John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Rethinking the Value of Coaching and Athletics

December 5, 2011John N. GardnerInsights0

John Gardner

Earlier this week I wrote a blog posting about the death of one of my first mentors in
my higher education career. This posting is about his funeral and the
reflections it engendered on my part—these have ramifications beyond myself.

At this funeral for Harry E “Sid” Varney, were gathered his family, his former
football team mentees, and his former colleagues from the University of South
Carolina. It was his former football players that had the impact on me.

The deceased had just finished a life of 83 years. In his mid 20’s, about sixty
years before, he had coached a football team for five year, from 1953-58, at
Elon College, now Elon University. And from that team approximately 12 former
players came to the funeral in Columbia, S.C. from their homes largely in North
Carolina, but also New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Each of them
gave a eulogy of varying lengths to describe my former mentor and his impact on

It was obvious to me that there were common themes for all:

  • this was the person who was most responsible for them going to college in the first place – he recruited them
  • this was the person most responsible for them staying in college no matter what
    adversities they faced
  • this was the person who was most influential on the subsequent course of their
    adult lives
  • this mentoring experience he provided was so powerful sixty years ago that each
    could recall it as vividly as a traditional aged college student who had just
    walked across the stage
  • these men still had a manner of thinking, valuing, speaking, literally standing, that emulated the deceased
  • for each student playing, college football was the only means of upward social
    mobility available to them

And,so I reflected:

  • sixty years later the influence of money in collegiate sports has reached a level
    unimaginable in the era these men were speaking of and from; is the same value
    from his era still operative?
  • now thank goodness, there are other means for upward social mobility
  • will Division I football players currently on the field be able to look back on
    their college experience the same way these men were able to?
  • are my own attitudes towards the role of college athletics too critical,
  • do we need to provide more college students with “coaches”?
  • how can we help college professors who are more likely than any other type of
    college employee behave more like coaches without compromising the intellectual integrity of their work?

Was the impact of my college varsity sport coach (crew)as great as what I observed
this week? Yes, almost. And I am different today because of it—the subject of
another blog.

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