March 8, 2020

FTV: Quotable

  Too often, quotes we remember for some reason spring from our lips even though their origins  may be vague. Many memorable quotes come from the world of sports and we tend to remember the malapropisms and mixed metaphors (from the likes of Yogi Berra) longer than others.  Berra’s unintentional mangling of the English language made for humorous sound bites, but I also like those quotes that have a little more clout to them. When I was teaching and coaching, I would illustrate a point by going to some of my favorite sports figure’s quotes.  Naturally, some would need a little set up for those who were too young to have been there when they were first uttered. Same can be said for those used in the classroom setting.  

      One of my favorite sports quotes came from coach Mike Mileski who took the Ishpeming High School football team to the first of their state titles in 1975.  That happened to be the same year that the Hudson team from deep in the southern reaches of our fair state had amassed an unbeaten streak of 72 games. This winning streak, of course, made them the odds on favorites in the first year of the state playoffs.  The Tigers had not surrendered more than 21 points in a game all season yet the Hematites scored 24 on Hudson in the first quarter. After the Hematites had taken the state crown by soundly defeating Hudson 38 to 22, the post game press conference was a thing to behold.  It seemed that every other question posed to Mileski contained some form of, “Well, coach, exactly how good WAS Hudson?” You could see the coach politely deflecting the endless questions about the defeated team until he finally set his brow and said, “Look, if Hudson had played in our conference in the Upper Peninsula, they would have lost at least twice this year.”  This pretty much ended the questions about the Hudson dynasty. Milseski told the press corps, “I’ve been trying to tell you guys, we play pretty good football in the Upper Peninsula.”  Coach Mileski’s daughter taught elementary school in Ontonagon in the early 1990s.  When I shared this story with her, she smiled and said, “Yes, that certainly sounds like my dad.”

     Coaching in high school can be rewarding and frustrating all at the same time.  When I first arrived in Ontonagon, the high school football team was coached by Barry Johnson whose assistant was the late Bob Carlson.  Bob was elevated to the head coach position when Barry left the area and we already know the legacy of Carlson’s program in Ontonagon (The Bob Carlson Memorial Field is a good hint).  Bob was a man of few words, so the football quote I remember the best from my early days in Ontonagon came from Barry Johnson. We were talking football at some social function and Barry said, “You never know what the school board is told about your credentials when they hire you as a coach.  I wondered because after we got blown off the field in one game, we were going by the stands and someone in the crowd hollered, “Well, Mr. Miracle Worker, what now? I never put ‘Miracle Worker’ on my resume.”  

      My senior year at Northern Michigan University was not a great football year.  Under new coach Gil Krueger, the Wildcats went 0-9. I went to every home game but after a couple of blow out losses, optimism for a win diminished with each game.  When the Cats opened practice for the next season, a reporter asked Krueger about his expectations for the new campaign: “You must be looking forward to the new season;  you can’t do worse than 0 and 9.” Krueger smiled and replied, “Well, actually, we are playing ten games this year…” What was the wonderful thing about Krueger intentionally lowering the expectations for the new year?   The Wildcats lost but one game, compiled a 13-1 record, and won the Division II championship game that year. A friend back in Marquette offered to reserve a seat on the chartered plane to California for the championship game, but I was just as happy to watch it on my little TV in the confines of my apartment in Ontonagon.

     One of my favorite coaches in terms of the quick quip quote is the legendary John Wooden from UCLA.  While still revered in Los Angeles for his ‘system’, I remember him more for how he handled some of his superstar players during the years when UCLA was truly a basketball machine.  Some of his best quotes were actually relayed to the press by his players. The first story that stuck with me was the year a young hotshot high school prospect named Lew Alcindor arrived at UCLA.  The high school phenom didn’t take to Coach Wooden’s system right away. He grumbled about the first practice session when the coach actually instructed the team on how to wear their socks. “Good afternoon gentlemen,” Wooden began, “Today we are going to learn how to put our sneakers and socks on correctly.”  

     Sitting with Alcindor was an all-star freshman team that would beat the national championship varsity team in a scrimmage a few weeks later, and they were being told how to wear their socks!  Alcindor continued the story: “He bent down and took off his shoes and socks. His pale pink feet looked like they had never been exposed to light before. “ We are going to talk about tug and snug.  Tug. And. Snug.” Coach Wooden continued. Looking at their puzzled faces, Wooden grinned: “As Benjamin Franklin said, “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost – For the want of a shoe the horse was lost – For the want of a horse the rider was lost – For the want of the rider the battle was lost – For the want of the battle the kingdom was lost – And all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.  If you want to learn about basketball, read Benjamin Franklin.”  

