The Enduring Power of Coaching

By Jack Hubbard

The snailman brought me a letter recently. We don’t get many of these things with stamps on them these days so I was excited to open it. “Join me for the 50th Anniversary,” the headline suggested. It’s hard to believe that a handful of us will celebrate the 50th year of baseball at St. Edward Central Catholic High School in Elgin in 2017. The invitation from Coach Ron Kalina brought many happy recollections back from my very long term memory. And it got me to thinking about how great coaching can change everything.

Ron hails from Indiana. In 1966 he joined the St. Ed’s faculty as a bright-eyed 22 year old graduate of Ball State University. Basketball was Ron’s first love (duh, he’s from Indiana) and he never thought about coaching baseball. That all changed right after Christmas break in 1967 when seniors Ted Ewert and Dan Sarro, strolled into his office asking him to consider starting the team and managing it. “There’s no way the administration will fund this,” Ron told the boys.

Ron didn’t know Ted and Danny very well. They went out and raised the money needed (likely putting the hammer on their parents and grandparents). They went to a local sporting goods store and got the owner to donate our uniforms. With momentum behind this movement, the head honchos had no choice but to give their blessings. Green Wave baseball was born, and we had our coach.

Don’t you give up on you.

The tryout week arrived. I hadn’t picked up a baseball since Little League, five years earlier. With nothing to lose and loving the game as I did, I hit the gym on a February afternoon to see if my talents could be of use. I should mention here that while I did go out for virtually every sport in high school (and I made most of them since our numbers were very slim), my athletic prowess was quite limited. Yep, I pretty well sucked at most sports-related things but I did one thing really well. I could catch the ball at first base no matter where or how bad the throw was.

Ron liked his players to steal bases, which means lots of running and conditioning during practice. I wasn’t so keen on that but I made it through the torture of the daily runs on the stairs in the gym and the many shuttle runs (don’t ask, they were horrible) Ron made us do. As I was walking past the coaches one day, Ron turned to his assistant, Denny Hahn, and asked where he had seen me before. “Likely at the basketball games,” Denny suggested. “Hubbard is the organist.” Not a feel-good for Coach Kalina.

Most things didn’t go well that week. I threw a few from the mound and the coaches asked me to quit trying changeups and to throw my fastball. “That was my fastball,” I suggested, quickly ending my career as a pitcher. Most of the 40 guys that went out were good athletes—football players, basketball stars. They had muscles. Being left handed was a plus, so I hung in through and made a couple of cuts. I couldn’t hit or run well, however, two criteria for being a good ball player.

One morning as I walked to class, I was bemoaning my soon-to-be fate of not making the team. “It’s over,” I said to my friend Mark. “There are a couple guys much better than me and…” Then came the moment that changed my life forever.

Someone grabbed me from the back of my neck and squeezed hard. I wheeled around and there was Coach Kalina. “I heard what you said, Mr. Hubbard. You are now my project. You can make my team but that is your call. I don’t plan to give up on you as long as you don’t give up on you.”

Everyone needs a Ron Kalina.

Ron coached baseball and sophomore basketball at St. Ed’s for four years. He went on to a stellar career as a head basketball coach at Ridgewood High School where he won nearly 300 games. More importantly, he changed hundreds of lives.

Bankers many times get the wrong idea about coaching. Many view it as punitive. Some avoid it because they feel they don’t do it well. Still others suggest they don’t have time to coach. Fact is, they choose not to make the time.

The morning after the encounter my neck had with his hand, I was at school early so that Coach Kalina could hit me ground ball after ground ball. After practice in the evening I stayed so he could throw ball after ball in the dirt.

I had one hit as a junior, a bunt single. I guess running those stairs helped. I hit .222 in 18 games as a senior and started every one. My presence in the batter’s box did not make any pitcher’s knees shake. But after 50 years, my fielding record for the least errors as a St. Edward first sacker remains intact. My only sports highlight came when I threw out the potential tying run in a district tournament, which preserved a 2-1 win over Larkin High School. The first one to congratulate me was Ron, who sprinted from the dugout to high five me. “I told you, you could do it,” he said.

You’re never alone.

At the beginning of every talk I give about building a Performance Culture in banking—including the classes I teach at the ABA Bank Marketing School and ABA’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking—I ask CEOs, EVPs, SVPs and others who coach to think of someone that helped vault them to the positions they are in today. When I suggest they close their eyes and see the person, at the outset many find it soft and squishy. Then, they see the person in their mind. Some even tear up. I tell them my story about Coach Kalina, which helps them make the leap to what coaching, guiding, and mentoring can do for someone else.

See, the fact is that only you can do it, but you can never do it alone. There is always someone there to lift you up, push you forward and make you believe in you. That could be a parent, a teacher, a friend. For me it is Ron Kalina. Sometimes being in his presence was a reward and sometimes it was a punishment. But as many times as I have told him what a difference he’s made in my life, on May 13, right in front of those athletes that likely thought I had no chance to make the 1967 St. Edward baseball team, I plan to give him a big hug and tell him again.

Jack Hubbard is chairman and chief experience officer at St. Meyer & Hubbard, Inc. This year he returns for his 32nd year as an award-winning faculty member of the ABA Bank Marketing School and his 17th year as an instructor for ABA’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking. He is a popular teacher at Graduate School of Banking in Madison, WI and Southwest Graduate School of Banking, as well as the North Carolina School of Banking, the Perry School of Banking at Michigan State University, and the Pennsylvania Bankers Association Commercial Banking School. In addition to publishing regularly with industry periodicals, Hubbard is co-author of the bestselling book, Conversations with Prospects. He also serves on the board of directors of St. Charles Bank & Trust. Email: [email protected]. Twitter. LinkedIn.