Chapter One

Friday, March 4, 2005, 9:03 a.m.
Custerville, Ohio

Jerry Lagerstadt walks into Captain’s Grill & Pub a little after nine every morning, nine-thirty at the latest. If he’s not there by ten, and the team isn’t on the road, a staff member will put in a call to make sure he’s OK. A magnet schedule is affixed to one of the coolers in the kitchen, and the general manager always consults it as a part of his opening checklist, muttering the verdict to his hungover and/or still drunk subordinates. ‘Jerry’s in Michigan today’ or ‘Let’s get ready for Jerry’. Rule #10 in the Captain’s Employee Handbook is ‘Don’t mess up Coach’s breakfast’ (a fact that would bother Jerry, if he were aware of it).

He always sits in the same corner booth, wearing the same red sweater over the same blue button up with thick and crisp 70’s-style collars that jut out like fangs, the outfit he’s worn for every game he’s ever coached, so ubiquitous that whenever the team is nationally televised – which happens far less than it used to – students bet on how long it takes before the color commentator makes the inevitable crack about Coach having a closet full of the combination. It’s such a popular Halloween costume on campus that the local thrift store sets aside any variation of red sweater or blue button-up that comes through until October, when they’re quickly snatched up by unimaginative seniors and freshmen who think they’re being innovative.

The Enquirer and USA Today are always tucked under his arm, and he always orders the same thing: one waffle with strawberries, a single egg sunny-side up, two slices of crisp bacon (‘make sure they’re crisp, now’), wheat toast with butter, and a black coffee (or, as it’s known to Captain’s patrons, ‘The Coach L.’). This routine has been routine since long before most of the people in the place were born.

Jerry began frequenting Captain’s over thirty-seven years ago, midway through his first season as coach of the Southern Ohio University Redbirds basketball team. Back then, the team’s nickname was the Red Men, it was orange juice instead of coffee, and he was usually joined by his wife and two year old son. The table swelled to a party of five over time, and Jerry swapped the orange juice for coffee with cream and sugar as the pressure to win mounted. As the kids got older, the table dwindled down to four, then three, then two. Eventually, it was just Jerry, and the coffee was just black.

He holds the distinction of being the longest tenured active coach in the NCAA, and his 635 wins rank thirty-fourth all-time among men’s coaches. No one on campus has ever seemed to mind his 435 losses. Nor do they talk about The Streak.

Southern Ohio is best known for their appearance in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, where Jerry’s sixteen-seed Red Men almost took down the one-seed and eventual champion Indiana Hoosiers, losing 96-95 in triple overtime. The team became media darlings for a week or so, were thrown a parade through campus, and Coach L. got a breakfast plate named after him.

He is also known for his insistence that his player’s shorts extend no further than five inches above the knee. The rule was first implemented when baggier shorts became fashionable in the early 1990’s. It was mostly just a punch line at first – Arsenio Hall made a few monologue jokes about it, Jim Rome called him an ‘old fool’, and Olbermann or Kilborn would always make a crack about them whenever the team got a highlight clip (which at that point was usually limited to getting spanked by a contender).

One dreary February afternoon a local talk show host delivered a rant praising the policy. This led to the sophomore sports columnist for The Southern Ohio Student writing an editorial that blasted the dress code as bigoted, which sparked a flurry of campus debate. Fliers were distributed outside the library, and a dozen or so students marched in circles outside the entrance of the arena, chanting ‘Hey, ho, hey, ho, this racist has to go.’ The paper received over seventy-five letters in defense of Jerry, including one from Alvin Ellison Sr., the school’s all-time leading rebounder, and the man Jerry nearly quit his job over in 1968 after lobbying administration to make Ellison the school’s first black scholarship athlete. When questioned about accusations of racism, Jerry never bothered to defend himself. He would just shake his head and wave his hand.

The dress code uproar set the table for the nickname controversy, which led to a change from ‘Red Men’ to ‘Redbirds’, a shift that infuriated many alumni, but didn’t seem to bother Jerry much. ‘Call us Red Assholes for all I care’, he quipped when asked for a reaction. Hours later, he would call the team’s beat reporter and ask that ‘Idiots’ be printed instead of ‘[expletive]’, a request that was granted.

Jerry most recently made the national radar two years ago for cutting blue-chip forward Shawnelle Bowie the morning after the sophomore blue-chip forward was arrested for marijuana possession. ‘I have no use for anyone monkeying around on pot’, he was quoted as saying, which quickly became a popular sports talk show soundbite, as well as a punch line among the student body. Bowie – arguably the best talent Southern Ohio had ever seen – transferred to Ohio State and was drafted last June by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Kathryn has been waiting on Jerry three mornings a week since her freshman year. As a result of his local celebrity and generous tips, a rotation was implemented in an effort to ensure that everyone had a fair chance to serve Coach, until the day he casually mentioned to the Captain’s G.M. that Kathryn reminded him of his daughter. The manager had never seen Jerry’s eyes so alive, and it’s been her table ever since.

