge of knowing his player Dan had removed his upper plate before the game, Coach Bob could not resist this opportunity.  He responded to the referee..."To  hell with him, he lost thefight".  The referee was aghast, he could not believe a coach could be so callous about one of his players.  The referee instructed Coach Bob..."I mean it, get that player immediate medical attention, he swallowed some of his teeth".  Coach responded..."I mean it too, to  hell  with him, he lost the  fight".   The referee advised Coach Bob, he would be written up in the game report and the referee would be recommending that Coach be suspended.  Coach responded, "You do whatever you think you need to do".

At the end of the period, as the team players took a break in the dressing room, Coach Bob, came in, smiled and said, "Good fight Dan.  In all my years of lacrosse, I have never seen a player in a fight try to break the other guy's hand with his face.  That player hit you so hard in the face, I thought he would break his hand.".  The entire team had a great laugh.  By the way, my buddy Dan, could not put his upper plate in his mouth, for almost two weeks.  He had to wait for the swelling of his mouth to subside.  And nothing ever came of the referee reporting Coach Bob to the OLA.

Sometimes, Coach Bob would bring his pet dog - Abby - to practice.  Most of the time, his dog would sit by the bench and enjoy the attention players would give her with a pat on the head, or scratch of an ear.  It was at a practice that Abby the dog was in attendance, that another of my good friends on the team - Sean - became one of Coach Bob's victims.

The Coach was trying to teach us a particular pick play.   Although sometimes fiery in nature, Coach Bob also had tremendous patience when trying to teach a new play to the team.  He would walk us through the drill on the floor.  He would sketch the play out on a chalk board.  This process might take 5, 10, or even 15 walk-throughs.  Then, we would practice the play at game speed.  Well, my friend Sean, simply could not grasp the intricacies of the pick play.  It really was not that difficult, but Sean kept messing the play up.   Coach Bob would do another walk-through, exercising tremendous patience with Sean, trying to help him to be able to understand how to execute the play.  And time and time again, Sean would mess the play up.

And wouldn't you know it, Abby the dog who had left the bench and was now on the playing floor, walked over beside Sean and unloaded her bowels at Sean's feet.  Coach Bob smiled and with a glint in his eyes, said..."Well Sean, even the dog knows you have shit for  brains".  Although it may sound cruel, and I felt sorry for my buddy Sean, the team had a tremendous laugh.

For the most part, the players on the team came from working class families, some being raised in less than ideal families.  Big Harold was the epitome of this.  Harold lived in the north part of town, where being thought of working class was complimentary, it was very much the welfare section of Kingston.  Unfortunately, Harold broke his wooden lacrosse stick at one of the team practices.  At that time, a good lacrosse stick would cost at least $20.  At the end of practice, Harold told Coach Bob, he would have to quit playing, as he could not afford to buy another stick.  Coach told Harold, "Show up to practice tomorrow.  We will find  a solution".

So next day, Coach Bob shows up at practice with an almost new stick, better than the stick that Harold had broken.  Coach Bob told Harold, "A lacrosse stickmanufacturer had provided the stick to Coach, claiming, the company wanted players to test their new product, to see how good it was".  With a huge smile, Big Harold gratefully accepted the gift of an almost new stick.  It was later in the practice, the team players realized, Coach Bob had given his own personal lacrosse stick to Harold - not to borrow, but to keep.

Because he ran a small business, Coach Bob would often find part-time work and the occasional full-time summer job for a few players.  It was just his way of helping a young man along the way.

It was not uncommon that when practice ended - four, five, or even six players and their lacrosse equipment bags would load into the back of Coach Bob's half ton Ford truck.  Coach would drive each of the players home after practice, making sure they arrived home safely.  The team would practice for an hour and a half.  And Coach would spend almost as much time after practice driving players home.  He was that type of person.

Coach Bob was one of those total hands on type of people when it came to lacrosse.  He coached teams, he managed teams, he was eventually the President of the local lacrosse association. He was a cash paying sponsor to numerous teams including a Junior “B” and Senior “A” team in two different cities that he did not live in, but had a strong connection to.  He became an executive member of the OLA Board of Governors.  He was well known within the entire Eastern Ontario lacrosse community.  Amongst his closest lacrosse friends were hugely successful lacrosse coaches and team owners.

When Coach Bob passed away, a large number of his former players attended the funeral.  There were lacrosse people from across the entire Province of Ontario who came to pay their respects to Coach Bob.  The news of Coach's death was the cover story on the front page of the Kingston Whig Standard newspaper.

A couple of the players spoke at the funeral, noting how their lives would have been so different if not for Coach Bob.  One of the players revealed, he was sure he would likely have ended up in jail, if not for Coach intervening in his life, providing advice and guidance many times, advice he would have not otherwise had.

There were countless Coach Bob stories shared at the funeral.  Plenty of laughs, some tears, but far more smiles.

Coaches can have a huge impact on your life.  Hopefully, a positive impact.  Certainly, Coach Bob impacted upon the lives of many young men.  Sure, there are likely a couple of players who felt Coach Bob may have been a bit too harsh or unfair to them.  But I know, there are countless players who respected and admired Coach.

As players we all have stories we share about our playing days.  Tales about great games, exciting personal and team moments, funny situations, etc. And certainly, we have personal stories about our Coaches.  We remember how they praised us, or invoked discipline on a team and or individual players.  I suspect every player has memories of a coach or coaches, even decades after no longer playing lacrosse.  That particular coach left you with a bagful of memories that can bring a smile and/or a grimace to your face. 

However, I wonder as players if we know the impression we leave with a Coach.  We may think, I was just one of dozens of players he coached over the years.  But that is misguided thinking.  I know for a fact that coaches remember their players, almost every single one of them. 

Coach Bob could tell you even 25 years or more after having coached a particular player – what or where that player was in his life.  He knew that Bryan had gone to college on a hockey scholarship and married a young woman and was living his life in the United States.  He knew that Big Harold had gone onto become an owner/operator of a paint business and was quite successful.  He knew that Sean had gone onto a career in media and had become a national correspondent.  Coach Bob could recite countless stories about the array of players from years gone by.  And he could tell you what each of his “boys” was doing in their life decades later.

So, yes – Coaches do impact lives.  But in return, players make an impact of their coaches. I believe, there are some players who truly loved Coach Bob.  I know I did. I suppose for me, that was pre-determined, as Coach Bob is my father.