     As his bewildered freshmen stared at him, Wooden shrugged his shoulders and completed the lesson:  “If you do not pull your socks on tightly, you will get wrinkles in them. Wrinkles cause blisters.  Blisters force players to sit on the sidelines. And players sitting on the sidelines lose games. So we are not just going to tug.  We are also going to make it snug.”

     Coach Wooden must have made an impression and the hotshot freshman from New York must have listened because Alcindor went from UCLA to the NBA and did pretty well.  Of course, we remember him more by the name he took after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA title and his long successful career as an LA Laker: Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

     Another of Wooden’s dynasty teams featured the outstanding Bill Walton.  After winning their second title in a row in Walton’s junior year, there weren’t too many betting against another title in Walton’s senior year.  In Wooden’s old school program, players were expected to be clean shaven and have short hair (which was not uncommon even at the high school level in the 1960s and 1970s).  Walton returned from summer break with his bright red hair tied back in a ponytail and a matching long red beard. Before practice began, the NCAA Most Valuable Player from the previous season encountered Coach Wooden on campus and slyly asked, “Gee coach, what if I happen to show up at practice with my beard and long hair?”  Wooden didn’t miss a beat: “Well Bill – we will miss you this year.” Most valuable player or not, Wooden wasn’t about to cater to Walton’s ‘superstar status’. Practice soon commenced and Walton was there but his beard and long hair were not. Walton played for the Portland Trailblazers the next year and photos show him sporting the long haired, bearded look that he couldn’t wear at UCLA.

      Quotes that cut to the chase aren’t only found in the sports world.  Walt Whitman’s famous tomb Leaves of Grass wasn’t one of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ favorites.  Holmes said it reminded him of, “fugues played upon a big organ which has been struck by lightning.”  Henry David Thoreau observed the changes taking place during the westward expansion of the young United States saying, “I saw that while we are clearing the forest in our westward progress, we are accumulating a forest of books in our rear, as wild and unexplored as any of nature’s primitive wildernesses.”  That is certainly a different view of how moving westward changed our country physically and intellectually. Oscar Wilde once said, “A man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite,” and we can thank Lord Acton for, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The last one surely should be on everyone’s mind over the rest of this year.

     Following are some other frequently cited malapropisms and quotes I found surfing around the internet.  I have grouped them by those with known sources, those that are often repeated but the original source has been lost over time, and lastly, that deep well of quotable quotes;  the world of sports. 

     Known sources:   “The blood circulates through the body by flowing down one leg and up the other” (from Kids Say the Darndest Things).  “Dogs are getting bigger, according to a leading dog manufacturer,” (Leo Rosten).  “The four seasons are salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar,” (from Kids Say the Darndest Things).  “I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong,” (Samuel R. Goldwyn).  “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride,” (Reverend Spooner – The good Reverend had a knack for swapping parts of phrases, so much so that muddled phrases like this became known as ‘Spoonerisms”).  “I don’t want to join the kind of club that accepts people like me as members,” (Groucho Marx). “There is no time like the pleasant,” (George Bergman). “Where ever you go, there you are!” (Geography professor Pat Farrell).  The last example from known sources came from my father who often said, “If you want to show everyone how smart you are, shut up once in a while.” 

     All of the following quotes come from unknown sources:  “An oral contract isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.”  “At least half their customers who fly to New York come by plane.”  “That was a horse of a different color.” “The sword of Damocles is hanging over Pandora’s box.”  “Necessity is the mother of convention.” “The death of Francis Shaw was a major turning point in his life.”  “Don’t burn your bridges until you come to them.”  

      Finally, we shall wrap up with the world of Sports:  “Are you any relation to your brother Marv?” (New Jersey Nets guard Leon Wood to sportscaster Steve Albert).  “The doctors X-rayed my head and found nothing,” (Dizzy Dean after being beaned in the head during the 1934 Worlds Series).  “I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body,” (University of Kentucky basketball player Winston Bennett).

     Certainly we can’t exit the world of sports without  a few Yogisms on a variety of topics from the ‘King of Malapropisms’ himself:   “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.” “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.  ”Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” “People don’t go there anymore. It’s too crowded.” “We have deep depth.” “We made too many wrong mistakes.” and “You can observe a lot by watching.”     I will admit to overusing only one of Yogi Berra’s quotes and will leave you with that profound thought:  “It’s just like deja-vu all over again.”  I also leave parents and grandparents with one small request:  Remember those old tried and true sayings we grew up hearing from our parents?  Pass them on! Your kids and grandkids deserve to hear them just like we did.

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