Well, we made it to yet another Thanksgiving. It’s another late Thursday in November, another Calvert Hall-Loyola game, another dose of Detroit for lunch and Dallas for dinner. We’re all a year older and hopefully a year wiser. It’s football, turkey and “giving thanks” for whatever good graces we all have in our lives.
So, being the sports guy that I am, I thought I’d write a Thanksgiving tribute to all of the coaches in my life. At 41 and being the nutty up-all-night sports web media entrepreneur that I am, the real gift of all of my years of doing Baltimore sports media has been the wisdom that I’ve unwittingly acquired along the way from coaches, managers and leaders of men in the business that I’ve fallen in love with – sports and community.
Of course, when you’re 15 years old and taking the No. 23 MTA bus downtown to Skipjacks games and writing about them for The News American next to John Steadman, you don’t realize until much later the impact these people have had on your life. So, today, I’ll give them thanks.
I truly have a lot to be thankful for – a great family, wife, son, a 90-year old Mom who brings great humor to my life, and many awesome partners, co-workers, friends, business associates and athletes, jocks and Facebook friends.
This whole “Thanksgiving blog” idea was borne out of a phone call I received about six weeks ago. It was from the 847 area code and I didn’t recognize the number. (This is where I should insert that I HATE phone calls. I’m a texter. I’m an emailer. I’ll even IM on occasion. Ask anyone in my life, I’m a communicator. But in 2009 – after spending 35 years of my life with my ear glued to a phone to do virtually every piece of my communication — I now find phone calls to be intrusive and disruptive and generally annoying.)
That said, I always seem to answer the damned thing.
“Hello,” I bellowed.
“Nestor…it’s Gene Ubriaco here. How ya been, kid?”
These are the little “gifts” that come out of the blue. I met Gene Ubriaco 25 years ago this month, when at the age of 16 I was put on the Skipjacks beat. My boss, Tom Gibbons, pulled me into his little office on Pratt and South Streets and basically said, “You’re the only one around here who actually wants to go down there and write about them so you’re our guy.”
Gibbons, who came from Boston and loved hockey, also had no budget at a dying newspaper (sound familiar?) and paid me $3.33 per hour to go to games. So, I made about $13 a game, parked for free, got free hot dogs and soda and the good fortune to sit on the roof of the then-Baltimore Civic Center’s rooftop veranda with the rats, roaches and a myriad of really cool old dudes who loved hockey and told me a zillion awesome stories. And sometimes, Barton Mitchell would even bring corned beef sandwiches from Attman’s as a “thank you” to the media.
Jimmy Jackson covered the team for The Sun. George Taylor covered the team for The Evening Sun. They were both well into their 60s. Pete Kerzel was my first media friend and we’d talk about pro wrestling and Jimmy Buffett. I was 16. Those evenings with Jackson and Taylor are my greatest memories of being a sportswriter. They’d eat Fiddle Faddle, yell at the officials, laugh and talk hockey.
After the games, we’d head down Baltimore’s slowest elevator to the locker room to chat with Skipjacks coach Gene Ubriaco. “Ubie,” as everyone would call him, was almost 50 then – a middling to bottom of the roster NHL hockey player but mostly a minor-leaguer who had made a post-career life as a coach and went on to lead the early Mario Lemieux-era Pittsburgh Penguins into a few playoff berths before being jettisoned. He also coached the Italian Olympic hockey team in Albertville, France in 1992 and has been in Chicago for the last 15 years running the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.
Ubie, who will turn 72 the day after Christmas, was kind of like an uncle to me, teaching me the game of hockey and giving me insights into the psychology of a hockey player. He knew because he had been that kid from “The Sault” (that’s Sault. St. Marie, Ontario, eh?) who was trying to catch on in the NHL. Ubie played just three season in “The Show” – all in different locales like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Oakland (yep, he was a Seal!)
Ubriaco would always take extra time to not just “give me quotes” – as every newspaper reporter needed – he would actually try to instruct me as to what he was thinking and why, so I learned more about the game. He was truly an educator, a teacher. He also had a little trouble hearing and pinched cheeks like the old Italian uncle.
