His baseball coach did well

On the mound was young John Kowalski, age 14. He had thrown between 10 and 12 pitches but had yet to throw a strike. Behind him a coach was standing. It was for good reason the coach was standing there for young Kowalski could throw a baseball hard and fast.

But the kid had issues: concentration and control. So the coach had to be patient. He kept talking — softly — making suggestions, uttering comments of encouragement.

Then, on the 15th pitch it happened — a strike! The coach’s persistence was rewarded — persistence that would later serve him well.

This coach was also a player. He played for Sporting Goods in the 16 inch softball league. The July 1, 1949 edition of the Alpena News reported that they had just taken over first place from Fletcher Paper. Johnny, “No hit” Cramer had made it two straight for Sporting Goods beating Ed, “Sawdust” Segorski. Securing hits for the winners were Jim Garant, Bill Mazany, Ralph Michley, and young Kowalski’s pitching coach – Bob Devaney.

In his autobiography coach Devaney stated: “I always thought baseball was my best sport.” But football made him famous.

Bob Devaney was Alpena High’s varsity football coach for seven years from 1945 through 1952. He left with a win/loss record of 52-9. After serving as an assistant coach at Michigan State for two years he became head coach at Wyoming. His record there was 35-10-5.

But it was during his tenure at The University of Nebraska that he became a football legend. Devaney’s record coaching the “Cornhuskers”was 82-18-5. They won the Big Eight title numerous times, the Orange Bowl five times, had two back to back no loss seasons, and were voted national champs twice. In 1971 – John Kowalski’s baseball coach – was named the top college football coach in the nation.

In 30 years as a head coach Bob Devaney never had a losing season.

What was coach Devaney’s secret? A combination of things, I suppose. But a hint of what may have been most important is revealed in his telling of scouting players in back roads Wyoming during late fall driving a car without a heater.

Persistence is what it was.

I can’t help wonder if the persistence Bob Devaney learned coaching John Kowalski wasn’t the foundation of his later success. I guess we’ll never know for sure but one thing is certain — Jack Kowalski remembers the day Bob Devaney was his coach.

Somethings we remember more clearly than others — where we were when 9/11 occurred or when our kids were born.

But it is with no less clarity that I remember when Jim Glennie — one of the league’s best players — drove a hard, fast grounder between me at Third and Dennis Bannasch at Shortstop.

Somehow — in a dive — I caught it in the web of my glove, followed the momentum through a 180 degree pivot, then sent the ball hurling to Jim Frantz at First beating Glennie by a fraction of a step. It’s a clear, permanent memory.

Alpena Township Catcher Bill McConnell has a permanent sport’s memory too – a numb finger. It went permanently numb after back-to-back games catching pitchers Jere Chaffin and Mike Dorn in 1959 County League play.

Always, when Alpena Township played Hubbard Lake it would be memorable. Pete Krentz, was a pitcher there; his brother Yogi, the catcher. Who won the most games? Seasoned observer’s memories lack uniform clarity and reports vary but Ron Smith’s hits in Alpena Township’s games would commonly clear the fence.

Other memories abide permanently with clarity having fielded no numbness. Some involve a process where our thinking seamlessly merges into a doing that takes us to being – totally alive. Times when our physical and/or mental commitment is so intense our lives transcend their usual limitations and repressions if only for a moment –but a moment we never forget.

Doug Pugh’s Vignettes run bi-weekly on Tuesdays. He can be reached via email at pughda@gmail.com.