Encounter

by Bob Bach

Bob Bach, Pietisten Roving Reporter, underwent heart transplant surgery on November 6, 2009. He recorded this following encounter which occurred shortly after his surgery.

It has only been a month since my heart transplant at Stanford University Hospital, and I am back in The Intensive Care Unit.

This time, however, I am here as a visitor to support a family from our county, whose wife and mother is just now in recovery from her heart transplant. To have two heart transplants from the same small Northern California County just weeks apart is amazing in itself. My wife, Marlene, and I are quietly visiting with her husband and their two young adult children. We rejoice with them and are sharing in the common bond of human experience between our Christian and Jewish families. They were of faithful support to me throughout my year on the waiting list and subsequent transplant ordeal. Now it is my privilege to be of support and encouragement to them.

The waiting room is somewhat crowded, but we are having some quality communication time together. I notice a gentleman sitting nearby. I have never met him, but I immediately recognize him as Dick Tomey, longtime college football coach. He had just announced his retirement from coaching a few weeks ago before his final game as Head Coach at nearby San Jose State University. Dick Tomey is one of the most respected coaches in the nation, and that was made evident this year by his selection as president of the 10,000 member American Football Coaches Association. He first made a coaching name for himself at the University of Hawaii where, from 1977-1986, he built that program into national recognition. In 1987, he went to the University of Arizona where he molded his teams into national rankings. In 1992 he was named Pac 10 Coach of the Year. Tomey was at Arizona until 2000 when he intended to retire, but was asked by the San Francisco 49ers to come and help with their defense. He was there for a year and decided to retire again. However, he was asked by the University of Texas to come as their Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coach. The Longhorns immediately jumped to an 11-1 record and an appearance and victory in the 2004 Rose Bowl. Still unable to get himself to retire, he accepted the invitation to be Head Football Coach at San Jose State, and from that position he finally retired at the end of the 2009 season. Thirty seven of his former assistants are in the coaching ranks in major college or professional football.

I have followed Dick Tomey’s career because I have always admired his humble acceptance of victory or defeat. He has continually made it clear that his greatest satisfaction in coaching is in watching the development of the young men under his watch. Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle did a column about him under the heading, “Notable Sports Figures in The Bay Area.” In the interview he was asked about the fact that his San Jose team had ended the year with a 2-10 record, and that his final game had been a crushing defeat. He was asked if it bothered him to end his career with such a disappointing season. His response was, “Most people view success in the win-loss column; I view success in the development of young athletes that I have had the privilege to coach. To see them mature and develop to be outstanding young men, especially in facing disappointment, is my measure of success. Of course our season this year was disappointing in the win-loss column, but I consider this year as one of the most successful I have ever had.”

During a lull in the conversation with our friends, I get out of my seat and go over to him. As I am recently out of transplant, I am wearing a required mask due to the fact that I am susceptible to infection, especially during the early stages of recovery. Coach Tomey immediately stood up when I got to him. “Coach Tomey,” I said as I held out my hand. He grasped it firmly. “My name is Bob Bach,” I whispered through my mask. “I’m an old high school football coach and I just wanted to come and shake your hand. I just had a heart transplant a month ago, which is why I’m wearing this mask.” “Wow!” he replied, “I’m here because one of my assistant coaches is in surgery now for heart transplant. His wife is sitting here with us, and she will be encouraged to see you up and about after such a short time since your transplant.”

“Coach,” I said. “Although we have never met, I have been aware of your career for many years, and I just want you to know that you have been an inspiration to me and countless other coaches around the country because of your genuine concern for the development of young men physically, mentally, and spiritually. You are such a positive example to the game of football, and by your example have taught so many of us how to keep competition in perspective. So I want to thank you for that, and wish you a wonderful retirement.” I noticed his eyes got a little watery and he grasped my hand again and whispered, “Thanks, Bob.” I immediately turned and got out of there because I didn’t want to see him stumbling for words nor did I trust my own fragile emotional state these days. I returned to my seat, and the conversation with our friends continued. A few minutes later, Dick Tomey stood in front of me and stuck out his hand, gripped mine firmly, and said, “Thanks again, Bob, and God Bless you in your recovery.” I watched as he and his wife sauntered down the hall and disappeared.

As far as I know, there are no buildings or stadiums, or locker rooms named after Dick Tomey, but there are many athletes who have encountered him over his 46 year coaching career who are better men for having played for him. Even though he has retired again, my guess is that some coach will want some help, and he’ll no doubt answer the call. In today’s world, the emphasis seems to be centered around, “the bigger the better,” “the more spectacular the more desirable,” and often “win at all costs.” Coach Tomey’s approach to success should serve as an encouragement to all of us, especially to aspiring coaches. “Real success in coaching is not necessarily seen in the win-loss column, but rather in the integrity and development of athletes, in and beyond the game itself.”

Bob Bach, from Angels Camp, California, is Pietisten’s roving reporter

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