Goodbye, Coach. From Jimmy.
In my seventh decade, hardly anyone calls me “Jimmy” any more. Maybe my mother once in a while, Terry Farina on occasion, and Paul Abell, my oldest friend.
I tolerated “Jimmy” over the years from my aunts and uncles. I actually relished hearing my childhood moniker from the late Sam Suplizio, whether in exasperation or affection.
As you age you’d like to think you’ve also matured some, maybe earned the “Jim” you prefer or the “James” you resist on anything but a cashable check or when legally required. Even the other names you’ve heard as an opinionated newspaper columnist and recovering politician.
But, for over 50 years, I was always “Jimmy” to Bill Fanning. And I didn’t mind.
He was never “Mr. Fanning” to me, not as the father of a high-school classmate or in his classroom at Grand Junction High School. He never became “Bill” in later years when we’d have adult conversations.
To me, and to countless others who grew up in Grand Junction, William T. Fanning was always “Coach.”
I didn’t contribute much to his 35-years as the Tigers’ baseball coach, a stint that earned him a spot in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and nearly two dozen league, state and national Coach of the Year honors. Some of those who did were quoted in Patti Arnold’s Daily Sentinel article about “Coach” after he died last Friday morning.
I was one of those players whose name understandably might have slipped his mind pretty quickly. The only orange and black letter jacket at our house was worn by my daughter.
On Bill Fanning’s junior varsity basketball team, I was the awkward forward at the end of the bench who got a few minutes, late in a quarter spelling one of the guys with real talent. If lucky, I might grab a couple of rebounds and on rare occasions put one through the net. On the baseball field, I suspect I was kept around so there’d be enough spare bodies for a few innings of a practice game. Perhaps because he knew I’d be getting in trouble elsewhere if not in uniform.
My athletic career peaked when I was 13 or 14. It ended midway through my senior year when a few of us skipped Christmas- break basketball practice for a week of skiing at Aspen, and left the varsity.
What made Bill Fanning a great person as well as a great coach is that little of that mattered. If you ever donned a uniform and broke a sweat for “Coach,” you were forever one of his. All the “Jimmys” who filled out the rosters of his teams from 1954 to 1989 were made to feel as important to him as the All-Stars.
There were lessons to be learned off the field as well as inside the chalk lines.
In my junior year, I worked my way up to sixth or seventh man on Fanning’s jayvee basketball team. Pretty heady stuff, temporarily. That came crashing down when my spotty academic record found me ineligible for a week while I made up some work.
The grade that nailed me was from none other than my coach, who also happened to be my history teacher. Not surprising, coming from a coach who would bench his own son during a state tournament game in Bill Jr.‘s senior year.
A couple of years ago, my mother insisted on accompanying me to Coach Fanning’s 90th birthday party at the Blue Moon. They’d worked together at GJHS and she’d beat him to that milestone by six months. Other than to see a few performances by my musician brothers, she hadn’t spent any time in bars since she was a child ferrying pails of beer to her miner father and his buddies up in Crested Butte.
“He was a good guy,” she said last Friday. His legacy, to her, wasn’t championships. “He really cared about the kids.”
Indeed he did. All “his” kids. And they cared about him.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou.