Charles Dickens wrote famously in 1859 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For many of us those famous words from a Tale of Two Cities ring true in the realm of high school athletics. Additionally, yesteryear fans of ABC’s Wide World of Sports can hear Jim McKay’s adage, “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat”, another axiom certainly applicable to prep sports. For the high school athlete, a touchdown in the closing seconds, an unfortunate fumble at the goal line, or a game winning shot at the buzzer, were moments some were lucky or unlucky enough to experience in real life.
For others, state titles in baseball and basketball were won in the backyard or on the court in the driveway. Whether real or fantasy, we love sharing those moments with family and friends, teammates and coaches. The memories of those years forever remain in our hearts and minds. They reemerge when we grab our dusty high school yearbook off the shelf and quietly skim its contents, all the while looking over each shoulder from time to time hoping no one is watching us revel in our own “Glory Days”.
We smile ear to ear as we peruse a scrapbook made by our Mom that includes a kindergarten art project, our 3rd grade report card, and our high school athletic exploits. We re-read the local newspaper articles about the basketball team’s march to the conference championship and the football team’s heartbreaking loss in the closing seconds to the conference rival. You remember talking about the game Saturday morning while eating Frederic Bakery glazed donuts, or eating chicken Saturday evening at the Cozy Kitchen in Grantsburg.
You enjoy your personal trip down memory lane, as do thousands of other former high school athletes around the state who also reminisce about the “good old days”. Those recollections never leave us, but with the passing of each year the alumni audience gets smaller and details of the past begin to wane. It happens to all of us. Sad. But it is even sadder when members of a community no longer remember the teams or the names of the players who first played in the state tournament at the Fieldhouse, Kohl Center, or Camp Randall in Madison.
Sure, Wisconsin towns have changed. Main streets in rural communities are a mere shadow what they once were. Local hardware stores have fallen victim to WalMart and small town clothing stores have all but vanished. However, for the most part, the public school has remained the one constant in our communities. Schools still celebrate homecoming, have a prom, and host music concerts. Although to the chagrin of some, high school athletics still gets top billing. To many, athletics provide an identity, they are the glue that holds a school or town together. That has been the case for decades, and when it comes high school athletics, the alumni of years gone by have remained in their communities. And today their children and grandchildren sing the same school song and wear the same school colors.
In these communities familiar names can still be found in the phone book or heard while teacher rattles off attendance. There still are Schmidt’s in Frederic and Osceola, Petersen’s in Luck, Ince’s in Unity, and Johnson’s in Grantsburg. The conference and regional championships, state tournament appearances, and record setting performances connected to these families are many. And they deserve to be acknowledged, appreciated, and celebrated.
Today, more than ever, I believe it is incumbent of Head Coaches to reconnect with athletic alumni and celebrate their legacy. Recognizing past accomplishments of graduates in game programs, newspaper articles, and team banquets does more than just promote goodwill, it creates and cultivates connections to the teams and players of the past. Coaches should not treat alumni like an old shoe, a rusty pair of hockey skates, or an 8 track tape. All it takes is time, and a little work, coaches. Today’s social media makes it much easier to connect with people. For those coaches who do reach out to alumni each athletic season I say bravo to you. Those who don’t I believe are just plain lazy.
It makes no difference where you are from. If you grew up in Watertown and are now the Head Boys Basketball Coach in Niagara, find out about the 1979 state championship team. If you are a Badger/Lake Geneva alumnus and are now the Head Baseball Coach in Whitehall, contact team members from 1986 state title team. If you played football at Wausau West and now are the Westby Football Skipper you should do everything you can to connect to the team that won back to back state titles in the 1980’s.
Today’s high school coaches could go a long way to get support for their programs by reaching out to alumni. Do your homework! Find out who was on the team that won that conference championship in 1979 or made the school’s first trip to the state tournament in 1968. Celebrate the accomplishments of the 1983 South Shore Cardinals, or 1978 Colfax Vikings. Have a dinner or banquet to recognize the Prentice Buccaneers and their powerhouse basketball teams of the 1970’s.
Share stories at practice about alumni. Celebrate the history of your program and the legacy and tradition the alumni have helped create. Have alumni share their experiences in person with athletes playing the same game on the same court. Allow them to share their thoughts and ideas. Make the alumni feel appreciated and valued. There is nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain. Most likely many alumni will become among your biggest cheerleaders and supporters. They will donate to your program. They will volunteer their time. They will cheer you on. It takes planning. It takes making connections. It takes time. So reach out to your alumni Head Coaches, connect with them and give them a call. They can’t wait to answer the phone.
Written by Prescott baseball coach Jeff Ryan. With a career record of 317-87 in 18 years, he was the WBCA Coach of the Year in 2013, a three-time District Coach of the Year, and led the Cardinals to the 2012 Division 3 state title.