It is unbelievable — to me, anyway — that 46 years ago I was in the middle of my first year as a college basketball player at Wittenberg University.
I enrolled in Wittenberg after a successful career at Covington High School, where I was a varsity starter for four years, was selected to multiple all-star and all-state teams, and was the leading scorer not only at Covington, but for all of Miami County. In other words, I was the quintessential hot shot high school sports star who had not had to overcome a lot of adversity, frustration and obstacles during my early years. Then, I went to college.
At Wittenberg, I was surrounded by a whole host of outstanding players, all of of whom were bigger and most of whom were as talented, or more, than I was. The upperclassmen had college-level experience I certainly lacked, and because I was a very young freshman, I was competing against men four or five years older than me. That means they were stronger and more physically mature than I was, so I took a physical pounding every time I took the floor. Suffice it to say, I experienced some very difficult and humbling times during my Wittenberg career.
Although I played quite a bit during my first two years, it wasn’t until my junior year that I became a starter. So, those first two years included a good amount of time during which my backside was planted on the bench, watching my teammates compete. By the halfway point of my freshman year, I had probably spent more time off the floor than I had in all four years at Covington combined. To say it was a culture shock would be an understatement.
However, not once did I ever consider tucking my tail and running away from the challenges I faced. Never did I think that if I just went to another school the coach there would undoubtedly recognize my incredible talent and play me right away. And, even had such thoughts crossed my mind, I surely wouldn’t have been naive enough to suggest to my father that I would like to transfer.
No, somewhere along the line my parents taught me that life’s greatest growth comes during our most difficult times, so, while I’m sure it was hard to watch their son struggle, they would never have let me know that. They didn’t pity me. They didn’t badmouth the coach. They simply encouraged me.
Had I suggested quitting, my father would have informed me that it wasn’t the coach who was taking my playing time from me. It was me. I wasn’t good enough to start, and he would have told me the proper response would be to do something about it by working harder and getting better. He would not have accepted the thought of running away from my frustrations. And you know what? He would have been right.
So, when I hear of so many of today’s high school and college athletes who transfer to new schools the minute things don’t go their way, I can’t help feeling they would have been well-served to have spent some time with my father. They may have learned about the importance of fighting through adversity instead of running from it. They may have learned that what is important isn’t how far you can throw a football or how well you can shoot a basketball, it’s all the other life lessons a young person can learn from playing a sport. That would have been a nice lesson for them to have learned.
When I tell people that my college basketball experience was the most impactful educational experience of my life, and that my college coach has been the most influential teacher for me (outside of my parents), it’s not because of the basketball skills I learned from him, which have long since eroded. It is because he created an environment in which I learned so many life lessons, such as competing with all your might, persevering through tough times, fighting through frustration and hardship, setting goals and doing everything possible to achieve them, pushing yourself beyond any boundaries you thought you could exceed, and subverting your personal interests for the betterment of the team. I saw that the most successful people in life exhibit these attributes.
I ended up having a nice career at Wittenberg. Had I decided to transfer, perhaps I could have found a school and a coach who would have treated me with kid gloves by cow-tailing to my selfish desires to play right away, but I would have been much poorer for it. I would have missed out on the most impactful period of my life, of being around incredible coaches, leaders, mentors and teammates, not to mention top-notch professors. Many of these people changed my life for the better, and what I learned from them more than 40 years ago continues to impact me to this day. Had I left, I would have believed that it is better to run from a problem than to face it head on and conquer it.
And, what a shame that would have been.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.