Two decades later when I was sitting in NFL film rooms with Marvin Lewis or Jim Schwartz or Rex Ryan, I suppose that “learning” experience and openness that Ubriaco shared with me in 1984 was still being passed down to me by good men simply because I asked and had an interest in trying to get the story right.
Today, I celebrate Thanksgiving by thanking them here.
So, Ubriaco called me out of the blue six weeks ago, he’s back in Baltimore with his son for this holiday and on Black Friday we’re going to lunch together. We’re going to talk about old times, hockey and life. He recommended that we go to Gary Rissling’s place, Silver Spring Mining Company, and so it is. Rissling was on that first Skipjacks team I covered in 1984 and we work together to bring Caps fans to his restaurants and he still travels the world spreading the gospel of hockey.
Maybe you remember “My Dinner With Andre.” Well, this is my lunch with Geno. I’m sure I’ll have some great wnsTV footage.
But this reunion with Ubriaco has gotten me thinking about coaches and what an unbelievable source of knowledge they’ve been for me over the years in so many ways. Especially after my father died in 1992, they’ve all filled some sort of interesting role in my life as friends, teachers, advisors, sounding boards and confidants. And, obviously, Brian Billick is a partner in my business now at WNST.net. He’s shown the ultimate confidence in me and I’m thankful for his friendship and wisdom.
Ask my wife or anyone close to me and they’ll tell you that coaches are my favorite people in the world.
I’m really “thankful” for all that they’ve done for me.
At 41, I’ve now become a very reluctant coach of sorts. Sometimes, I’ve had to replace players, fire them, make moves for the betterment of the team at WNST. And it’s never easy and never comes without great strategy and use of knowledge and information that I’ve been taught by coaches.
But it’s no different than any of the other coaches who’ve had to deal with the media, cut players, fire assistants, deal with ownership, fans, the “crowd” and still manage to have families and passions outside of the games that they try so desperately to win.
Ubie was the first of many, many good men I’ve met and befriended along the way. Quite frankly, he taught me the ropes of being a sportswriter – all the stuff they’d never teach you in college.
One day I’ll write a whole book with a chapter about these guys and funny stories. (Some of them I could write a whole book about, but I don’t think I’m old enough to do that just yet.)
But I want to point some of them out by name, because it’s been one helluva run of good people over these 25 years and Ubie is special because he was the first person who took the time to care and try to help me not only understand the game but to be a better person.
For that, I’m thankful!
In hockey, Bryan Murray and Terry Murray (I covered the story the day the younger brother replaced his fired older brother…weird day at the Capital Centre!), Doug MacLean, Barry Trotz, Walt Kyle and Moe Mantha were all superstars in continuing a hockey tradition of fellowship.
I still see Trotz all the time in Nashville and one of Doug MacLean’s interns is our weekend Section 410 anchor Eric Aaronson. In particular, Terry Murray and I always had a special relationship because I had to track him down after games on the road in places like Fredericton and Binghamton to get quotes after listening to the games on the radio. He thought I was nutty/obsessed with getting the story and he was right. He always called me his “favorite reporter” in some sort of tongue-in-cheek way.
I also covered Eliott Uzelac’s macho boys of Navy football and Jim Lynam’s NBA Bullets. Lynam was a helluva good guy and loved to talk basketball. He was a junkie.
When I started doing radio in 1992 and the Orioles moved to Camden Yards, I inherited the first skipper that I really didn’t like, Johnny Oates. Unlike all of the other “friendly” skippers I’d had the good fortune to chat with after games in hockey, Oates was introverted, militaristic and hated any real questions.
Think about it. As a sports reporter, when you ask a “question” to a coach or player you’re essentially doubting, second-guessing or asking for some sort of justification for a decision or action. By its very nature, I suppose it’s weird or confrontational for anyone who is paranoid to be asked “why” they did or didn’t do something.
Oates, in particular, took every “What were you thinking in the 7th inning question?” as a personal assault. Almost 20 years later, just watching Dave Trembley do these things on live television after a loss is a throwback to the worst days of Oates. I literally cringe some nights.
