Road Trip Dad - Epic Fails - Part 1
Dan Witmer | September 21, 2020
Like I’ve said more than once, I do not profess to have all the answers. I’ve got coaching experiences, trials and tribulations, and plenty of stories from approximately 38 years that include both successes and failures. As we gather together at the bar, in the cluttered office, on the sidelines at recruiting showcases, or around the campfire, most of the stories we coaches like to tell definitely lean toward the former.

But here’s an unexpected confession: I’m human, and therefore I am fallible. I’ve made my share of mistakes. So, in this blog, let me reveal and confess to you some of my bigger clunkers...

Like the night I confused some of my newer players and pulled the wrong kid aside to break the news to him that he was being cut…

At Oswego State, I always waited till the second semester to make cuts (if necessary) and finalize the roster. I figured that too many variables were still unsettled in the fall – grades, interest and commitment, and transfers (both incoming and outgoing) never appeared very clearly in my coach’s crystal ball, so I’d wait till the first week of February practices to see where we stood. Frequently, the numbers took care of themselves; many players self-assessed their situation and recognized that their skills weren’t up to par with the rest of the team, and there were many years when the roster was comprised of the 25-35 players who simply stayed on board. However, there were some years when we were overloaded, even as we got started in February, so cuts were necessary.

I honestly don’t recall the actual year (early 1990s?), but this one particular winter we had several January transfers come in, more than usual. One or two would make the team, and one or two would not. Whether I was cutting one guy (which is very difficult!) or six or seven, I always tried to talk to each player in person, one at a time, in or around the locker room after practice.

My assistant coaches and I had agreed on the final determination, but on this particular night, they left the building immediately after practice, leaving all the dirty work for me (“That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” assistant coach Bill Carney would always be quick to remind me). Well, that night, Coach Carney had left Laker Hall to go catch a girls’ varsity Sectional volleyball match at Hannibal HS, where his wife Lisa was the head coach.

So of course, left on my own, I mistook one of the transfers for another, and pulled “Johnny” aside (instead of “Joey”) and broke the news to him that we, unfortunately, just couldn’t carry him on the roster. He seemed quite surprised, but took the news very maturely, so I went off in search of the next unfortunate player.

Which is when I ran into Joey.

I immediately realized I had made a serious mistake, and before I could talk with Joey about his fate, I ran to catch Johnny before he cleared out his locker and left the building.

I caught Johnny on his way out, and apologized profusely. I was honest with him and explained my error, which he (fortunately) took quite well. I remember him laughing and saying something like, “I didn’t think I was that bad!”

Then I scrambled to catch Joey before he left, thinking that he had survived the cut. Luckily (for me, not him), I found him and explained his situation. I think there might have been another one or two to locate, and I managed to do so without fumbling any further.

As planned, I drove from Laker Hall out to Hannibal to watch the volleyball match with Bill. “Don’t you ever leave me alone to make cuts by myself again!” I told him as I sat down in the bleachers.

“Why?” he asked.

So I told him what I had just done.

For the rest of Bill’s tenure as one of my assistants, probably close to ten years, he never failed to be at my side whenever I made cuts.

And I guess if you had to choose a time to make the once-in-a-lifetime mistake of calling too many timeouts and being assessed a delay of game penalty as a result, it might as well be in a “meaningless” JV game, right?

Yeah, I did that (just once!).

The kicker is, though, that the opponent (Liverpool) scored on that subsequent man-up.

And the game turned out to be a one-goal loss for my team.

And the head coach of that Liverpool JV team was one of my former Oswego State players, Aaron Gross.

How embarrassing!

As luck would have it, I moved up from head JV coach to varsity assistant after that season, along with many of those players, and I had to be reminded of that mistake for the next couple of years.

Another one of the more embarrassing moments of my coaching days included the time a former player, who had been recently been dismissed from the team, decided he would make one final cameo appearance in a home game.

We’ve all seen videos of streakers at various sporting events; they make their scene, get chased by security, and disappear. Well, this particular guy put a little more time and preparation into his “15 minutes of fame.”

We were playing Brockport early in their program’s revival – maybe 2000 or 2001. They weren’t very strong at the time, and I’d like to think that “Junior” decided to pull this prank at a home game that wouldn’t be much of a contest.

Make no mistake about it, Junior had some inside help. He had a Laker uniform. He had full Laker gear, too – gloves, helmet, you name it.

And at some random moment in the game when the ball went out of bounds in our offensive end, Junior ran onto the field, caught a pass, ran around a little, passed the ball off to a teammate, and then proceeded to exit the field by jumping over the low snow fence that served as our end line netting at the time, and escape into Laker Hall. He continued on into the building and, quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him since.

Oh, did I mention that his “costume” also included a long-haired women’s wig?

As Junior jumped over the fence and left the field, referee Clark Mercer, one of the best lacrosse officials ever, just looked at me with the strangest look on his face.

“What just happened?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” I answered honestly.

Mr. Mercer and his crew hadn’t caught the too-many-men-on-the-field situation, not until they saw a Laker run off the end line into Laker Hall. But by then the damage was done.

I turned to Brockport coach Ben Wineburg, who also had a rather surprised and amused look on his face.

“I’m sorry,” I tried to explain. “That guy got kicked off the team this week.”

Ben just smiled.

In the years that followed, Clark liked to remind me of that particular day, and whenever I see Coach Wineburg, he and I still shake our collective heads in disbelief. I’m glad Junior didn’t shoot – imagine if he had scored! How do you put that one in the books? In our present days of Stat Crew and analytics, how would a spotter react to an un-rostered player recording a ground ball, assist, penalty, or worse yet – a goal?

Like I said, I was embarrassed. It was a bush thing for him to do, and for almost 20 years I’ve avoided telling that story; I certainly didn’t want to be reminded of it by our players, coaches, refs, or opponents.

But now, years later, I’ll share my tales with you. Low points are going to happen, especially when you’re working with high school or college-aged kids.

I’ll cut this short for now, but I’m really just getting started. Next week I’ll share some other head-scatching, “what-were-you-thinking?” moments of good intentions gone awry… incidents that tested my patience and confessions of some terrible coaching strategies. Be sure to check back here next Monday.

In the meantime, drive carefully, everyone, and stay safe, stay smart, and stay kind. Thanks!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

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 at the river's end bookstore.