For many, many years, I had it all. I taught high school English and, depending on the year, also coached JV girls’ soccer, JV boys’ lacrosse, varsity girls’ soccer, varsity girls’ ice hockey, varsity boys’ lacrosse, and men’s college lacrosse.
High school English – which included classes of English 7 and 9 through 12, Children’s Literature, AP English, College English, and one single year of an AIS class – was what I did to put food on the table for my family and me for 33 years. If you added up all the seasons of teams I coached, there would be 60, including this spring’s Oswego HS boys’ varsity season.
Ironically, as I mapped out my life while in Lynbrook High School (Class of ’78) on Long Island, my goal was to be a high school teacher and varsity coach. Everywhere I looked at LHS, I had the best role models, teachers who also coached. Tony Seaman was a social studies teacher as well as my junior high soccer coach and my varsity lacrosse coach. Larry Glenz was my social studies teacher and junior high lacrosse coach. Ken Sicke was a chemistry teacher who also coached my JV soccer and lacrosse teams. My driver’s ed teacher was Jim Imholtz; he also coached the school’s club ice hockey team. Marty Goldberg was my varsity soccer coach, and he taught social studies.
And those were just the ones who coached me in high school. Joe Knoll, Jim Perpall, and Paul Wehrum coached football at Lynbrook, but I never played football. Bill Hedgecock coached track and field and cross country, which I also avoided, but I did have him as my 12th grade English teacher. Mike Cingiser also taught English; he left LHS to coach basketball at Brown. Our junior high principal was Jim Lennon, who was an NCAA basketball referee and former varsity basketball coach at St. Agnes HS.
Each name I mentioned either went on to coach at the college level or is a member of some sort of Hall of Fame. Many still hold records attesting to their coaching successes.
All I ever wanted was to be like them.
As fate would have it, my teaching career was spent exclusively at Hannibal High School, up here in Oswego County, making a nice little triangle with Fulton and Oswego – and Hannibal had no hockey, no lacrosse, and no boys’ soccer (when I told my first classes that I had played soccer in high school, the boys told me quite matter-of-factly, “Soccer? That’s a girls’
The saving grace was that I went off-script for exactly 28 years and coached the men’s lacrosse team at SUNY Oswego instead of realizing my dream of becoming a varsity coach. The opportunity presented itself and I jumped at the chance to coach at the college level, even if I didn’t get paid the first four years.
I loved coaching at the college level; don’t get me wrong. But after a few years, I got the itch to coach my Hannibal students, and the varsity (girls’) soccer coach was looking for a JV coach. The season lasted just ten weeks – two in August before school started and finishing around the third week of October. JV meant no playoffs, and I’m pretty sure that no one was counting non-traditional practices for college teams back then. I was free to juggle my JV soccer schedule and our “fallball” lacrosse season and make them work.
And somehow, they did. We worked around my game schedule and only had fallball practices on days I had soccer practices. Soccer ended at 5 PM, and daylight in September and October lasted until at least 6:30. Sometimes my assistants and/or captains would start lacrosse practice at 4:30 or so, and I’d miss out on stretching and line drills…
Let me tell you, students look at you differently when you’re also their coach. Whether it’s in the hallways or classroom, they see a different person. When I started coaching JV soccer at Hannibal around 1988, I became a different teacher. Those of you who have been or are currently coaching and teaching the same students know what I’m talking about.
I coached the JV soccer team for eight seasons, stopping only because our own sons were starting to play youth soccer. For eight years I joked that I had mastered the skill of being in two places at once, but now I faced being in three
places at the same time. Something had to give.
Well, it wasn’t going to be my sons’ games and practices, and it wasn’t going to be fall lacrosse, either. I made the only choice I really had, and stepped away from Hannibal coaching.
I missed it immediately; it was like someone flipped the switch. I lost the way students looked at me. Sure, I was still a coach, but coaching in another school district, or even at the college level, didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Fast forward about 15 years…
Late in the spring of 2009, about four varsity coaches and five Hannibal athletic directors later, I was asked if I was interested in coaching JV soccer again. One son was in college, and the other was playing his senior year of varsity soccer, but most of his games were night games. On the lacrosse side, fall practices were now regulated – limited to just 16 practices over a maximum of five weeks. I looked at calendars of September and October, demanded that we play as few Saturday soccer games as possible, and booked five consecutive weekends with Saturday and Sunday fallball lacrosse practices. It all looked very doable. I ran my proposal by athletic directors at both Hannibal and the College, and got the green light from each.
Sure enough, that switch got flipped back on. My students treated me differently, and even the ones who didn’t have me as their teacher spoke to me differently. Like Lynbrook, coaches were revered at Hannibal, and I had just been inducted back into the club.
I like to think it was a coincidence, but the 2009-2010 school year was my last as head lacrosse coach at Oswego State. In May of 2010, I was told the College was going to hire a full-time coach that summer.
Despite being thrown for an unexpected loop, I was fortunate to land on my feet. I went back to JV soccer in the fall of 2010, and then I filled my winter and spring that year by volunteering as assistant girls’ ice hockey coach and assistant boy’s lacrosse coach at Oswego High School – thanks to former Oswego State assistant lacrosse coaches Doc Nelson and Dan Bartlett, who had left my staff to start coaching scholastically.
In a strange turn of events, the varsity soccer coach at Hannibal was asked to step aside after the 2010 season and I became the varsity coach in the fall of 2011. So, ironically, 33 years after leaving Lynbrook HS to work my way toward becoming a high school teacher and varsity coach, I had finally realized my dream (after 28 years of coaching NCAA lacrosse)!
Within a year or two, I was the paid assistant for ice hockey and the head JV lacrosse coach. I was coaching three high school sports when I retired from Hannibal in 2015.
I resigned from Hannibal soccer after the fall 2016 season, and then I resigned from ice hockey this past year. I enjoyed the coaching, but I couldn’t enjoy retirement quite as much as I wanted. Now it’s just boys’ lacrosse – this will be my fourth year as boys’ varsity assistant coach.
Whether you look at it like I do or not, I believe that teaching is coaching, and coaching is certainly teaching. I used to tell my English 11 classes that I was going to coach them through the Regents exam, and I can still remember a couple of my non-soccer players responding by smiling and saying, “OK, Coach!”
John Wooden’s iconic autobiography is entitled They Call Me Coach
, which is interesting, considering the fact that he was known as the best teacher of the game – even to the extent that he would take the time to demonstrate to his player the correct way to tie their shoelaces.
Really, what’s the difference? Teaching… coaching. Coaching… teaching. Tomayto, tomahto. Aughnt, ant. Not much of a difference, really – but I can’t think of a better title than “Coach.”
Drive carefully, everyone.
- Dan Witmer
Dan Witmer is the author of two books. The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland. ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and soon to be on the shelves at the river's end bookstore.