Celebrating life

How do I begin to describe this week?

Since Coach’s unexpected death Sunday morning, our community, our university and anyone closely associated with him have been riding a roller coaster of emotions. We’ve described the experience repeatedly as surreal. A bad dream. Shocking, stunning. The turn of events since last week will leave a lasting impact on this community.

The man was just weeks from his 50th birthday. He’d served on the coaching staff for 17 seasons and was extremely proud of the program, the university and the community. But his dream was to be a head coach, and he was given that opportunity just a few months ago when our longtime head coach retired. That he couldn’t live to lead the team onto the field this fall is tragic.

* * *

I was involved nearly from the beginning Sunday morning. And I didn’t arrive home until nearly 9 that night. Just like when a big story broke during my newspaper days, I had barely eaten and was running on adrenaline.

That night, I barely slept. Phoebe awoke from a dream, crying around 3 a.m. That jerked me awake, and once she was quiet again I couldn’t go back to sleep. My mind started spinning with thoughts about Coach and his family, and all of the things that would have to be done in his absence. It turned out a couple of us on our communications team were having similar experiences. We were actually checking and exchanging messages on our Blackberries around 4 a.m.

In passing days, our various teams of coaches, communications staff, administrators and others were meeting two, three times a day. I was constantly on the phone with media, arranging campus visits and interviews. We drafted an obituary. Funeral arrangements had to be planned and finalized. Decisions were made and changed, and then changed back.

At the end of an emotional meeting Tuesday afternoon to finalize details for the memorial services, with just a few of us left in the room, one of the assistants shared with us a notepad. It was Coach’s handwritten notes from his final speech, which he delivered to a group of donors two days before his death. Those who were there said it was one of the best speeches he’d given and he was so proud of it. … We decided to print a scan of the notes on the back page of the celebration program. I took the task of carrying the notebook upstairs to our offices after the meeting, having our designer scan it in to a computer, and then returning it downstairs. Chills ran through my body as I carried that notebook upstairs.

Wednesday morning I traveled to St. Joe to assist a group of professors on a monthly radio program, which was a welcome break from the roller coaster ride. … Even when we had some downtime or breaks this week, it was hard to work on other projects even if we tried. It was too difficult to concentrate. Our work days started extra early and many of us worked late into the night. Editing video tributes, designing programs, arranging music playlists. We went wherever the requests took us.

Wednesday night, the traditional memorial service. The university opened the performing arts center for a public viewing that lasted the entire afternoon. We got a babysitter for Phoebe, and Kates and I walked over around 5 p.m. … There were more surreal moments there, from the compliments people offered about my work during the week to the stream of former football players and coaches arriving for the memorial service. It was a who’s who of players, coaches and administrators who have gone through our athletics program the last 15 years, some of them I hadn‘t seen or thought about in a decade. Kates and I mused also that three of the four generations to own our house were in attendance. By the time the memorial service was to start, the performing arts center was filled to capacity with people standing along the back walls.

And Thursday morning, the Celebration of Life. At the stadium. Just the way Coach would have wanted it.

The celebration was planned to resemble a game day, complete with tailgating in the parking lots and college park. We told fans to wear their game day attire. We blared game day music from the stadium’s sound system as the crowd filtered to their seats. We handed out special programs.

Even the weather was perfect for football. We were going to have the event rain or shine. Heck, our fans have watched games in some terrible conditions over the years, we said. In fact, we’d hoped for overcast skies, but storms rolled in about two hours before the celebration was to start. The thunder rolled, and from underneath the grandstand we watched the rain pour on the stage and midfield and the seats we’d just finished setting up around it for the family, football team and officials.

But a neat thing happened as the celebration was about to begin. On schedule, we began ushering the family to their seats with umbrellas about five minutes before 11. The rain continued to fall. … Then, just as the service was about to begin, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. … One of my coworkers would tell a story later that she asked the priest before the memorial if he could send up any prayers for the rain to stop. The priest instructed her to go to Coach’s casket, saying, “He’s closer than I am.” My coworker didn’t tell us whether she followed through on the instruction.

The celebration was fitting in so many ways. Three coaches he was close with, including two of our own, delivered stories about Coach that were hilarious at times and tear-jerking at others. The stories conjured a mountain of good memories of Coach. And some of them even came with uncanny impressions of his various traits -- from his gravely voice, to his infectious grin and a patented laugh that came with bobbing shoulders, to the way he argued with coaches and referees, to his zeal for life and overuse of the word awesome.

Paraphrasing some of the best passages of the day, which one of the speakers referred to as Coach’s “priceless gems of knowledge.”

If a recruit said 'I’m not interested, it really meant he was undecided. If he said, 'I’m going to another school,' it meant ‘So you’re saying we still have a chance?’ And if the recruit said, ‘Coach, if there was a disaster and you were the only school on earth, I would not go there,’ that meant ‘OK, I’ll put you on hold and call you back in a few days.’

What would he say if he were here today about the weather? ‘Hell with the weather! Let’s go out there and play some football!’

In heaven he’s telling everyone, ‘You know I’m the only coach at the university that finished his career undefeated?’

In an attempt to fire up the troops, he once said, “You guys go out there and kick their ass right in the mouth!” A couple other coaches looked at each other bemused, and one of them asked, “How do you kick a guy’s ass in the mouth?”

The NCAA really is a group of closet communists who make up arcane rules designed solely to screw defensive players and take all the fun out of the game.

No brand of beer is really bad. There are only varying degrees of awesomeness.

Coach would argue with an empty room.

The word really can never be overused in a sentence.

Then, there were some of the more serious lessons he inspired …

Where you are is the big time.

If you treat a man as he could be, he will become what he can be.

Go big or go home.

In life we don’t regret what we do, we regret what we don’t do.

If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth it.

When you help enough people get what they want, you get what you want.

Family is first.

Good dad is the best thing you can say about a guy.

I welled up a little watching a tribute video of his family life, set to “Forever Young.” I welled up a lot watching a tribute video of his football and coaching career, set to “The Boys of Fall,” a sentimental song written from the perspective of a football player. And as the family departed the field and the casket was carried past us for the last time -- to the sound of “Sweet Home Alabama,” which has become something of a theme song for our championship teams -- I couldn‘t hold back. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was an ending. ... Those songs, along with the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" and REO Sweedwagon's "Time For Me To Fly," which also got play and are forever more associated with images from the day, have been rotating in my head the last few days. I'm not sure I'll ever hear them again without thinking of this week.

* * *

Coach’s death has had a profound affect on me, with the scenes and conversations of the last few days playing over in my head, paralleled with my memories of past glory days. I watched him on the sidelines for years and years. It’s no coincidence that, in search of a new “work cap” a year or so after I left college and retired my ratty Dodgers cap, I decided on a red cap like the one Coach wore on so many Saturdays.

As honored as I felt to play a role in the planning for the memorial gatherings this week, I regret that I didn’t have much interaction with Coach when I returned last year and we became colleagues, aside from some handshakes and brief greetings here and there. … When we purchased our house in his neighborhood this spring, people talked about the atmosphere on our street for game days. We were so looked forward to that experience ths fall.

This week we got a taste of it, but with entirely different circumstances. We saw it in the number of team flags hoisted on front porches up the street and down. The street has been packed with cars all week, and the family’s backyard has been filled each night with family members and friends coming to spend time with Coach’s family.

It was said at yesterday’s memorial that you only had to go to one postgame at his house and you knew what love was all about.

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