"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Time passes, coaches change, norms change

I saw a "teaser" headline at the top of page 1 of the local newspaper Saturday that read "Kevin Pope named Tiger football coach." The headline made the news seem so routine. "New coached named."
Life does go on and changes do happen. But the naming of a new coach does signal the end of an era. It proved to be a quite lengthy era. Jerry Witt has held the reins as Tiger coach for 30-plus years.
I remember when I first photographed him, he was an assistant under Jeff Arnold. He had facial hair. His "reputation preceded him" because he had an outstanding playing career at UMM.
Those were different times for UMM football. It was a time when football players were "big men on campus." It's just the way our culture was organized then. There were fewer teams and they were male-oriented. Yes, women's athletics were getting established in the 1970s but they had the obvious growing pains.
The old varsity athletic model didn't fizzle overnight.
You can get a feel for that model by watching the movie "Hoosiers" starring Gene Hackman. I don't think the term "student athlete" was much in circulation then. Athletes were more like - pardon the bluntness - gladiators. They represented their towns or institutions in more of a provincial way. And if they won they were heroes in a rather shallow sense.
I say it's shallow because, what really did they prove? What of all the anonymous non-athletically gifted students? What were they to make of all that? Were they to see themselves as inferior? What about all the students at "Hickory High School" who didn't play basketball? What about handicapped students?
The girls were supposed to be cheerleaders in those days - at least the "cute" ones got chosen. It doesn't seem like the most ideal societal model. And yet we watch a movie like "Hoosiers" and feel nostalgic.
In Morris we had our own answer to "Hoosiers" with the 1955 basketball team that made state in the one-class system. They got carved up once they made state. The small schools would always eventually run into a buzz saw. It's just that our 1955 team was able to survive the regions and make it to that prestigious floor of Williams Arena.
We'd get excused from class in those days to watch the state tournament on TV. The dynasty was Edina. Not only did Edina rule in basketball - no need to call it "boys basketball" then - that community was considered the affluent ideal for all of Minnesota.
We all learned that Edina was the "Hornets." We all learned our small outstate communities had no business trying to play basketball against them. It's amazing our educational leaders then allowed such an unfair system.
It's hard to understand sometimes how cultural norms get established for a particular time. It's not that long ago in the scheme of things when we shrugged or yawned about smoking in public. Can you imagine walking into DeToy's Restaurant today and having the air be "blue" with cigarette smoke? But there was a time.
Jerry Witt played football at UMM in a time when the Cougars showed some swagger on campus. Today I think these fellows are just "student athletes" who blend in much more with the overall student population. Of course I find the current model preferable.
We don't just pay "polite" attention to women's athletics like we may have done in the 1970s. We find it every bit as interesting.
We never would have seen that sea change without progressive-leaning politicians. Republicans never push for this kind of change. But once it happens, they're happy to go along and be approving. Just ask a Republican if they would have gone along with Medicare in the 1960s. They'll say "yes" but it's a fabrication. We have progressive-leaning politicians to thank for how women's sports have fully flowered.
I reveal my age in saying I worked with Jerry Witt as a print media person for the first 3/4 of his career. But it gets worse than that. The first Tiger coach I worked with as a print media person was Jim Satter. You'll probably have to dig through the archives to refresh yourself on him. I remember him as a quite sophisticated football guy who couldn't seem to convert all that knowledge to corresponding success in high school football.
I worked with coach Arnold for a year or two and then along came this guy named Witt.
(I remember Arnold criticizing hockey once by saying "it's all luck when they score!" I couldn't have said it better.)
The 1980s had some turbulence for MAHS athletics as there was some community controversy over how the overall program was being managed. That came to a head in 1987 if I remember correctly. It was painful. Finally a steady ship set sail.
Year after year we saw coach Witt "prowl the sidelines" as Tiger coach. He led the Tigers to Prep Bowl one year. I remember going to the Metrodome for that, and making two other trips there for covering the Chokio-Alberta Spartans. Of course the Spartans are no more.
We got to see all three of the Witt sons play quarterback for the Tigers. First there was Zachary and then Forrest and Taylor. All three had uncanny talent. And of course they were surrounded by a pretty capable stable of student athletes.
Kip Keiso was the unforgettable quarterback for when the Tigers made Prep Bowl. Given the talent on that team, I'm surprised they could have lost to anyone. But they did lose to Breckenridge in Prep Bowl.
Witt is a contemporary of mine as is Lyle Rambow, his long-time assistant. If this is really a "passing of the torch," generation-wise, I'm wondering if I should make any trips back to Big Cat Stadium to cover MACA in my online-based role. I have been doing this for the last three years.
If I cease it won't be because of any coaching transition, it will be because I have now come to view football in a highly negative way. Oh, go ahead and be ticked off at me. But you see, I'm kind of a bum these days and so I have time to read. And because I have time to read, I'm fully aware of all the horrifying revelations coming out about football - its health consequences.
We have always known that football players can end up with things like "bum knees." The players themselves knew this and were willing to take the risk, although I find even that judgment to be questionable. Today the rapidly mounting revelations are about what football does to the brain.
This is different. Players recognize that too. In order to discourage boys from playing this sport, we as a society must quit glorifying it. We reinforce the sport by allowing the lights to be turned on at a glorious facility each Friday night and then turning out en masse to cheer. We are parties to this unacceptable danger. And it has got to stop, and soon.
Coach Witt and members of his generation are blameless. They didn't know.
Today if you do a Google web search or news search with terms like "football, head injuries, concussions" etc., you will find fresh and disturbing new items to read constantly. Occasionally you'll read about a school board member somewhere proposing that football be dropped. These people get "15 minutes of fame" because there aren't that many of them yet. I'd like to see a Morris Area school board member join the group.
It's a tough transition because football has gotten so interwoven in our culture. But shame on you if you support football only because you've always enjoyed watching it. Those are human beings out there.
I'm happy for coach Witt that he's getting out now. It's the perfect time. The crescendo against football will grow. Eventually we'll see it as being like the "air being blue" with smoke at the local diner.
Witt coached before all the dangers became known. He deserves a hearty congratulations for all his success. I don't know anything about the new "young" guy. Sigh.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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