November 16 on the Banks of the Cache La Poudre

I live an analog life. I don’t have a bucket list of restaurants that I need to get to. I stopped recording an annual bird list years ago. I talk more than text to a few close friends. When I dream at night, it usually about the same regrets.

I’m alive at seventy-two because I let go of a passion to coach. Or was it a passion to not lose? Either way, it is so far in the past, that it sits in my brain like a set of persimmon golf clubs that stand, covered in spider filament, in the corner of the garage.

Last year we visited the rim of the Grand Canyon. It felt like I had drifted back into the 1950s. I wanted to buy one of those stickers that I use to see on the station wagons of families who lived in our neighborhood, but it meant we would have to make a U-turn and head back to the gift shop. I hate turning back on a road trip.

When I was a boy in Northwest Indiana, there was wilderness everywhere. Not the kind you see on the internet with photographs of a remote river in Russia that holds enormous trout, but smaller stuff, a pasture across the highway with a creek that held crawdads in the bends.

I could head out in any direction on a bicycle and see something I had never seen before: a black bear in a cage at gas station, a root beer stand that sat with no thought about traffic, a backwash off a river, shallow enough to freeze solid before Christmas. Wilderness is not a destination but a place where you haven’t been.

Everything that takes place on the internet is moving too fast for me. Life is spinning faster than the centrifuge at the gym that removes water from my shirt after a workout.

Should I get comfort from knowing there are billions of galaxies beyond the horizon, and the possibility that there may be a civilization that is not marketing Coca Cola, lies, war and famine? Is creating our own departure built into our skin?

These are not rhetorical questions that I consider, as I head out to walk beneath the leafless cottonwoods, whose roots run deep beneath the river.

Terry Pettit –

A Report From Lincoln

It is late spring in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The dogwoods planted in backyard gardens,
The pear trees on the Boulevard,
The plum bushes in wild thickets at the edge of town,
Have already blossomed.

Sunlight comes early and goes home late.
We are ten days from the summer equinox
When the “Big Boys” and “Better Boys” we planted in clay pots
Will get sixteen hours of sunlight.

The first heat wave of the summer has arrived.
The mayor has asked us to water our lawns on alternate days.
A voice on the radio tells us that out in the country
The prairie grasses are more combustible than gasoline.

A few weeks ago there was graduation.
We had a reception and attended others
With bright punch and small rectangular pieces of cake.
At one of the baccalaureates there was an empty seat for a classmate
Who did not survive a horrible automobile crash
And who we will continue to think about years after
You have sent our own children to college.

This is an interesting time if you are eighteen years old
Living on the rim of adulthood in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Life can best be explained by imagining two funnels
Lying next two each other with their stems connected.
In the first funnel are all the challenges you have survived:
The pain of peer pressure, acne, and bad locker partners.
The meanness than come from friends in junior high.
The time you took the last shot . . . and missed.
The times you wondered if there were too many expectations.

Some nights you spent wondering whether you will ever be loved
By anyone, other than your parents,
Who, as everyone knows, are required by state law to love us.
And who are also required to remind us of this fact
Each time they don’t give us something we want.
They also continually ask us where we are going
Even when we aren’t.
And just where are we going anyway?

To the University, or St. Cloud State, Wesleyan and KU.
Some place where no one will ask us about what we are wearing
Or whether or not we have something on our mind.
Some place where we don’t have to share anything
With a goofy brother or sister
Who we may secretly start to miss.

The next few years, where the two stems meet, is a sanctuary
Where you get to try different things on.
You can try on architecture or criminal justice.
You can try on journalism or marine biology,
Even if you’ve only been to the ocean on the internet.

You can try on new friends.
You can read short stories by William Faulkner till morning
And sing loud songs on the toilet.
You can try out new ideas.
You can be a Buddhist for a semester.
You can give up meat. Or lettuce.
You could take a course in African pottery.
You can break the rules.
You can choose to not make your bed.
You can wear colors that don’t match
And flip-flops to class.
You can sleep in on Wednesday mornings,
And you can choose not to go out for drama,
Speech and debate, student council, French club and track.

You can also choose to do all of those things if you really want.
You can adopt a highway with friends
Or a cat by yourself . . . as long as the head resident doesn’t see it.
You can cut your fingernails and let them fly through the air
As they somersault to the carpet . . . and not pick them up.

