A Lesser Place: Remembering My Coach

[article originally published in the Northern Review newspaper on March 22, 1999]

I was never supposed to be there in the first place.

My athletic talents and sizable ego were unquestionably destined for the big time: SMU, Harvard, Notre Dame. So when an untreatable heel injury and a failed freshman year in rural Indiana accidentally brought me to Ada, Ohio (population: 1,200), it was certain that no one, especially a middle-aged philosophy professor, was going to have any impact on my life. I was only there for the short term. I would show these small-towners what a superstar looked like and then transfer to where I belonged.

What's your name? Dr. Lenssen, is it? Just roll out the balls and leave me alone.

Of course, I never made it to the big time. My injury wouldn't let me play all the matches or even practice two days in a row, leaving me a lost, befuddled, never-was. 

During this realization, I elected to take some philosophy courses instructed by a part-time tennis coach. Some days this professor showed up with a squirt gun loaded with "acid" (air, actually) to make a point on morality; some days we watched "educational" film masterpieces (made circa 1900) that the class maybe watched through the opening credits. Other days we divided the desks up into two sections of the room to facilitate the "War of the Opposing Viewpoint!"

All the while our philosophical ringleader would quietly, wisely, and seemingly accidentally, teach you something. After every silly little educational stunt, the mandatory paper came back looking like it was written in red instead of the black printer ink you handed it in on. 

And you know what? The guy was right. Your paper wasn't that good. Your argument "didn't follow..." The scary truth was: the bald guy up in front of the class dressed in a sweater from ten years ago and pants that didn't match was the smartest person in the room. By far. 

Practices weren't much different. Coach Lenssen would show up in his bumblebee outfit (dressed in bright yellow from head-to-toe) and challenge everyone on the team to rigged games to 21. Or he would run the infamous Eight Ball Drill.

"Okay, guys, I'm going to hold these eight balls in my hand and feed them to you one at at time!" (presumably to simulate God-knows-what). 

But you know what else? He won. All of his teams won. He won the school's first conference championship in 1991 and two more quickly followed. He was voted Coach of the Year three times (I assume the voters didn't know about the Eight Ball Drill). 

More than that, he cared. There was simply no reason for a man of his intelligence to coach. Especially my team. My team's only goal, other than to maybe win conference, was to drive our Socratic leader to the brink. Nothing would satisfy us more than to see this man of wisdom and serenity reduced to basic emotions. 

There were off-color jokes told to test his tolerance, grapes from the school's box lunches bounced off his head as he drove to test his resolve, and supremely planned practical jokes to test his sanity. 

Sometimes there were even wet-willies.

And through three years of torture, I only saw him snap twice. Once after an especially successful grape-bouncing drive home from a match, he simply couldn't take it anymore and flung an almost-gone Dairy Queen blizzard at us. 

The other time was in Hilton Head, SC after we pulled the old water-on-top-of-the-door trick (and got pictures). He let fly an obscenity and decided in his inimitable, philosophical way to strike back immediately by throwing our clothes over the fourth-floor balcony. Unfortunately, Ohio Northern's women's coach, Dexter Woods, was staying with us.

Uh, Coach. Those are Dexter's clothes.

I can say that I probably gave Coach Lenssen more psychological stimulus (read: abuse) than anyone rightly deserves. But I would defend that man to the end of the earth, and I think he knew that. I think he understood how much I loved him. 

When I needed advice, I went to him. If he needed something, I gave it to him. If his team beat my Capital team, I was happy for him. 

Thanks for changing my life in a way no one else could, Dr. Coach Mark Lenssen. You left the world a lesser place.