It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Ed Flaherty grew up in the blue-collar town of Great Falls, Montana. By the time he assumed the role of team captain for the 1962 Great Falls Central Mustangs, life circumstances had already begun to make him a leader. Flaherty’s father juggled bills to put his boys through Catholic school, and his young son was forced to shoulder many of the adult responsibilities like cooking and cleaning. His mother suffered from debilitating depression, and he was often called upon to provide for his two younger brothers for long periods of time. Flaherty’s natural leadership abilities were honed by his two football coaches. Under their influence, he began setting the first of many life goals that would propel him to remarkable success.
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Jack Uldrich is a renowned global futurist, independent scholar,sought-after business speaker, and best-selling author. His books include the best-selling, The Next Big Thing Is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business, and the award-winning, Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis & Clark’s Daring Westward Expedition. His latest book is Jump the Curve: 50 Essential Strategies to Help Your Company Stay Ahead of Emerging Technologies.
Mr. Uldrich’s other written works have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Futurist, Future Quarterly Research, The Wall Street Reporter, Leader to Leader, Management Quarterly, and hundreds of other newspapers and publications around the country. He also writes a regular column on emerging technologies for “The Motley Fool” and is a frequent guest of the media worldwide—having appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and National Public Radio on numerous occasions.
In addition to speaking on future trends, emerging technologies, innovation, change management, and leadership, Uldrich is a leading expert on assisting businesses to adapt. He has served as an advisor to Fortune 1000 companies and is noted for his ability to deliver provocative, new perspectives on competitive advantage, organizational change, and transformational leadership.
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List Price: $19.95
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Lariat Companies, Incorporated (May 18, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
LIGHTING THE FIRE
Bill Mehrens’ and John McMahon’s Stories
May 2, 1955
Armed with nothing more than two letters of recommendation from his current and former college football coaches, Bill Mehrens, a soon-to-be graduate of Carroll College, a small liberal arts college in Helena, Montana, arrived in the office of Father Harold Arbanas, the principal of Great Falls Central Catholic High School. He was there to interview for the head football coaching position.
Located on the corner of Central Avenue and 24th Street in a neighborhood surrounded by modest middle-class homes, the school had opened its doors only five years earlier. In the aftermath of World War II, the influx of people moving into the area strained the city’s existing Catholic high school, St. Mary’s, and it was decided that a new, bigger school was needed. With the support of the Catholic diocese of Great Falls, the city’s numerous parishes and feeder elementary schools, as well as the assistance of the region’s three distinct congregations of religious women—the Ursulines, the Sisters of Humility of Mary, and the Sisters of Charity of Providence—Central strove to provide its students with a superior education grounded in its Catholic tradition. As Father Arbanas ran through this history—including a brief tutorial in which he elaborated on how the nuns at Central were still as tough and hardened as their predecessors who helped settle Montana in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century—Bill Mehrens, with his clear brown eyes and broad shoulders, sat erect in his chair and absorbed every word. He wanted this job.
Arbanas, a former championship figure skater with a solid, athletic build and a jovial air about him, then outlined his vision for the school and its mission. “My goal is to give our students the best high school education in the nation—bar none.” The way he said “bar none” told Mehrens that behind the priest’s friendly façade lay a man of great determination. “Most of our students come from hard-working families. Many parents are farmers, ranchers, or smelter workers. Most own only one car, and more often than not our students wear hand-me-downs because their parents are scraping by to just pay the tuition. They define prosperity not by whether they have a TV antenna on the top of their roof, but by whether their children go on to college—something that most of them could never even dream of.
“Regardless of where they come from, the priests, nuns, and lay faculty of Central see every student as equal, and we expect them to do their best.” Arbanas stopped and reiterated his last point by adding, “We expect every student at Central to succeed. Every child has a wealth of untapped or underdeveloped talent,
and it is our job as their teachers and mentors to tap into those talents and nurture them to their fullest extent—be those talents in the sciences, arts, languages, or athletics.
“But it is not enough just to provide them with the intellectual tools they need to succeed in this world; we must also develop their moral character in such a way that they can then apply their gifts to their surrounding community.
“As a former student at Butte Central and having attended a Catholic college yourself,” continued Arbanas, “I have no doubt that you are the beneficiary of a similar philosophy.”
“Yes, Father, I am,” replied Mehrens. “I’m also a product of—and a believer in—discipline. My parents were not of the ‘spare the rod’ school of thought, and neither am I.”
Arbanas smiled. “As are we, Mr. Mehrens. There is no doubt that our students need structure in their lives—and benefit from the same—but we are even more resolute in our belief in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Arbanas went on to discuss a little more of his philosophy before he turned to the purpose of the interview: to find a new football coach. “Tell me, why do you want to coach?”
