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Coach and the Comb Over

A bad combover should never be the sole criterion by which a man’s character is judged. Allow me to explain. I had a lot of memorable coaches during my years of playing sports. Coach Marv was one of them. He was my college baseball coach, and he also doubled as my geography professor during the first semester of my freshman year.

Coach Marv loved geography and took his lectures very seriously. Unfortunately, he had a nasally, monotone delivery that could drop even the most motivated student into a coma. In fact, Insomniacs International once hired him to speak at their annual convention. Ten minutes after starting his presentation titled The Geographic Distribution of Homosporous Ferns, most of the audience had fallen asleep! At the beginning of his Intro to World Geography class, it took us three days just to read through the table of contents in our textbook. He took his etchplains, riegels and alluvial fans quite seriously.

There were a number of football players in his class that semester, including one upperclassman, which gives you a glimpse into his educational potential, and Coach Marv had a tendency to run late. Class was supposed to end at 3:10, and we had to be ready for football practice by 3:30. Quite often he wouldn’t dismiss us until 3:20 at which point we ran the risk of making our football coach angry!

One day, the upperclassman suggested, and by suggested I mean demanded, that we try to fix the problem. The following day, four or five of us smuggled alarm clocks into class, all of them set to go off at 3:10. We hid them under our desks or kept them in our bags. At 3:09, as Coach Marv droned on about the differences between coniferous forests and deciduous woodlands, all the football players quietly set their alarm clocks on their desks. At precisely 3:10, the alarms went off simultaneously, causing a clanging commotion that startled everybody in the classroom, including Coach Marv. He looked up from his notes and saw the alarm clocks sitting on our desks. Then, to our surprise, he started laughing. He started with a chuckle which turned into a belly laugh. He laughed so hard, he was doubled over. “You guys!” he said. “You guys!” He had a tendency to say things twice. He dismissed the class and we made it to football practice on time. He got the message, and we learned that Coach Marv had a pretty good sense of humor.

When spring rolled around, and I use the term spring loosely, baseball practice commenced and Coach Marv was in his glory. There are pros and cons to playing baseball in Minnesota in March. OK, I lied. There are no pros. There are only cons. If it wasn’t snowing, we’d be outside practicing. I don’t think the temperature ever got above 45º that spring. Coach Marv loved baseball and he loved his players. Those two qualities alone don’t necessarily make for a good coach, but he also was a good teacher of the game. He emphasized fundamentals day after day. “Hit ‘em on the letters, boys! Hit ‘em on the letters!” he’d yell as we warmed up at the beginning of practice. At some point during just about every practice, he’d regurgitate his favorite line. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to play this game. We’re gonna play it the right way.”

Coach Marv was mostly bald, but like a lot of men of his generation, he tried to hide the obvious by resorting to the classic comb over. His comb over was a straggly, grey work of art, stretching from one side of his dome to the other. If we were outside and it was windy, occasionally Coach Marv’s cap would blow off, exposing his bare head to the wind. I can still picture that comb over standing at attention from one side of his head like a grey crescent moon. He would smooth it back into place while continuing to yell, “Hit ‘em on the letters, boys! Hit ‘em on the letters!”

Before each start he would say to all of us pitchers, “If you change speeds and throw strikes, we’ll win our fair share.” During the game he would yell from the dugout, “Ya gotta throw strikes! Ya gotta throw strikes!”

After the season was over and the temperature had climbed to a balmy 52º, Coach Marv invited the whole team over to his house for a picnic dinner. We had a great time reminiscing about our season. After most of the team had left, three of us brown-nosers stayed behind to help clean up. Coach Marv invited us into the house to sit and talk some more. One of my buddies was a pretty good mimic, and at some point during the conversation we started talking about things Coach Marv said in practice. The three of us looked at each other and Coach Marv said, “Come on, boys. What did I say that you thought was so funny?” My buddy stood up and pretended to smooth down an imaginary comb over and in his best nasally voice said, “Come on, boys! Hit ‘em on the letters! Ya gotta hit ‘em on the letters!” Coach Marv started laughing.

The second guy stood up and put his hands on his knees and in his best imitation said, “Ok, boys, if you change speeds and throw strikes, we’ll win our fair share! But ya gotta throw strikes! Ya gotta throw strikes!” Coach Marv started laughing harder. “You guys!” he said laughing. “You guys!”

Finally I stood up and, in my best Coach Marv voice, said, “There’s a right way and a wrong way to play this game! We’re gonna play it the right way!” By this point, Coach Marv was laughing so hard, I thought we might have to call 911.

A few years later, when my oldest son turned five and started playing tee-ball, I volunteered to coach his team. Before our first practice, I gave them a little speech. “Boys,” I said, “there’s a right way and a wrong way to play this game! We’re gonna play it the right way!” Then, as the boys lined up to try and play catch, I put my hands on my knees and started yelling, “Hit ‘em on the letters, boys! Hit ‘em on the letters!”

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