At the other funnel at the end of the stems, hard things await.
It will be hard to stay passionate about a job.
It will be hard, at times, to stay healthy.
It will be hard to loose weight.
It will be hard to find the right companion.
It will be hard to stay married.
It will be hard to say no to your daughter
When you have the means to give her what she wants.
It will be hard to be a teacher, a clerk, a coach or an actuary.

The hardest thing of all will be to be a good parent.
It’s hard not to step in and try to make things easy
When your daughter needs to find out some answers for herself.
It is hard to let your children experience the pain of growing up.

But there will be things not so hard as well . . .
Like what is happening to your parents at this moment:

Mom and Dad are taking a deep breath.
They are telling themselves how all your problems were small.
Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a little discussion
Or a role of duct tape.
They are thinking back to when you were five or six
Playing t-ball and micro soccer
And how, out of all those kids, that you did everything with,
You were the one who continued . . .
Who continued to compete,
Who continued to get good grades,
Who continued to make good decisions,
Who continued to move toward something outside yourself.
Now, they are not so much concerned with where you are going,
But how soon before you come back.

On the night before you leave home for the first time . . .
When you are thinking about a world
That is moving faster than a comet
With opportunities whirling like the stars in a Van Gogh,
Your parents will like awake, quiet, still
Lost in their thoughts of how much they love you,
How proud they are of what you are becoming.

And before they fall asleep
In the coolness of the sheets and your impending absence,
With full knowledge of all the joys and pitfalls that await you,
One of them will turn to the other and say,

“Well she’s come this far . . . how did we get so lucky.”

Clothes Make The Team

                                                                                   I have always been interested in architecture, design and things in proportion. When I became the head women’s volleyball coach at the University of Nebraska, it gave me the opportunity to exercise some of those interests.

When I was hired in 1977, the women’s collegiate program was beginning its third season. The team wore red short-sleeved mesh tops, purchased at a local sporting goods store and screened with white numbers. Volleyball uniforms made by Nike, Adidas, Mizuno, Under Armour were several years in the future.

Most collegiate teams were wore long sleeve jerseys, in part to cushion the impact of the volleyball when players passed or dug the ball on their forearms. The theory was that the long sleeves provided a more consistent surface because it mitigated the sweat that can accumulate during a match while also providing some padding when players dove for the ball.

After a couple of years as a head coach I decided to design a jersey that could become a brand for Nebraska volleyball. My favorite uniforms were simple, clean and classic like The New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Tigers. They were primarily two colors, with instantly identifiable lettering. But the uniform that I loved the most, the one that I thought could have the most impact for Nebraska Volleyball was the home uniform for the Los Angles Dodgers.

It was everything that epitomized first class. If the jersey were a sport sedan it would be called “alpine white.” Across the front, the name “Dodgers” was tackle twilled in bright azure blue script at slightly ascending angle until the letter “S” doubles back and underlines the name. The numerals are tackle twilled in a red or blue block lettering located halfway between the script and the belt.

By this time, Mizuno was providing both shoes and uniforms for Nebraska Volleyball. I ordered fifteen solid white jerseys, and took them to Harold’s Lettering on North 48th in Lincoln. At the time, volleyball teams were silk-screening the lettering on uniforms, but I felt that having the lettering sewn on would be a great touch that could set Nebraska Volleyball apart from everyone else.

I was somewhat startled when I discovered that Harold was unsighted when I entered his shop, but when I told him what I wanted, a jersey that simulated the Los Angeles Dodger’s home uniform, he knew exactly what I wanted and called a younger woman up to the front of the shop who took careful notes on the angle and color of the script and numerals. (Nebraska’s school colors were “scarlet and cream,” but the variations of red on Husker uniforms were a rainbow in itself. I chose a deeper red than what was currently in vogue.)

When I first saw the team wearing the new uniform, white with red script and red numerals, it was breathtaking in its beauty and simplicity. In 1986 when Nebraska played for the National Championship at the University of Pacific, a low buzz went through the crowd as the Huskers lined up in on the end line in front of 6,000 people. This was before collegiate women’s volleyball frequented television, so while people had heard of Nebraska volleyball, many people in the audience had never seen the team. Several coaches after the match told me they had never seen a more stunningly fit and striking team.

