By B.G. Kelley
When March Madness concludes in two weeks, Villanova's Jay Wright will be among 67 coaches whose endgame breaks their hearts and dashes their dreams, as it did for Wright on Saturday, when Villanova was rudely ousted from the NCAA Tournament by North Carolina State. Only one coach will win the national championship.
Ah, the coaching game: exciting and agonizing; exhilarating and anguishing; triumphant and defeating. In a nutshell: insanity.
Have you watched the coaches in March Madness? They pump their fists (Good play!), shake their heads (Bonehead play!), point fingers (Atta boy!), signal for substitutes (Get that serial turnover!), smile ear to ear (We won!), or hold their heads in their hands (We lost!). Why put yourself through such an emotional wringer? Simply put: It's the love of the game.
If a sculptor were to carve a basketball coach's image, you'd see a statue of a person in suit and sneakers. That would be a start to capturing their essence, but not everything.
Coaching is a kind of theology that orders things in life and, indeed, helps to keep the little boy inside alive and well by continuing to consummate the love of the game discovered as a youngster on a macadam playground.
Coaching is part ministry, too. Some coaches truly believe that mentoring and preparing kids for when they are off the court and into the real world is far more important than teaching them the screen-and-roll or the mechanics of shooting. The coaches who realize - and prioritize - this know full well that education is a lifeline for a lifetime, while basketball is a pastime for a short time.
The success kids reap off the court is a coach's most authentic legacy. My coach at Temple, Harry Litwack, who twice took teams to the Final Four, exemplified that. "Your education here at Temple will take you further than your basketball experiences," he would preach every season - and then check out our classroom game.
This past year, I received an unexpected letter from a player I coached at International Christian High School. Frank Stephens, a kid I was harder on than any other player, wrote to say he had realized that my tough, no-nonsense discipline - and sometimes cloying preachments on the importance of education - were expressions of care and concern for him. Blessed with a breezy intelligence, Frank has been successful in the business world.
I see this care and concern in local college coaches: Wright at Villanova; Temple's Fran Dunphy; St. Joe's Phil Martelli; La Salle's John Giannini; Drexel's James "Bruiser" Flint; and Philadelphia University's Herb Magee. Their players are lucky to have the kind of coaches who understand that what happens off the court is exponentially more important than whether you win or lose during March Madness.