Road Trip Dad - Epic Fails - Part 2
Dan Witmer | September 28, 2020
Lots of coaches are quick to tell the stories of their successes, but whether they’ll admit it or not, it’s not all Gatorade baths, championships rings, and Coach of the Year plaques. We’ve all had some dark days, too.

Last week I told some stories of embarrassing mistakes, but I was only scratching the surface. There are plenty of additional coaching bloopers and busts… like the time I got so mad at my players, I stopped practice and went home, and seriously considered hanging up my clipboard and whistle.

Apparently we had some partyers on the team in the early ‘90s, and they wanted to advertise and promote their upcoming bash. Social media didn’t exist in those days, so they resorted to the time-tested practice of making flyers – handbills, if you will – and made copies and hung them all over campus and town.

Nothing crazy there – except the fact that these clowns decided to state that it was in fact a lacrosse party, and included disparaging references to me – and my wife – in their promotions.

Pretty sure our legendary athletic trainer Gary Fulsaas brought it all to my attention, walking out to our practice field with one of the flyers in hand.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I felt humiliated and betrayed, as well as angry. I called the team in, told them how I felt, and said practice was over. I walked directly to my car and drove home, mulling over whether I wanted to ever coach this team again or not…

An hour or two later, I was visited at home by assistant coach Bill Carney and two guilty team members. It was time to talk. The two players – maybe sophomores/juniors at the time – were genuinely sorry and filled with regret. Billy played referee.

A day or so later, I met with interim athletic director Dr. Bruce Lester, who had also seen the flyers. I remember him asking me bluntly, “Why do you still want these guys on your team?” I don’t remember my answer, and I don’t recall specific repercussions (though I hope and believe there were some), but those two played out the remainders of their college careers for me at Oswego. Both went on to earn all-league honors, and one has since enjoyed a long career of coaching and reffing.

In retrospect, I’m not totally convinced that they were the true perpetrators; I suspect that they were merely the two who decided to man up and come to my house to apologize. In any case, I like to believe that our talk that night at my house led to a much-needed clearing of the air, and maybe it’s no coincidence that subsequent years led to some of our most successful seasons. Maybe we just needed to come to a better understanding of respect, expectations, and goals…

Another embarrassing occasion was when my team captains got mad at me because I didn’t lie to our local University Police for them…

This was the late 1980s. Apparently they were having a big (Easter?) dinner at their off-campus house, so they decided it would be OK to “borrow” a table or two from Laker Hall – without asking anyone’s permission. When UP caught them in the act, my captains told the officers, “It’s all right – Coach Witmer said we could use them for the day and then bring them back.”

That’s when I got the phone call from UP.

Had I given them permission to use the tables?

“No,” I answered. I was fuming!

Well, the boys got in some hot water, had their wrists slapped, and came to me the next practice all upset at me because I hadn’t taken their side. They believed I should have “had their backs” and lied to the officer, and then handled their offense internally – made them run sprints, benched them, etc .

Me? I didn’t quite see it that way.

I was embarrassed by the entire incident. I think I might have stripped them of their captain titles, and maybe benched them – I really don’t remember. But I betcha they can remember their consequences exactly. I hope so anyway.

Like every other coach out there, I’ve taken other people’s ideas and either stolen them in their entirety or made slight modifications…

In my earliest years coaching at Oswego State, I ran a lot of drills that Hall of Fame coach Tony Seaman had us do at Lynbrook High School. We ran sprints on hills, we ran the Lynbrook zone defense, and I used Coach Seaman’s variation of a 2v1 ground ball drill…

I think most people run a 2v1, man-ball drill with three lines all facing the same direction. The guys on the outside lines are working together, calling “man” or “ball,” while the guy in the middle line is all by himself. Coach rolls a ball away from the three lines and, theoretically, the two players on the same team should come up with the ball.

But at Lynbrook, Coach Seaman ran it a little differently. In his 2v1 drill, all three lines face an inward, middle area, where the coach would roll the ball. It was still a 2v1, man-ball drill, but in this bull-in-the-ring iteration, contact is pretty much guaranteed. It certainly added a toughness component, so when I started running the drill at Oswego State, I did it Coach Seaman’s way.

Sometime in the first year or two, I lost a starter to a separated shoulder, suffered in that exact drill. I saw Coach Seaman at the Coaches’ Convention that winter, and asked him if he still ran that drill. He said, “Nah, we don’t do that anymore; too many injuries.”