Here’s the irony to that story. Earlier that year, when I went to have our uniforms lettered I had planned on doing something different. I thought maybe we should mix things up and try something more modern. Harold greeted me as I walked through the door and this is what he said.

“You know we letter the uniforms for UCLA and North Carolina men’s basketball teams as well as many of the other top athletic programs in the country.” I nodded; somewhat surprised because I wasn’t aware this little shop on N. 48th had a national clientele. Harold continued, “But we have more requests from high school teams wanting the Nebraska Volleyball look than anything we do.”

At that moment, any ideas on changing the uniform vanished and I told Harold we would go with the same lettering, and the Nebraska Volleyball look went on to become one of the most identifiable brands of any team in any sport in the country.

The Vortex

How to Watch a Volleyball Match Like a Coach

1. While many volleyball fans like to sit at mid-court, coaches prefer sitting behind the endline. Why? The view behind the endline gives a coach a much better site-lines on whether or not the block is closing. That can be a very difficult thing to do from a seat on the bench, which is why some head coaches stand near the rear of the team bench

2. Watch how many times each team tries to make the opposing setter play the volleyball. It’s not because setters are weak defensive players, but rather if the setter plays the first ball she is not in position to set the second ball. Many teams kill percentage will fall significantly when someone other than setter is forced to set the ball.

3. When the setter digs the ball, watch which player sets the next ball and whether or not she is comfortable taking the ball with her hands or whether or not she bump sets the ball. The majority of college teams today have the libero set the ball when the setter digs the ball. Because the libero is usually coming from the left back position the easiest set for the libero to make is to the right front attacker. This works well if theright side attacker is left-handed, but if she is right-handed and the set isn’t perfect it can put her in an awkward position to make a dynamic attack.

4. Watch to see if the slide attack is effective early in the match for either team, particularly in transition. (The slide is a one-foot take off, usually by the middle blocker, behind the setter.) For the last thirty-two years, the slide has been the most effective attack in women’s volleyball. It is effective because the attacker is moving laterally faster than the block can set up and because the attacker is quicker off the floor than the block. In recent years teams have tried to reduce the effectiveness of the slide by recruiting taller and more athletic left-side players who have been trained release to the antenna early and penetrate across the net before the slide attacker hits the ball.

5. Watch where each team’s setter is taking theball when siding out and in transition. There is a “golden rectangle” that is about three steps off the net, just to the right of center. When the ball is passed into that triangle a team is said to be “in system,” A team is out of system when the setter has to back up to the far sideline, comes off the feet more than the 10’ line or when her teammates mishandle “free balls” with an inconsistent tempo. Dogs that chase cars and setters who have to run down errant passes and digs, do not perform well over time.

Time Capsule

It is early June in 1954 in a small town in northwestern Indiana that lies forty-five miles from Chicago and fifteen miles south of Lake Michigan. On the town square, nighthawks and swifts contend with darkness as they dive from the rooftops of two-story buildings that surround a courthouse built in the previous century. They are feeding on insects drawn to the street lights that are just coming on.

There is not much traffic on the square besides a few people going in and out of the newsstand to purchase a magazine or to test a tube from a black and white television. Two miles north of the courthouse, the lights of the Dairy Queen, the only franchise business in a community of 5,000 people, attract a half dozen cars that surround a white cement block building without a drive thru.

The customers are families who have just finished a little league game or kids who have walked across the highway from a housing development named “Liberty Park” that was developed shortly after the war.

On the south wall of the Dairy Queen is a porcelin water fountain with a sign above it that reads: Free Ice Water. And it is cold. Vanilla cones cost 5, 10, and 20 cents, although the largest size seems an indulgence that almost no one takes part in. Air conditioning for most people is a decade in the future, when window units will begin to appear thoughout town.

Just north of the Dairy Queen is a public golf driving range, one of two in the county, where customers hit drivers from mats that automatically tee up the next ball following contact. No one is hitting off grass. No one is practicing the irons or wedges. The driving range provides metal drivers for people who don’t have their own driver.

These aren’t the light weight metal drivers that will replace persimmon twenty-five years in the future, but heavy steel clubs designed to withstand abuse and mis-hits off the rubber two inch tees. It is like hitting a golf ball with a wrench.

