There is an adage that Coach Henry VanSant has always tried to live by: The speed of the leader is the speed of the pack.
As a coach, it simply made sense to the former Pirate standout player, coach, and administrator, that goals should be set high and that relentless pursuit of those objectives should be the means to victory. That work ethic, the coach believes, should be illustrated first and foremost by the coach himself. And that his how he coached.
“As the leader, it is incumbent on you to run hardest,” VanSant said. “No one, not the assistants, not the players are going to run harder than their leader. I really believe in that. I always tried to match up with (60's era Pirates head coach) Clarence Stasavich (in that regard). Of course, I was never quite up to that, but that is what I aimed for.”
On the collegiate level, VanSant sees many things that have been changed by the money and exposure now entwined with the world of higher education athletics.
“Coaches… certainly there are still some coaches around like Stas and Bear (Bryant),” VanSant explained. “But money has changed sports and it has really changed it a whole lot. We had a lot of kids back (when he coached) and recruited a lot of them with partial scholarships. Those players were grateful for meal books and school supplies. There are still some of those coaches out there today, coaches with a primary interest in their players, but not many of them.”
It is difficult for VanSant not to conjure up names from his past when it comes to defining a good coach by the standards he applies in making such measurements.
“We didn’t make much money, but we had a great, great coaching staff at ECU for those eight years,” VanSant recalled. “We never had a coach leave us, it was the same coaches the whole time. Men like Stas, Odel Welbourne, Bob Gant, and Harold Bullard. We were like brothers. Every one of those coaches, and I include Bill Cain who came in during the last few years… none of us made any money and we would of coached for even less than what we made.
“Gant went on and got his doctorate and taught. And Odel taught until his retirement. Stas was the Athletic Director and never made any money. We all got a living wage and that’s all, but our primary interest was the players. We went through every night checking on our players. Didn’t have a coach that if he got a call at 2 a.m. with a kid, whose response was to be there in 10 minutes. The whole staff was that way.”
VanSant puts a big premium on the art of teaching, both in the classroom and on the field. It has more to do with a team's success, he believes, that the Xs and the Os.
“I think that the coaches no longer teach and that has had a negative effect on (football),” he said. “We all taught and had an appreciation for the academic areas and that, I think, has had some effect. But don’t ever mistake a coach that can’t teach, he can’t coach either and that is true. If you can’t teach, you can’t coach.”
Perhaps it is this point that leads VanSant to differentiate, positively, between coaching on the high school level and the collegiate level.
During stops at Hopewell (VA), Scotland County, Fayetteville 71st and Greensboro Grimsley, VanSant observed many differences in the coaching profession.
“There is a big difference between high school and college,” VanSant explained. “I love football and the coaching and I think I had a pretty good reputation as a teacher. The big difference was that you had so much more time to dedicate to coaching and helping kid in colleges. In high school, you have so much more, with bus duty, teaching classes, the extras.
"At Grimsley, I would go in at 6 a.m. and work on film and then go teach and work up practice schedules.”
But even with all of the additional responsibilities in high school, VanSant loved every minute of it.
“I never had more fun coaching than coaching in high school,” he said. “In high school, you probably make a bigger difference. I truly believe that if, as a coach, you worked real hard and planned, you could find a way to win at least half your games in high school. In college, no matter how good a coach you are, if you don’t have talent, you’re not going to win many games.
"Coaching high school was a great deal of fun. In college, you’ve got to have resources but in high school you take what is dealt with you and you work with them. You can mold those kids and build a pretty fine football team.”
Whether college or prep, VanSant has always believed it is the players and their ability to dedicate themselves to the program that makes the biggest difference.
In one of his own experiences, while at Fayetteville 71st, VanSant found himself in a constant battle with some of his players to establish who was the boss. As a result, during his first season there, a very talented team finished with a very mediocre record. The following year, with the players following his lead, a much less talented 71st team finished the season 9-2 and in the playoffs — a classic case of the molding that a coach can do in high school.
“I coached a boy in high school who was a great, great player,” VanSant recalled. “I don’t think anyone tells these kids this. One night, his dad came in and tells me ‘thanks’ for all I did for his boy, Glenn. I said to him, ‘Hold on, let me thank you, your boy did a whole lot more for me then I did for him.’ ”
VanSant tends to measure his job as a coach years after the fact.
“My real joy is to look back to some of those kids and see what they have done with their lives,” VanSant said. “I remember players more for what they became than for what they did on the field.”
Regardless of the level – high school or college – VanSant believes that there is one lesson that is of most significance.
“Winning was always important to me,” VanSant said. “The thing I experienced as a coach and I felt it was very important for players to experience success. It was terribly important for kids to be taught to win. I hear all that baloney about building character through football. You build a whole lot more character through winning than losing.
"Not to say you don’t learn by losing, you have to learn how to respond to losing but that response has to be seldom. You learn a lot more through success. As a coach, you have a responsibility to put your players in a position to stand a chance to win.”
Speed of the leader is the speed of the pack.
“There’s not a lot of difference between winning and losing,” he said. “It takes a little extra effort, work, dedication. Honestly, I never got too upset about losing when I felt like the kids had done everything they could possibly do and played as hard as they could play. But I got terribly upset if I thought they did not give total effort.”
For many coaches, transferring the competitive edge to the players is one of the hardest parts of the challenge. But with VanSant, competition is such a part of the fiery former coach, that there was never a shortage to pass along to his players.
“Honestly, if I am walking down the street and I see some kids playing marbles, I’ll stop and watch and I’ll probably end up pulling for one of them to win.”
02/23/2007 02:05:44 PM