Bulldogs share memories of their favorite coaches

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When the Och Tamale team asked alumni to send in stories about their favorite Bulldog coaches, we received an enthusiastic response.

Tennis: Jim Verdieck

I took tennis from Coach Jim Verdieck during my freshman year to meet my physical education requirement. I was barely a recreational player. I knew the rules—that was about it. My backhand was nonexistent. My wooden racket was a hand-me-down. Coach Verdieck was already a legend. His Redlands teams had beaten Stanford, University of Southern California, and Notre Dame. His players had gone on to compete professionally. The year I came to Redlands (1973), he had been named coach of the U.S. tennis team in the World University Games in Moscow. In P.E. class, he watched me struggle with my racket. “It’s too big for your hand,” he said. He took it home that night, unwrapped the leather grip, whittled the grip down, rewrapped it and returned it to me the next day. I was awestruck that he would do that for me. I never became a good tennis player, but in Coach Verdieck’s class I learned about treating everyone equally, regardless of ability.

—Nora Vitz Harrison ’77

Wrestling: John Odenbaugh

In the fall of 1967, the University initiated a wrestling program. The coach was John Obenbaugh. I never wrestled in high school nor played football, so I had never participated in any contact sport. My roommate had wrestled in high school, so we decided to go to tryouts.

As there weren’t that many guys trying out, Coach Obenbaugh picked everyone for the team. There were 11 weight classes, and the team had maybe 15 guys.

Coach never asked any of us to drop a weight class or do anything to harm ourselves in order to wrestle. Our practice space was one of the handball courts in the old Currier gym. Occasionally we would have workouts in the basketball gym if no one else was there.

We were a diverse group, and somehow Coach was able to work with each of us to develop whatever potential we had. There was no yelling, cursing, or intimidation, just encouragement. That encouragement caused each of us to work as hard as possible and to support each other. Although we hadn’t known each other before wrestling, we became a group committed to our individual and team success.

In my case, the 1967-68 season allowed me to memorize the ceiling lights in every gym we wrestled in. The intensity of the individual matches, whether we won or lost, usually resulted in each wrestler crying. Our dedication to each other and Coach generated a desire in each of us to do our best.

Whether we won or lost, Coach was still supportive and encouraging. I can’t remember how we did in 1967-68, but I do remember we won the SCIAC league championship in ’68-’69. I learned that I could withstand a degree of physical punishment as well as deliver it, not in a destructive way, but in a controlled, within-the-rules way.

I lost weight so I could have a possibility of success and contribute to the team. My roommate accepted a sacrificial role of often wrestling the opponent’s heavy-weight wrestler, usually many pounds heavier than he was. He did it to be part of the team, to support the team, and to support Coach Obenbaugh.

I still wonder at how Coach did it: take a mismatched group of guys and bring them together as a team in an individual sport. We participated with joy, enthusiasm, and hard work.

As was the case with several professors at the University, Coach Obenbaugh was exceptional. He enabled me to extend myself beyond many of my self-imposed limits. I am and will always be grateful for his mentorship.

—Michael V. Leahy ’69

Bowling class: Lee Fulmer

Let me start by saying I wasn’t—and am not—an athlete—but I had the best coach ever! I took P.E. classes every semester I could possibly fit them into my schedule. During my last semester, fall 1975, I chose bowling with Basketball Coach Lee Fulmer. Class was held at a bowling alley a few miles south of campus. To get there, I rode my bike. As we bowled, Coach Fulmer used a video camera to film us so we could see how we looked from behind. He was so patient with me, eventually taking me aside in a carpeted area to improve my form. At the end of the semester, there were special awards given. He awarded me a small trophy with a plaque inscribed “Most Improved Bowler.” (My average had gone from something less than 90 to a respectable 130.) What could have been a real downer for a non-athlete turned out to be such a fun experience!

—Janis Hatlestad ’76

Football: Frank Serrao

I came to the U of R as a second-semester sophomore after playing football at Pasadena City College. I met Coach Frank Serrao shortly after and immediately knew I had met a man of very high quality. Playing for him was pure joy, and I can relate that the players who were part of his program would agree.

Coach was unaware that in my freshman year in college my two front teeth had been chipped off by a helmet to the chin. In my junior year, during a game with Occidental, the caps that I had on those teeth were loosened. The next night they came out as I was eating dinner. On Monday morning, I entered Coach Serrao’s office smiling with only the tooth stubs showing. It was the only time I ever saw a look of pure shock on Coach Serrao’s face.