Further north, there is a red glow that comes from open hearths at the steel mills on the edge of Lake Michigan. But it is the heat lightening that draws the most attention. Behind the large 250 yard plywood sign, the lightening throbs with the consistency of a firefly. Golf balls fly up into the lights, then above the lights into darkness like shooting stars that fall back to earth softly in the backlight on the horizon.

Time never stops. But on this night, for this eight year old boy, it unravels for a few seconds before he turns and heads for home.

–Terry Pettit (

Walking With Jake at Twilight

We walk beneath the dreams
Of ash trees that line our street,
Each tree oblivious to
An armada of ash borers
Forty-five miles to the east.

Brown bats that live
In the column of our deck
unwrap their wings
As they exit their nest.
Toward midnight
Great horned owls
Will be calling across roof tops.

The constellations begin
Their nightly swirl above us.
It is too soon for crickets.
Too soon for the ashes to leaf.
The only thing blooming:
Three daffodils
Waiting for a table.

Jake is earnest as thief
About this walk
That will not be complete
Without seeing a rabbit
Eating the early shoots
Of spring.

He lifts his right paw
And locks on his target.
Eventually I see
A soft, ragged form
Near the safety of a drain pipe
That flattens itself
In winter’s detritus.

Jake strains at the leash.
With each second he leans
Into air that smells of rabbit,
Then looks at me
as if he could speak:
It is so close.
Don’t you see it?

I do see it, but
I tell him to Let it go.
I understand his yearning
For the hunt and the mysterious,
But for a second time I say,
Let it go Jake,
As if to remind us both
That we are tethered
To something beyond our reach.

–Terry Pettit

The Problem With Loyalty in Collegiate Sport and Congress

Many teams and athletic departments include “loyalty” as one of the primary tenets in their mission statements. Frequently it is joined with other values like integrity, service, and work ethic.

Institutions tend to make decisions based on goals and performance rather than the values that are part of a mission statement. This is true of athletic teams, BMW salesmen and members of Congress.

Several men’s basketball coaches who are in the Hall of Fame have put their universities on probation by either ignoring NCAA rules or deliberately looking the other way while directing their assistant coaches, managers, graduate assistants, or academic counsellors to commit felonies and misdemeanors.

Only one of these coaches has been fired. (Rick Pitino at Louisville)  Goals trump values when it comes to revenue sports. Athletic departments are much more eager to embrace a mission statement when there is a transgression by a female head coach, or someone coaching a non-revenue sport, like tennis or lacrosse. God forbid, a woman’s field hockey coach pushes her players too hard or yells at them inappropriately. There is a direct relationship between revenue and coaching longevity.

The real problem comes when goals and values collide. For example, a head coach chooses to ignore that some of his players are enrolled in a bogus class that does not require a syllabus, periodic tests or, as in the recent case at the University of North Carolina, attendance.

The team cannot reach its goals unless certain players are eligible and academic fraud is one of the ways to guarantee those athletes will be on the court. This situation continued for over twenty years at UNC and yet Head Basketball Coach, Roy Williams, claimed he had no knowledge of it.

I have admired how Coach Williams has coached his teams at North Carolina and Kansas, and the genuine concern he has in the welfare of his players. He is one of the goody guys in college basketball. But I also know that it is in the DNA of every head coach to know what brand of toothpaste an athlete is using, who they are dating, whether or not they are going to class and whether or not the athlete is eating original or multi-grain Cheerios for breakfast. A successful head coach’s life is dependent upon gathering information and recognizing patterns.

This is where loyalty comes in. A head coach is asked to have loyalty to several different communities: individual athletes, the team, the athletic department, the university, the local community, and at a state institution, the people who pay taxes to fund his salary. When the battle between goals and values begin, a head coach is emotionally connected to players and the team’s goals much more so than to the larger communities.

For a coach to choose to lead with values over expediency requires him to have already made that decision before the battle begins, otherwise he will lead with emotion rather than the mission statement tucked away in a shoebox in the attic.

In a successful program, you can come to believe that the team you coach does so many worthwhile things in helping to develop the lives of the people that you are coaching, that you put yourself in position to ignore something that might derail impending success or the image of what you have helped to create.

