May 2008 Issue
A Tribute to "Coach"
The sad news arrived in an e-mail from a friend.
My coach had died.
Augie Bossu, longtime baseball and football coach at Cleveland’s Benedictine High, was 91 and had remained an active coach until just a few years ago. He is a member of both the Ohio High School Baseball and Football Coaches Halls of Fame, and won nearly 1,000 games in the two sports.
The expected tributes started appearing in print and online shortly after his death on January 1, 2008. He had, after all, coached some of Cleveland’s legendary high school athletes. Some were National Football League players; one, Mike Easler, played Major League baseball and was on the Pittsburgh Pirates team that won the 1979 World Series.
The tributes were the kind we hear about great coaches — the records, the honors, the quotations from those famous athletes.
I was among the thousands of young men who played both baseball and football for Coach (we all called him that). Most of us were very average on the field and went on to a life outside of sports.
This is a tribute from one of those guys, and it goes beyond the athletic fields and into real life — where coaches can be even more important figures in our lives.
It started with the morning announcements on a winter day of my junior year in high school.
“Kevin Riley, please see Coach Bossu,” the homeroom speaker squawked.
I froze, as all eyes in homeroom turned to me. Baseball tryouts had just started, and at an all-male Catholic high school, being asked to see the coach was an unusual — and possibly very bad — sign.
By the late 1970s, Coach was already considered a legend in northeast Ohio, both in baseball and football. We all knew he had played football at Notre Dame, where Elmer Layden, one of Notre Dame’s famous “Four Horsemen,” coached him.
I had a hard time imagining that this would be a good moment. In my last one-on-one meeting with him the season before, he had cut me from a varsity baseball team that later reached the state finals.
My name had been on the final roster posted in the locker room, but a couple of days later Coach told me he thought I’d get more playing time on the junior varsity. I didn’t argue, but I went home in tears. Later that spring, as I sat in the stands watching my friends on the field in the state tournament in Columbus, I was heartbroken — and angry at him.
At the time I didn’t even consider arguing with him. That was out of the question. He was an intimidating figure to a high school boy, but not because he was the stereotypical shouting, intimidating, sideline-prowling coach.
His influence came from being exactly the opposite.
In those difficult conversations, he was gentle but direct. He never used more words than he had to.
He attended Mass in the school chapel every day. He would call time-out during a baseball game and ask “Mr. Umpire” a question. He told us to never blame a referee for a loss. “Win in spite of the officials,” he’d say.
The strongest curse I ever heard him use? “Hell’s bells.” All his players and assistant coaches knew he was as angry as he ever got when we heard that.
He could also signal his good moods and his sense of humor. Sometimes while the football team was stretching before a practice, he’d shout to one of us: “Where is the grass the greenest?”
Our reply: “In the end zone, Coach.”
He motivated through high expectations. His players only feared disappointing him.
And so it was with all of this background and my emotional baggage that I gathered my courage and headed to his office that winter day.
As was typical of him, he made no small talk. He told me he expected that I would be the starting catcher this season, and he considered that a big job. Then he handed me a sheet of paper and one of his trademark stubby pencils. He asked me to write down, in order, my rating of the pitchers trying out for the team.
He made it clear our conversation was confidential, and I left. In a place like Benedictine, with its long tradition of athletic excellence, it seemed like everyone wanted to know what happened. I spent the rest of the day dodging questions from my friends about the meeting. Of course, it helped that I really didn’t understand what he was doing.
The next week, I was surprised to hear the same announcement come over the PA system, and again I made my way to Coach’s office. Just as before, he handed me a pencil (the same one, I think), and he had me rate the pitchers again. He did the same thing the next week, and for several more.
When final cuts were made, the pitching staff was made up of the players at the top of my list.
The message to me was powerful and unforgettable. Certainly the process of picking a team remains largely subjective, and I have no way of knowing if my judgments happened to be the same as his.
But I believed he had put the aspirations of my friends in my hands, in an environment where athletic competition was magnified. Some friends had made the team, some had not. He had followed my recommendations exactly. He had shown me what he went through with each season — and maybe given me some insight into why I wasn’t on that state finals team. He had given me power — and enormous responsibility.
It was one of my first, and most important, lessons in leadership.
He did the same thing the next season, and I remember making sure to rate accurately and fairly. And once again, he apparently followed my list exactly, and he taught me important lessons.
He gave me the opportunity to exercise judgment, make difficult decisions and show honesty in a way that I never forgot. He let me experience how difficult such decisions are to make.
Great coaches teach great lessons. They become well known for the on-the-field success of their teams. But they know that most of the people they coach will never become famous athletes. Instead, their players assume important roles in society; they become teachers, journalists, lawyers, accountants, doctors, police officers, firefighters — and spouses and parents.
And the lessons they learned from their coach guide them in their decisions at work, in their communities and in their homes. They can learn to lead through shouting and intimidation. Or they can learn another method.
A few years ago, after arriving early for an Ohio State football game in Columbus, I took my son, then about 9, into old St. John Arena. Amid the old trophies and pictures, you can find an old portrait of Augie Bossu, in the corner of the arena reserved for the Ohio High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame.
It doesn’t stand out, but I wanted him to see the old coach I had talked about so often.
If we are lucky, we play for a coach like Augie Bossu somewhere along the way. And we are luckier still if their lessons remain with us.
Kevin Riley is the editor of the Dayton Daily News and editor in chief for Cox’s four daily and eight weekly newspapers in southwest Ohio. He is a 1980 graduate of Benedictine High School.Leadership lessons extend far beyond the playing field.