Apr 25, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
One night, Mike Messere, a lacrosse coaching legend at West Genesee breaks the all-time record for national wins in front of hundreds of fans and dozens of alumni touched and affected by his principled leadership.
The very next day, and just a few miles up the road, Pete Birmingham, the coach who led Marcellus to a Section III Class B championship, is forced out of his position, possibly because he had the nerve to use the same principled leadership.
Is there any further, more vivid illustration needed than this to explain how high school sports has changed. And that we may never, ever see someone like Messere last as long, and do as well, in our ranks again?
From 1976 onward, a constant theme in Messere’s tenure in Camillus was discipline. The demands he puts on his players, right down to the plain white socks they wear, were clear to see. Either you went with it and accepted those occasional runs up and down the Westcott Reservoir, or you didn’t play for him.
Those that stayed turned into champions, including 15 state crowns. They also spread the gospel as college players and, in dozens of instances, established their own careers as successful coaches, taking all they learned from Messere and applying it to sports and, more importantly, to life.
One of those lessons, to think beyond your own circumstances and work toward a larger good, is applied even now. Two current West Genesee players, Teddy Glesener and Adam Higginbotham, organized a campaign to get used lacrosse equipment to fledgling programs in Iowa and Colorado. Together, they got more than 450 pieces, worth approximately $21,000.
In other words, it’s true that the wins and losses are important, and it’s true that every kid wants to play. However, lacrosse, and sports, will end for everyone at some point, so teaching the value of being a good citizen beyond the playing field is vital to Messere’s message.
That message has resonated for 37 years now, the sort of coaching tenure impossible to fathom at any level, much less the high-school ranks. As time goes on, the notion that anyone will coach in the same place for 37 years, much less get the chance to do so, gets more absurd.
The sudden departure of Pete Birmingham offers Exhibit A to this point. You’d have thought that nine mostly successful seasons and a sectional title would have offered Birmingham at least some small right to autonomy within his program, because he knew how to win and get the best out of his charges.
Instead, all it got him was a litany of complaints from parents, legitimate or not, about which kids were playing and which kids were not. Worse yet, those parents took their complaints to the powers-that-be at Marcellus, who listened and sided with them. What followed was inevitable.
More and more, coaches are prime targets for anyone who feels aggrieved for any old reason. Whether it’s kids who feel disrespected or parents that want to run the whole show, they’re taking their beefs to school administrators, and it’s working.
Marcellus felt that wrath in the fall with JV football coach Jim Marsh and his motivational trip to a cemetery that got national attention and nearly led to Marsh’s resignation. While some of the players felt uncomfortable, it was parents making the biggest noise, as usual.
Liverpool had upheaval in the winter when another coaching great, Jerry Wilcox, was let go in mid-season. Oswego girls basketball coach Phil Reed sat out the last portion of the season when parents objected about his methods to school administrators.
All of these stories suggest that coaches, in this day and age, have to be extra careful in applying any sort of discipline. Unless they have the sort of reputation that Mike Messere possesses, any of them could get undermined by aggrieved outside forces.
Athletic directors and school administrators face a terrible bind, too. Already constrained by budgetary issues that aren’t getting easier, they can’t afford even the slightest hint of legal action, so in an issue like this, siding with the coach carries far more risk.
What’s truly sad is that young men and women just getting into the coaching ranks could get discouraged. Instead of jumping at the chance to give kids the same sort of wise guidance they received, they might decide that it’s not worth all the trouble.
Just think about how a young Mike Messere, with his strong and assertive leadership, would be received in 2012. He may have met Pete Birmingham’s fate. How sad that would be.
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