When this happens, an All-American quarterback who has committed a felony sits out for one game against a weak opponent instead of being suspended for the season. (The argument being that suspending him for longer than one or two games would penalize all of the players who were not committing felonies.) A basketball player who breaks his hand by slamming it into the wall after practice in a fit of rage is promoted for a red-shirt year which is not designed to reward this type of behavior.

Both of those decisions may help the success of the individual teams but they also may hurt other programs in the department who lose a recruit because a family chooses not to send their daughter to a school that doesn’t recognize the larger communities that are impacted by being “loyal” to the player or to a head coach’s goals instead of creating a safe environment for their daughter.

This is not easy stuff and I don’t know of any head coach or leader who has not struggled with making the right decision every time. I once coached an exceptional player who went out drinking, came back to the dormitory and decked a fellow student who called her a derogatory name. This was on the eve of an off-season regional event that we needed to win to go to a national tournament. I benched the player for the tournament, and we were fortunate enough to win and advance. But would I have made the same decision if it had happened during the regular season?

I would hope so, but I don’t know. I was an inexperienced coach trying to establish success, and I hadn’t really even thought about mission and purpose. I was more worried that everyone would find out that I didn’t know what I was doing. With the increase in budgets, salaries, and expectations, conflicts with divided loyalties are even more prominent today.

When you look at the behavior of the house and the senate, two teams that we believe should have as their primary loyalty to do what is best for the people of our country, they appear to have loyalty only to their own political party, major donors, or in many cases their own political future. We are waiting for a team made up of prominent members of our federal government to step forward, and act like a team that is grounded to the mission tucked away in the shoe box.

We are waiting for them to embrace the values of our first team who signed their names to this mission:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

–Terry Pettit

There are Trillions of Galaxies

Each one with more stars than grains of sand on Half Moon Bay. Every star is a sun with a covey of planets. Every second new stars rise from the gases of collapsing stars.

There are stars that are billions of years old; there are stars that existed long before the earth was born. It would be foolish to believe that there are not planets with trees that grow taller than redwoods, reptiles older than crocodiles, fish that can choose to swim or fly.

Perhaps this is imagination. Perhaps one of us has imagined a universe outfitted with friends, enemies, tigers, toads, and disease; someone has dreamed of famine, chocolate, anticipation and desire; someone has created wiffle balls and cannon.

The Greeks, or perhaps you, gave our galaxy the most beautiful name, the Milky Way. There is a chance this life we are living is actually in the past or the future. You may be reading something you have already written. Your name may live on the walls of an ancient cave.

–Terry Pettit

A Conversation on the Paths we Take

Last night we had dinner at the home of a person who was from my hometown. I didn’t know him well. He was in the same class as my brother who, with our spouses, attended the meal as well. For several hours, we discussed high school friends and events in a small town in northwest Indiana. It was a good evening of face-to-face conversation.

As the evening passed, the conversation became more intimate. Our host shared his experiences from a career with the United States Marine Corps that included active duty in Viet Nam and the Middle East, and more recently, as an outside contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. His life was in jeopardy on several occasions, and he also had the opportunity to save the lives of others in difficult situations. Over time, his rank grew from corporal to colonel and he developed close relationships with several peers who are now working in high levels of our government.

He also shared his grief about the death of his wife from a medical situation that over twenty doctors and two exploratory surgeries were not able to discover. And there was more grief about the fact that he was in Afghanistan for months trying to get home while she was in pain. But there were good things too.

They had two sons and both were healthy and doing well. He had developed lifetime relationships with people both under and above his command. He had engaged the trust of several people who are doing their best to try and keep our ship of state afloat in chaotic times.

Sometimes we think because we shared a locker room with someone in junior high or they were  our chemistry lab partner in high school that we probably have some insight into who they were becoming. What I continue to learn in face-to-face conversations with almost everyone I meet is how complicated and unpredictable our lives are.

Everyone is grieving something. Everyone has lost someone important to them. Everyone is somewhere in a maze where there are thousands of paths, some of them filled with interference and some of them lit with grace. The impressive thing is that we go on. And if we are lucky we continue to take risks, develop hope, and on occasion have an intimate conversation which can be as important as oxygen to our being.

— Terry Pettit