Hmm. Imagine that. Guess I missed the memo!

But I don’t blame Coach Seaman; chances are pretty good he picked that variation up from another coach. All coaches are poachers and thieves – or liars!

Only on a very rare occasion have I come up with something I have believed was truly my own original idea. Some were pretty good, and I’m always proud to share them with other coaches.

Other ideas? Well, maybe not so much…

Early in the ‘90s, I believe, we were about to face a rival SUNYAC opponent. I decided that their defense was a weakness, so I wanted to test and challenge them beyond the norm. I proposed that while we were man-down, I would sub attackmen on the field whose job would be to run a rotating, half-field, triangular pattern – anticipating that their starting defenders would be forced to run with them to cover their men – while their own teammates ran their extra-man offense on the other half of the field. Instead of passively standing at the midfield line and watching their man-up operate, they would get fatigued running for a full 30 or 60 seconds.

Genius, right? Go ahead; try it out if you want. I won’t mind…

My players thought it was awesome, so I’ll blame them for encouraging me. It’s really what I’d label as “dirty pool,” and if someone tried that against my team, I’d just tell my defenders to drop in, zone it up, and let the sub attackmen run all they want.

But, for the record, the plan worked perfectly. The opponent stayed in their man-to-man defense, and those starting defensemen were pretty vocal with their displeasure.

Yes, we won. No, I don’t think we ever did it again.

Another gimmick I’ll confess to was changing goalies every time our opponent (coincidentally, the same SUNYAC rival) scored a goal, but this one wasn’t my own idea…

Early in the 2000s, Coach Jim Townsend at RPI was facing nationally-ranked Nazareth and wasn’t happy with his goalies’ play, so in an attempt to motivate them, he told them before the game that he was going to sub them after every Golden Flyer goal scored. I don’t remember how many goalies he included in the rotation, but he kept his word. Naz won, but Coach Townsend told me afterwards that his ploy had indeed helped one of his goalies to rise to the top… so I decided to give it a try for myself.

In either 2003 or 2004, I couldn’t find a Laker goalie who showed consistent results, so I juggled them around as we went through our schedule. Sam would play pretty well one game but not the next, so I’d go with Barney. He’d do the same, so I’d give Lincoln a try. Two games later I’d go back to Sam again. They got frustrated, the team got frustrated, and I was beyond being frustrated… so I spoke with Coach Townsend and, after picking his brains a bit, decided to give the rotating goalies strategy a try. I figured, if it worked for him, it would surely work for me…

When I told my three goalies what I had in mind, they were not pleased. I told them I didn’t expect a shut-out performance from anyone, but I hoped that, over the course of the game, I would find that one of them had proven himself above the others once and for all.

Well, the reality is that it didn’t really do anything other than create more frustration and more than a couple of jeers from our high-scoring opponent. At the end of the day, we lost decisively, the tactic hadn’t really established anyone above the rest, and I promised to never try that ploy again.

But it is still there, in my back pocket, just in case.

Hopefully, at the end of the day, we can all sit around and laugh – or least shake our heads – at the crazy, stupid, and embarrassing moments, too.

Updates:

On Monday, younger son Eric reminded me of a detail I’d forgotten in last week’s RTD tale of the game-day guest appearance of a former player. As Junior ran off the playing field, he didn’t run into Laker Hall – he jumped into a waiting “getaway car” that sped off before any of us really understood what had just happened. I guess that stunt made quite a lasting impression on a 10-year old!

On Tuesday, older son Brian told me that he’s been asked to serve on World Lacrosse’s “Women’s Indoor/Box Lacrosse Working Group,” as posted here on www.JustLacrosse.com back on September 17. He’s one of six committee members who will be looking at the potential development and growth of an international women’s indoor game. Pretty cool stuff!

Then on Wednesday, by sheer coincidence, Eric tells me he’s agreed to volunteer to coach a girls’ box lacrosse team this winter in the Denver area.

Hmm… box, field, evening “3X” pick-up games, girls, boys, youth, pro, college, club, and/or varsity… seems like Colorado has some things figured out that New York State has not. More on this thought at a later date!

Until next week – please drive carefully, everyone, and stay safe, stay smart, and stay kind.

- 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.