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Coach Fitz’s Management Theory
By BY MICHAEL LEWISMARCH 28, 2004
When I was 12, I thought that when The New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote about the ”struggle
for control of the West Bank,” it meant the other side of the Mississippi River. I thought that my
shiny gold velour pants actually looked good. I kept a giant sack of Nabisco chocolate-chip
cookies under my bed so that they might be available in an emergency — a flood, say, or a
hurricane — that made it harder to get to the grocery store. From the safe distance of 43, ”12”
looks less an age than a disease, and for the most part, I’ve been able to forget all about it — not
the events and the people, but the feelings that gave them meaning. But there are exceptions. A
few people, and a few experiences, simply refuse to be trivialized by time. There are teachers
with a rare ability to enter a child’s mind; it’s as if their ability to get there at all gives them the
right to stay forever. I once had such a teacher. His name was Billy Fitzgerald, but everybody
just called him Coach Fitz.
Forgetting Fitz was impossible — I’ll come to why in a moment — but avoiding him should have
been a breeze. And for 30 years I’d had next to nothing to do with him or with the school where
he coached me, the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. But in just the past year, I heard
two pieces of news about him that, taken together, made him sound suspiciously like something I
never imagined he could be: a mystery. The first came last spring, when one of his former
players, a 44-year-old financier named David Pointer, had the idea of redoing the old school’s
gym and naming it for Coach Fitz. Pointer started calling around and found that hundreds of
former players and their parents shared his enthusiasm for his old coach, and the money poured
in. ”The most common response from the parents,” Pointer said, ”is that Fitz did all the hard
work.”
Then came the second piece of news: after the summer baseball season, Fitz gave a speech to his
current Newman players. It had been a long, depressing season: the kids, who during the school
year won the Louisiana state baseball championship in their division, had lost interest. Fitz grew
increasingly upset with them until, following their final summer game, he went around the room
and explained what was wrong with each and every one of them. One player had wasted his
talent to pursue a life of ease; another blamed everyone but himself for his failure; a third agreed
before the summer to lose 15 pounds and instead gained 10. The players went home and
complained about Fitz to their parents. Fathers of eight of them — half the team — had then
complained to the headmaster.
The past was no longer on speaking terms with the present. As the cash poured in from former
players and parents of former players who wanted to name the gym for the 56-year-old Fitz, his
current players and their parents were doing their best to persuade the headmaster to get rid of
him. I called a couple of the players involved, now college freshmen. Their fathers had been
among the complainers, but they spoke of the episode as a kind of natural disaster beyond their
control. One of the players, who asked not to be named, called his teammates ”a bunch of
whiners” and explained that the reason Fitz was in such trouble was that ”a lot of the parents are
big-money donors.”
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I grew curious enough to fly down to New Orleans to see the headmaster. The Isidore Newman
School is the sort of small private school that every midsize American city has at least two of —
one of them called Country Day. Most of the 70 or so kids in my class came from families that
were affluent by local standards. I’m not sure how many of us thought we’d hit a triple, but quite
a few had been born on third base. The school’s most striking trait is that it was founded in 1903
as a manual training school meant largely for Jewish orphans. About half my classmates were
Jewish, but I didn’t know any orphans. In any case, the current headmaster’s name is Scott
McLeod, and, he said, the school he’d taken charge of in 1993 was different from the school I
graduated from in 1978. ”The parents’ willingness to intercede on the kids’ behalf, to take the
kids’ side, to protect the kid, in a not healthy way — there’s much more of that each year,” he said.
”It’s true in sports, it’s true in the classroom. And it’s only going to get worse.” Fitz sat at the very
top of the list of hardships that parents protected their kids from; indeed, the first angry call
McLeod received after he became headmaster came from a father who was upset that Fitz wasn’t
giving his son more playing time.
Since then McLeod had been like a man in an earthquake straddling a fissure. On one side he had
this coach about whom former players cared intensely; on the other side he had these newly
organized and outraged parents of current players. When I asked him why he didn’t simply
ignore the parents, he said, quickly, that he couldn’t do that: the parents were his customers.
(”They pay a hefty tuition,” he said. ”They think that entitles them to a say.”) But when I asked
him if he’d ever thought about firing Coach Fitz, he had to think hard about it. ”The parents want
so much for their kids to have success as they define it,” he said. ”They want them to get into the
best schools and go on to the best jobs. And so if they see their kid fail — if he’s only on the J.V.,
or the coach is yelling at him — somehow the school is responsible for that.” And while he didn’t
see how he could ever ”fire a legend,” he did see how he could change him. Several times in his
tenure he had done something his predecessors had never done: summon Fitz to his office and
insist that he ”modify” his behavior. ”And to his credit,” the headmaster said, ”he did that.”
Obviously, whatever Fitz had done to modify his behavior hadn’t satisfied his critics. But then,
from where he started, he had a long way to go.
When we first laid eyes on him, we had no idea who he was, except that he played in the
Oakland A’s farm system and was spending his off-season, for reasons we couldn’t fathom,
coaching eighth-grade basketball. We were in the seventh grade, and so, theoretically, indifferent
to his existence. But the outdoor court on which we seventh graders practiced was just an oak
tree apart from the eighth grade’s court. And within days of this new coach’s arrival we found
ourselves riveted by his performance. Our coach was a pleasant, mild-mannered fellow, and our
practices were always pleasant, mild-mannered affairs. The eighth grade’s practices were
something else: a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound minor-league catcher with the face of a street fighter
hollering at the top of his lungs for three straight hours. Often as not, the eighth graders had done
something to offend their new coach’s sensibilities, and he’d have them running wind sprints until
they doubled over. When finally they collapsed, unable to run another step, he’d pull from his
back pocket his personal collection of Bobby Knight sayings and begin reading aloud.
This was new. We didn’t know what to make of it. Sean put it best. Sean was Sean Tuohy, our
best player and, therefore, our authority on pretty much everything. That year he would lead our
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Date: 1 ESSAY ON RHETORICAL ANALYSIS OF THE ESSAY ON COACH FITZ?S MANAGEMENT
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