Friday, June 24, 2011

Frank Diskin: As Good As They Come

In the spring of 1993, I was a year out of college and trying to come up with a suitable answer to "What do you want to do with your life?" I was a new husband and college graduate with the ever-marketable sociology degree working for the Missouri Department of Mental Health in Kansas City. A few months ago, I described here how I knew I needed a change.

I had some work to do in order to become a teacher and coach. First and foremost, I needed to complete a number of classes to earn my certification to teach. One spring day, I walked into Mason-Halpin Fieldhouse on the campus of Rockhurst College (now University). I asked the secretary if Frank Diskin, the Director of Athletics and men's basketball coach was available. He was.

I sat down in Coach Diskin's office and explained a bit of my history and that I now wanted to teach and coach. Told a bit about my good fortune of having played for Eldon Miller at UNI. Talked a bit about my new wife and growing up in Winterset, Iowa. I closed with a rather jumbled statement about how I'd be happy to volunteer as an assistant coach of some sort if Coach Diskin needed any help, having no idea how my cold call had been received.

Coach Diskin leaned back in his black vinyl chair and said with a Southeast Kansas twang, "If you'd like to take the classes here and help us, I'll pay for it." I was stunned by his generosity and the directness of his response. Who offers that to a stranger? Impressed though I was, I had no idea that I'd had my initial contact with one of the finest men I'd ever know.

Over the next year and a half, I served as an assistant for "Coach D," usually taking the wheel of one of two rented Ford Econoline vans as we rolled across the Midwest. To say that I benefited more than he and the Rockhurst Hawks did is a gross understatement. Man, did I learn, and man did we have fun. I can't tell you the final record of the team, but I can tell:

  • How on a trip to play against College of the Ozarks, Coach explained how people in the Ozarks used to measure distances in "sees." Something about getting to the furthest hill one could see represented a distance of "one see."
  • How when considering a "big new job" I should bear in mind that if the guy before me wasn't successful, it probably was not because he wasn't working hard. Be careful.
  • How he meant what he said about loyalty, promising me in that initial conversation that he'd help me any way he could if I was loyal and worked hard, but that if I was not, he would also make sure I didn't get a job.
  • How the kid from New York City he recruited to St. Mary of the Plains College thought the big animals along the Kansas Turnpike were dogs, not cows. Never seen one before.
The Southeast Kansas Catholic and the young guy with the sociology degree had some great conversations while the players slept in the back of the van. Abortion. Rebounding. War. Why don't kids practice the fundamentals? God. Poverty. Pressure defense. And man, could he sing the hell out of any Johnny Cash song. The 20 year old players in the back of the van would pretend to sleep, snicker, and roll their eyes. When one of the players would tease him about how well he sang Ring of Fire, he'd say something like, "By God, I'm glad someone around here's got a little class and recognizes good music." 

A friend of Frank's was a friend for life. He was a prolific forwarder of those emails that want you to call your mother, thank a veteran, or remember the old days. Phone calls picked up right where we left off months before. Always asked lots of questions...How's your grandpa? Are you coaching your son's team? Keep him out of that AAU bullshit. He was a firm handshake, say what you mean and mean what you say guy.  He told me on one of our road trips that he went to mass every day because he was so weak. It blew me away because I didn't know anyone stronger.

Perhaps his most memorable quote was "The next effort is the most important one." What's done is done. Good or bad, the play that just happened is history. Get to the next one. Hearing the news that Coach D died yesterday in a whitewater rafting accident while vacationing with his family near Estes Park, CO stopped me in my tracks.

Getting to the next effort is going to be tough for a whole lot of people. We have lost a champion in every sense of the word. But we have also learned from and been loved by one of the very best. And, we'll honor him by getting to that next effort, tough as it is.