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BYU grad feisty and tough, but a real gentleman

Sep 17, 2013


By Jim Walker
Of the News-Register


With the tendency for many coaches to yell and scream at their athletes to motivate them and at officials to intimidate them, it's no wonder some players decide to avoid them at al costs.

I've known coaches like that. One particular football coach I had as a sophomore and junior was a yeller. But his worst tool for intimidating his athletes was his penchant for sarcasm. He was a master of the put-down, and I seldom remember a positive comment from him either during practice or at games.

Maybe that's because I occasionally missed a block or tackle, but even when I knocked down a defensive end or chased down a linebacker from my offensive lineman position, I don't remember any praise, no "attaboys." So I really didn't look forward to playing for him, and neither did most of my teammates, who referred to him as "the little colonel."

At the same time, our basketball coach (this was in the late fifties, by the way) was a real gentleman, a feisty and tough guy who pushed players in practice and on the court but patted you on the back when you made a good play. Sure, he would sometimes pull a player after a few bad plays (he hated turnovers like Europe hated the plague back in Shakespeare's day), but he'd always explain to my teammates and me exactly why he took us out of a game.

A few minutes later, he'd give us a few words of encouragement and send us back into the game. And, always, he was a good sport and a gentleman, even though he occasionally yelled at us in practice and always corrected a poor rendition of a fundamental. But he seldom questioned an official's call, and if he did, it was a request for a rule interpretation, and it wasn't delivered in a combative fashion.

Since he thought I was a little lazy, especially on defense, he'd force me to guard him and vice versa, and in scrimmages, he'd push and bump me just enough to get my attention. Soon, after a few bruises and an occasional knockdown, I learned to be more aggressive and not take a breather on defense. But at all times in those physical match-ups, I knew he was trying to help me get better, and when I made a good move against him or beat him to the boards for a rebound, he'd give me a knowing smile and a bit of quiet applause.

That's why I still respect the memory of Al Wardell, my old basketball coach, to this day, even though his contract wasn't renewed after my junior season. Not enough wins, the principal and school board said. As a teammate and I talked to him about the firing at the end of our junior year, he said he held no grudges and would return to California to coach or continue to develop his cement contracting business, where I worked for him one summer, spreading concrete in several buildings, which was hard work.

I've always wondered how his career went after he left town — coaching or contracting — but I'll never forget the former BYU athlete who coached me for three years in my small Southern Oregon high school. I learned, before he left, that he had been a captain on the basketball team at BYU, and even though he was small for a college player by today's standards, at 5-10 and about 190 pounds, he was one of the toughest, most aggressive players I've ever met on the court.

But better yet, he was also a gentleman, in every sense of the word.

If you have an idea for a column or feature story, please contact me by email at jwalker@newsregister.com or by phone at 503-687-1274.

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