Last fall, after she showed up late to work one morning in tears, Jerry drove Kathryn up to the lot where her car had been towed, and paid for its release. On the way there, she rested her forehead on the chilled window, thinking about a boy that hadn’t called her back, while Jerry told her about the time his oldest son blew a tire a few days after borrowing $30 for Who tickets.

‘So he asks me for money to fix the tire. I say, ‘why don’t you get The Who to pay for the tire?’’ Kathryn had never heard Jerry laugh so much, and she could see the glowing embers of life in his eyes. Though she remembers it fondly now, at the time she just faked a laugh and kept staring out at the cornfields. She tried to pay him back the $80 a few months later, but Jerry just gave her his signature dismissive wave of the hand, the same one he had given referees and reporters for so many years, a vertical snap of the wrist that resembled the flick of a snake’s tongue, usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes.

‘Eh, what am I going to do with it?’ he said. ‘You go have fun with it.’

Every now and again, just as she is about to walk away from the table, Jerry will call her name to stop her, his eyes soften and he smiles – like he did when the told The Who story. He asks if he’s ever mentioned that she reminds him of his daughter, in a rehearsed tone of feigned uncertainty, and she pretends he hasn’t asked the same question a dozen times. It’s been going on so long now that she often knows he’s about to ask a few seconds before he does.

‘Oh, she lives in Chicago with that husband of hers,’ he’ll say, and proceed to relay whatever details his daughter had mentioned to him over the phone the last time they talked. ‘They got a dog, poor thing, with no yard to run around in.’ ‘She says they’ve been getting a lot of rain.’ ‘The taxes they pay out there, my God Almighty’, ‘The husband, he’s always running around somewhere on business trips.’

‘Morning, Coach!’ she chirps, placing his coffee on the table just as he’s sliding into his seat. Kathryn’s face is framed by the two jagged slits of candy bar brown hair that swoop down from the sides of her bangs. Pencil lines of makeup encircle marble blue eyes that look out of place on her dark skin, which is splashed with freckles only noticeable in a certain light. ‘Big day today, huh?’

‘Eh, just another day’ he says, waving his hand. ‘World’s not gonna stop for me.’

Jerry’s hair is combed the exact same way as it is in the 1974 team photo that hangs on the wall near his table. Time has seen the front lines erode up his forehead, and the ghost white specks salting the temples of ink black hair in the picture have taken over completely. The face framed on the wall is creased with the same angry scowl that he still makes most days in the present, although his nose has swollen and strawberried, small broken veins inching up his nostrils.

The only photograph in Captain’s where his face isn’t locked into his signature grimace is the 1987 Sports Illustrated cover that hangs a few frames down the ’74 photo – the iconic picture of his players carrying him off the court after the loss to Indiana. In that one, he’s beaming, like he does when he talks to Kathryn about his daughter, and sometimes Kathryn likes to study it when there’s no one around as she sets tables in the morning.

Tonight will be Jerry’s last as the coach of the Redbirds. A few months earlier, he had been visited in his office by Rick Wilhelm, Southern Ohio’s second-year athletic director, and starting point guard for the ’87 Red Men. Rick, with his gel-brittle hair and Perry Ellis suit – the same kid frozen mid-scream in the forefront of the Sports Illustrated cover, who had once shown up to Jerry’s office in tears, thinking his girlfriend was pregnant – explained to Jerry the difficulty of recruiting kids to play for ‘the short shorts’ team, and talked about the alumni’s wish to ‘go in a different direction’. Jerry, who still called him ‘Ricky’, stopped him halfway through his stammering lecture, and told him that he understood. He announced his impending retirement the next afternoon.

Rick, knowing in advance that this would be Jerry’s last year, had scheduled the final game against Michigan Tech, the Great Lakes Conference’s perennial bottom feeder (although that spot had recently been occupied by Jerry’s 7-20 Redbirds, their worst performance since The Streak). Jerry was to be honored at halftime, with his family and former players in attendance. The alumni had voted to rename the arena after him Rick had even gotten Bobby Knight to record a message of congratulations.

Jerry normally began a study of the previous evening’s box scores with the first sip of his coffee, but today he was distracted by a group of fraternity brothers seated at the table across the room from him. He couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces of conversation, most of it bragging about girls bedded and alcohol consumed. At one point, he could make out the words ‘monkeying around on pot’, which was followed by raucous laughter. He looked up from his paper just in time to see them avert their eyes from his direction, stifling snickers.

‘Don’t worry about them,’ Jerry always said to his children and his players. ‘Worry about yourself’. He repeats the same worn and tired advice to himself silently, sipping coffee and feeling more alone than he ever has.

2 thoughts on “Chapter One

  1. Really loved this. As a native Hoosier who grew up in the Bobby Knight era and eventually a resident of Ohio, this reads like non-fiction to me. Exceptionally well written and feels authentic.

    Like

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