Thursday, July 16, 2015

Quite A Night With Coaches

TigerBlog looked up at the clock over John Thompson's shoulder, saw it was past 10 and wondered what he should do.

TB was the moderator for the "Night With Coaches" event at Conte's last night. The coaches on the panel were Thompson, Pete Carril and Jason Garrett. That's quite a panel.

The three were telling stories, talking about their philosophies and basically wowing the packed house.

Time, though, was moving along, and it was getting late. Should TigerBlog bring the evening to an end? Should he let them keep going?

In truth, TigerBlog could still be there listening to them. That's how good they were.

They were funny. They were engaging. They were humble. They were thoughtful. They were serious.

Mostly, what they were was genuine. That's how they are. Genuine.

For all of their success. For however much money they've made. They have remained genuine, and that is what makes them so, well, likeable.

And it's why they were there in the first place.

The "Night With Coaches" was to benefit the A-T Children's Fund, and by extension the Derek's Dreams foundation.

The event was the latest in the heroic fight of the DiGregorio/Levy families - or is that family, as it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Steve DiGregorio is a former assistant football coach at Princeton. Howard Levy is a former Princeton basketball player and coach.

Derek DiGregorio, the middle son of Steve and Nadia, suffers from Ataxia Telangiectasia, a disease that relentlessly attacks the very small few who suffer from it. There is no cure. There is little in the way of hope.

Today, there is a little more hope, though. Why? Because of the DiGregorio/Levy group, yet again.

They have run a series of fund-raising events through the years. This year's was a little different, with the venue of Conte's and the three coaches who came to speak.

It was easy for TigerBlog. His job was simple. Give a short introduction and then let the three coaches do the rest.

TB started out by telling the predominantly Princeton-centric crowd that he's a Penn grad, which of course drew boos. Then he talked about the great loyalty that permeates throughout everything Princeton, how it's just different than it is at other places.

Then he introduced the panelists. He mentioned that Thompson has taken his teams to either the NCAA tournament or NIT 14 times in 15 seasons as a head coach, including one trip with Georgetown to the Final Four, but that TB believes that his best coaching job was his first, when he took Princeton to the 2000-01 Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament. Princeton, as you might recall, lost basically its entire projected lineup that year, especially Chris Young (to baseball) and Spencer Gloger (transfer).

In fact, TB asked Thompson if he could remember the starting lineup for his first game, and he could only come up with Nate Walton and Ed Persia. The other three? Mike Bechtold, C.J. Chapman and Eugene Baah.

He introduced Jason Garrett and reminded the audience that he is still the Ivy League leader in career completion percentage. This was the second time in less than two months that TB has heard Jason speak, and he has been off-the-charts impressive both times.

He, like the other two, is speaking from the heart, and the audience knows it. That's why he - all three - can connect so easily with those who are listening.

Yes, he's the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, which means that he automatically has that factor of fame when he walks in the room. But that would vanish quickly if he simply mailed it in. But no. That's not what he does. He speaks of his own experiences and how they have shaped him and his beliefs and made him the coach that he is, and he does so with great modesty. And with great respect for those who have helped him get where he is now, with many of those people in the room last night.

When TB introduced Coach Carril, he told two funny stories and one serious one about the Hall-of-Famer. TB actually has about 1,000 funny ones and 1,000 serious ones, so he had a lot to choose from.

His first funny story? The time Coach went up to Joe Susan, as he was lying on the Jadwin Gym side court after blowing out his knee in lunchtime basketball, and said "yo, I think this might be a bad time to tell you that you traveled." His second one? It was funny too, though a little more off-color.

And then he mostly tried to stay out of the way and let the three coaches go. And they did.

About life. About coaching. About each other. About how it's changed through the years. About their philosophies. About their belief in service. About anything and everything.

What stands out to TigerBlog? As he said, it's how genuine they are. How success hasn't changed Thompson or Garrett.

But more than anything, it was that nobody - nobody - can talk to a room like Coach Carril. Sure, he's 85 now. And sure, he moves a little slower and maybe doesn't have the energy he once did.

But he can tell a story. And he can have a moral to that story. And when he speaks? Everyone listens.

He talked about sports and society and what coaching is all about and what he values and how all of that always played into how he coached. He talked about how winning was the most important thing, and when someone said "winning at all costs?" he said no, that's not what he said. He said winning is the most important thing.

Oh, and Carril was also funny. He always is. He got people to laugh and he got people to think, and that's a perfect combination.

TigerBlog has heard Carril talk like that informally in that room for hours and hours, but that was a few decades ago now, after whatever game Princeton happened to play that night. This time it was more formal, but it was like the decades had faded away.

In more ways than one.

Everywhere TigerBlog looked, he saw a familiar face, one that took back to his early days around Princeton Athletics.

Keith Elias, the all-time leading rusher in Princeton football history, was there. Elias, one of TB's all-time favorites, has as much charisma as any athlete TigerBlog has met at Princeton.

Kit Mueller, another all-time favorite, was there. Mueller spent more than 20 years as the second-leading scorer before being passed by Douglas Davis, who was also there (Ian Hummer then passed both of them).

Hank Towns, the legendary equipment man? He was there. He's 75 now, Hank is, and he hardly looks any different than he did when he was working at Princeton. Kenny Samuels, retiring from public safety after 49 years, was also in the house.

Mike McDonnell, the manager of the men's basketball teams during the glorious days of the late ’90s came too. So did Kevin Guthrie, one of the best football players Princeton has ever seen.

Mollie Marcoux. Gary Walters. Bob Surace. Mitch Henderson. So many others, many of whom TigerBlog had never met before.

They were there to hear the three coaches - presumably not to hear TigerBlog per se.

But they were there for so much more than that.

They were there because of their loyalty, to the DiGregorio/Levy clan and to Princeton itself.

They were there to support the cause. And the cause is named Derek.

The program ended with a birthday cake for Coach Carril and the singing of Happy Birthday.

And then TigerBlog was left to sum it all up. And so he did, by saying that what the DiGregorios deal with every day - and do so with such courage - is more than most of the people there could deal with for even one day. And they do it every day.

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

They won't stop either. A-T may be relentless, but so is DiGregorio/Levy.

At the end, the three coaches had their picture taken with Derek. The three coaches, who were so good that TB didn't want them to stop talking.

And Derek, who has been dealt such a horrific hand and yet also has been given such a precious gift, the gift of a family that will never stop, never give up, never stop trying to make a difference, never stop doing what they can for him.

They are, by far, the most inspirational people TigerBlog knows.

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