But through it all, Oates appreciated that I knew the game and would take time to explain things on nights when the team won. But after a loss, he wasn’t warm and fuzzy. In the end, he came around during the 1993 season and apologized for being so evasive and snappy. This was right around the time that he found a spiritual change in his life and mellowed.
In September 1993 he chased me through the old Cleveland Stadium locker room – still the nastiest, dirtiest visiting locker room I’ve ever entered in any facility, major or minor league – while soaking wet and draped in a towel and called me into his office and we had a 30 minute chat about our roles and jobs and we made a peace pact and professional courtesy that lasted until his tragic death.
Oates was a good man. And in the end, he taught me a lot about baseball and about the people in baseball. It’s a conservative game. And it’s an awful business. There are a lot of tortured souls in the game of baseball, no matter how much money is involved.
In the days when I had a press pass (before Peter Angelos came and wrecked sports in our city during the summers since the mid 1990’s), baseball was great for educators about the game: Phil Regan, Greg Biagini, Chuck Cottier, Elrod Hendricks, Sam Perlozzo, Leo Mazzone, Davey Lopes, Tom Treblehorn, Bruce Bochy and Sparky Anderson were all awesome resources and always happy to answer any question that started with “Why?”
Cottier in particular would always put his arm around me and say: “Anything you ever wonder about in the game you just come to me and I’ll help you…”
I’m thankful for the Chuck Cottiers of baseball. There weren’t a lot of them, but they are appreciated.
I’ve also encountered some other great educators in other sports – Kenny Cooper, Pete Caringi, Dave MacWilliams, Kevin Healy, Bobby MacAvan, Tim Wittman, Mike Stankovic and others within the soccer world. And the basketball guys like Dino Gaudio, Mike Jaskulski, Terry Truax, Jimmy Patsos and Tom Sullivan have always had an open-door policy to asking questions about strategy and the nuances of the game on the hardwood.
Even with a sport like lacrosse, which has never been in my blood, when guys like Tony Seaman and Paul Cantabene do my radio show or see me out around town, they’ve always been enthusiastic about teaching me their game and comparing it to other sports so I could better understand the technical aspects.
But it’s been in my adulthood and with the emergence of the Ravens in Baltimore that my “coaching up” has taken on graduate-level courses.
Marvin Lewis was the first coach I met when the Ravens came in 1996. He’s taught me more about football than anyone over the years. Every Friday, we’d watch film and do a Q&A about the strategy of the game and the decisions that are made on the field on Sundays. Usually, Jim Schwartz was in the room in those early years and later did eight years worth of Fridays on my radio show and station, checking in with his Baltimore roots. Kirk Ferentz and Pat Hill were also phenomenally generous with their time and knowledge during the days of the flying ‘B.’
Then came Brian Billick and a myriad of super people like Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith, Mike Nolan, Mike Pettine, Rex Ryan, Jim Fassel, Rick Neuheisel and Matt Cavanaugh who always had a seat in their office for a few minutes of transparency in their ideologies and strategies to turn me from novice fan into someone who really understands the game.
And scouts like Phil Savage, Eric DeCosta, George Kokinis and Joe Hortiz are coaches of a whole different kind and have always been educational and accountable.
Again, one day, I’ll write a whole book on these guys above – the education is always ongoing with football and the NFL.
But for today, I just want to say “THANKS, COACH!” I’ll never be able to repay them for their time, energy or candor about all aspects of their job.
My Pop was the ultimate coach – he taught me to listen to coaches.
And as much as I know I’m still not the world’s greatest listener…
I must’ve done something right along the way because I’ve certainly heard the greater message.
Honesty. Integrity. Kindness. Charity. Friendship. Honor. Strategy. Accountability. Passion. Respect. Diligence. Creativity. Team first. These are the things that all of these sports coaches preach on a daily basis to their players. I’d like to think that a lot of this has sunk in over the years.
So, on this Thanksgiving, I just want to take time to thank all of the people who’ve taught me the most about life.
To the coaches of Baltimore over the past 25 years who’ve been cool and kind and helpful – with a special bow to Gene Ubriaco — on this special Thursday in November, I say: Happy Thanksgiving!