—Ron Grout ’68

Basketball: Craig Williams

I am a 1982 UR graduate who majored in communications with writing emphasis and minored in political science. I certainly enjoyed our 1981-82 homecoming weekend last October.

I was a writer on the Bulldog staff in 1981. The junior varsity (JV) basketball team was one of several teams I wrote about that year, and I remember its first-year coach very well. He was Bulldogs basketball stalwart Craig Williams.

I was one of many young men who played in the UR intramural league. Many teams went at each other pretty good, and then we united when it came time for Bulldog basketball events on Tuesday and Friday nights.

I had the great fortune of being a part of that terrific JV team. Many of its members eventually became part of the varsity team that won the 1981-82 Southern California Intercollegiate Athletics Conference (SCIAC) Championship. Steve Johnson was the main force, but even he needed help from teammates.

I remember how Craig molded, guided, and nurtured several young men in the program led by legendary Coach Gary Smith. I enjoyed watching the action with great intent and listening to Coach Craig as much as I could.

I remember at least 10 of those players. All starters were freshmen.

Point Guard Ray Cooper was the best JV man. He did it all for Craig. He transferred to his home college at Whittier the next year. Bill Siwek and Louie Matz were Ray’s wing men. They were also the wing men for Alex Acosta during the 1981-82 SCIAC Championships. Al Diaz, 6 feet 3 inches, was a big forward during his UR career. David Roper, 6 feet 4 inches, was a very strong center. Craig showed his big front liners how to defend and rebound as the coach did.

Sophomore David Moore was the sixth man, mainly in the backcourt. Freshmen Howard Davis and Lance Hargrave were on the second unit. I also remember another backcourt freshman, Ben Higier of Beverly Hills. And a 6-foot-3-inch freshman front liner from Northern California who I remember as “KJ the DJ”! I think Kevin is his first name—a great Oakland Raiders and Oakland A’s fan.

My best memory of Coach Craig is that he let me ride in his van with that JV team as we traveled from Redlands to many college campuses in Los Angeles County, such as La Verne, Occidental, Whittier, Cal Tech, etc.

My favorite memories of that team were our trips as we listened to the tunes from Styx on the radio or the tape deck. We got more than our fair share of “The Best of Times!”—a very fitting tune in the early 1980s!

It has been a fun ride down those memorable SCIAC roads.

—Jim Rosen ’82

Lacrosse: Suzette Soboti

Suzette taught me to have courage and do things outside my comfort zone, like give back to our community. That’s a lesson I try to teach the girls I coach—to give back—and the reason I wanted to give back to my country and serve in the military. Her coaching style also helped my career, as a coach and beyond.

Right after 9/11, we were playing a game up north, against the University of Puget Sound, when our goal keeper came off the field visibly upset. She was upset because it was a tight match, but also because we were dealing with the trauma of 9/11 and for other reasons. A lot of us were affected. As a team, we loved Bob Marley, and we loved playing lacrosse. Suzette understood our emotions … And from that point forward, we walked out onto the field to Bob Marley’s song “One Love.” The lacrosse team did that for the remaining years I was at Redlands, and, I heard, for 15 years straight. For us, it symbolizes our team is also a family.

—Lt. Emily Goetz ’04 (a former Division III head lacrosse coach)

Psychology of Sport class: Mike Maynard

This might sound silly coming from a female 2016 graduate, because I, of course, did not play football, but let me tell you about my unique experience with Coach Mike Maynard.

Coach Maynard was my professor for a Psychology of Sport class in the fall of 2015. The curriculum meticulously revolved around how sports impact us throughout a lifetime. Everything—from watching, competing, supporting athletes, winning, losing, coaching—has a profound impact on us as humans. Coach explained how to create and maintain good habits, how to be a winner, and how to be part of a team. His class consistently had me evaluating my own work ethic and communication styles. He bleeds maroon and grey, and his football team works fiercely, as a brotherhood, to accomplish their goals. He is fair, ethical, and inspiring.

His stories and experiences showed he is a leader and a faith-driven husband. I will never forget that class nor the lessons of goal setting, teamwork, or camaraderie. He’s an inspiration to all Bulldogs and a blessing to our dear ol’ U of R.

—Katie Wickersham ’16

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