Last week I wrote about the longsuffering and gentle souls at my parents’ retirement community, their patience with my children and me, their sense of perspective forged through decades of experience in rough and relatively smooth waters.
This week I’d like to discuss briefly two friends (one deceased) who have impressed me with their calm and proper sense of priorities despite their involvement in America’s most high-stakes, high stress “industry.” Business? Politics? Entertainment? The law? Please. No, I speak, of course, of big-time sports.
The first is Fred Schaus, who was a neighbor of mine in the early-to-mid 1970’s, during my early teen years. His son, Jim, and I became best friends so I was granted something of a front row seat to Mr. Schaus’ personal and professional life during that period. He was the head basketball coach at Purdue then, having just relinquished the General Manager position of the Los Angeles Lakers to return to his first love—coaching. The Lakers had just won the NBA championship and Fred was looking for a new challenge, and boy did he find it.
But first, a little background. In his first stint as a coach Mr. Schaus enjoyed remarkable success with the West Virginia Mountaineers (where he had previously been an All-American basketball player and Senior Class President), winning 83 percent of his games. Still, he wasn’t quite able to reach his ultimate goal of winning an NCAA title, losing in the 1960 championship game by one point in his final season with WVU. The Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA needed a new coach at that point, were impressed with his accomplishments at West Virginia, offered him the position, and he accepted. What followed was perhaps the greatest stretch of “almost-but-no-cigardom” in sports history. His Laker teams lost in the NBA finals four times in six years to the Boston Celtics, led by Red Auerbach (speaking of cigars), Bill Russell, John Havlicek, et al.
Back to Mr. Schaus’ tenure at Purdue. After having lost in the NCAA finals by a point, then losing in the NBA finals four times to the greatest dynasty in the NBA, he landed at Purdue precisely at the moment of Bobby Knight’s and Indiana University’s basketball ascendancy. Though he directed Purdue to an NIT title (at a time when that actually meant something), he was unable to match—by a long shot—Knight’s success. His record at Purdue was a respectable 104-60, with four 3rd place finishes in the Big Ten and one second place finish.
He made the NCAA tournament one time, losing in the final minute to eventual runner-up North Carolina. During that same stretch, Knight and IU went 145-31, with one championship, two final fours, two elite eight appearances, and two more sweet sixteens. Mr. Schaus was second (or third or fourth) fiddle again. Yet I never witnessed him express bitterness or even disappointment with his lot. He was happy, humble, and at peace. While fans were ranting about one thing or another, he was calm, even philosophical.
“Life is a lot more than basketball, Timmy,” he once told me after a tough loss. I didn’t believe it then, but I do now.
My second subject is a buddy (let’s call him “Dennis”) who is the director of player personnel for an NFL team. Because the team has suffered through a couple of bad seasons, its head coach was just fired, as was the general manager—Dennis’ boss, mentor, and life-long friend. Dennis is still employed by the team, but it’s unclear whether he’ll ultimately survive (vocationally speaking, of course) the purge once a new general manager is selected.
The NFL is a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise, and it’s cut-throat. Dennis knows this and has logged the absurd number of hours and frequent flier miles to prove it. He studies game and practice film the way House, M.D. examines lab results or an appellate advocate prepares for an oral argument before the Supreme Court. You get the idea. He is dedicated, hard-working, and smart. The pressure is enormous and the scrutiny is constant. If his team wins, he goes largely unrecognized. If they lose, he’s a pariah. Yet his faith and his family and his wiring have worked together nicely, allowing him to transcend the stress and maintain a laudable state of equilibrium amid the sound and fury.
A few years ago I spent a home-game weekend with Dennis, his wife, and his two children. The night before the game, I opened up about a minor crisis that my family was going through at the time. Dennis, haggard and exhausted from his work duties and family responsibilities, stayed up with me half the night, praying, probing, and patiently offering encouragement and support. It was a remarkable display of humility and love which I’ll never forget. Echoing Mr. Schaus, he once told Krista and his wife, “there’s a lot more to me than football.” Indeed.
I aspire to attain or develop many of the qualities Fred Schaus and Dennis share, but foremost among them is a genuine and durable sense of perspective. Mark that down as one more New Year’s resolution.
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.