There it is again: the hardy sports-page perennial, the age-old story of a wizened Division 3 college coach who knows how to win, win, win. He's got a boatload of prizes to prove it. His colleagues don't understand why he hasn't moved on to a better school or a bigger team, after 34 years at the same small college. His players can't come up with a single negative thing to say. And, of course, the coach doesn't know what the fuss is about.
This standard-issue tale turns up today in the form of a Tom Donnelly profile on page B14 in the newly-buried sports section. He's the cross-country coach at Haverford College, and this one has a twist: Donnelly takes his prizes and ribbons and statues and tosses them in the Mississippi River, or at least the local garbage dump.
Usually, however, these kinds of heartwarming sagas come with a truism or two that helps explain the coach's success. We're supposed to learn a little something about how to motivate young men and women to victory -- whether by intimidation or cajoling or some other unique talent that justifies the attention.
Not so with Bill Pennington's 1,268-word feature. It has no examples, no anecdotes, no yarns from years past. Instead, the reporter (who once covered pro football for the Times) is content to quote friends, students and even Donnelly spouting the most generic of platitudes about how to win. Instead of learning anything about his coaching style, we discover these non-illuminating details:
Donnelly is a voracious reader of history books.
Donnelly thinks "being a truly committed member of a team" is important, "not some trophy."
Donnelly devotes pre-race pep talks to Civil War battle trivia.
Donnelly recruits high-school students with handwritten letters.
Donnelly takes kids out into the woods with a flashlight to instruct them firsthand in the old adage, "There's no 'i' in team." (Maybe he has it carved into a tree.)
None of this explains what makes Donnelly, in Pennington's words, a "spiritual running guru." Pennington fails to include a single salient detail about his method or approach. Instead the reporter commits that standard sin of letting others "tell" the story through meaningless quotes. The interviews hint at a good story but don't reveal it:
“No one would have predicted the success Tom has gone on to have at such a small school like Haverford,” [former Haverford track star Kevin] Foley said. “For a team to place high at the N.C.A.A. cross-country championships, you have to get five guys to be among the top 50 finishers. So with about 500 men at Haverford, Tom has to get 1 percent of the male student body to be among the country’s best 50 runners. That’s insane.”
Reporters too often forget that their job is to shed light on what we don't already know. That Tom Donnelly is a winning coach is old news. What might have made the story worth telling is how he got that way, and what we can learn from his example. The only lesson of Pennington's piece is that when it comes to looking for an original story to tell about a college coach, winning isn't everything.