It was the perfect opening for Mehrens, who, as always, was meticulously well-prepared. He had done his homework on Great Falls Central and took Arbanas’s question and ran with it.
“To begin, let me say that everything you have told me about Central fits perfectly with my own view of both education and athletics. As a coach, I see my job as more than just guiding the Mustangs to victory. Foremost, I expect—and will demand—that every kid do his best. I will demand excellence, and I will do my best to give my students and players the tools they need to succeed both on and off the field.
“The reason I want to coach is because I view sports as an excellent way to develop character. Kids need to have goals, and they need to understand that they are more than members of a team, as they are representatives of this community. And, as such, they have responsibilities to their community. They need
to understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the core component of success is hard work. They need to learn to give 100 percent in everything they do and then take pride in a job well done. Win or lose, if my kids work hard and give it their all, I will consider the game to have been a success.”
“I am glad you mentioned this notion of community,” replied Arbanas, “because it is vital to what we are trying to achieve here at Central. For the past few years, I have sensed students at Central have had this notion of being the poor stepchild to the town’s public high school. I want to rid ourselves of this feeling.
In fact, we will rid ourselves of it.” Arbanas’s conviction was resolute. “People are who they are, not because of where they come from, but rather because of where they are going. There is a big difference.
We here at Central care nothing about the former—and everything about the latter. We are what we make ourselves, and I intend to make every student a winner.
“Central is moving up from Class B to Class A in athletics this year, and I believe it will help our school’s image, but I want everyone, including the students who don’t play sports—either because they don’t have the talent or because they need to work after school to help support their families—to take pride in our programs and our school. As a coach, you can help send this message—often in a way that other teachers cannot.”
Arbanas wrapped up the interview by saying, “This is what I want to happen after our teams have defeated an opponent. I want the opposing team’s players, coaches, fans, and teachers to say, ‘Wow, we just got whipped by the better team...but aren’t they just the most respectful and classiest bunch of kids you’ve ever seen?’”
He concluded the meeting by taking Mehrens on a tour of the school and telling him that he would be in touch. The 22-year-old Mehrens thanked the priest for the opportunity to interview and, as he shook his hand, said, “I agree with your goals, and I know I can help you achieve them.”
Two days later, Mehrens received a call from Arbanas and was asked if he would like to be the school’s new football coach. Mehrens agreed on the spot. A one-year probationary contract was forwarded via the mail the next day. The contract was extended in 1956.
After notching two winning seasons in his first two years of coaching Class A football, Mehrens then led the Mustangs to its first-ever state championship in 1957. He repeated the achievement the following year, tying with Miles City for the championship. That same year he negotiated a five-year contract to stay at Central.
August 25, 1945
Anaconda, Montana, was a tough place to grow up in the 1930s and ’40s. The Anaconda Mining Company was the town’s big employer, and if the workers in the smelter went on strike—as they often did—most of the town suffered.
Early in his life, John McMahon and his family were spared the tougher hardships of strikes because his father worked at the Rocky Mountain Brewery—one of the few industries immune from the vagaries of a strike-inflicted economy, because beer was consumed in equal quantities in both good times and bad times in Anaconda.
In 1942, when he was just four, the family’s fortunes changed when McMahon’s father died a needless, although not uncommon, death. He succumbed to an ear infection that grew progressively worse due to a lack of penicillin.
With a world war raging and three young children to support, McMahon’s mother was forced to take a modest paying job as the Anaconda city treasurer. Times were tough, and later, after the war, whenever the miners went on strike and the town’s coffers dried up, the McMahons, like everyone else, were forced to buy their groceries through the local union hall.
The loss of his father had one positive outcome, however. It caused McMahon to seek refuge in sports at an early age. Sports, in turn, gave him an outlet and an identity. He began playing baseball at the age of seven and had a nickname slapped on him before he ever swung at his first pitch.
Back in the war years, Anaconda was the kind of town where almost everyone had a nickname—be it Bull, Red, Paddy, Moose, or Ox. And its kids played baseball the way it was meant to be played—on Saturday mornings without any parental supervision. Often, the only adult around was a college-aged kid named Ed Kalafat, who acted as umpire.
When McMahon stepped up to the plate for his first at bat, Kalafat, who later went on to play professional basketball for the Minneapolis Lakers, asked him who he was. “John McMahon,” he replied. Unsatisfied with his uninspirational response, Kalafat studied McMahon’s small, stocky stature for a moment and, on
the spot, decided he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Cisco Kid’s faithful sidekick, Poncho. As nicknames so often have a way of doing, it stuck. Sixty years later, McMahon is still called Poncho by his closest friends and associates.
As the summer weather faded and fall arrived, Poncho switched sporting allegiances to football. Due to his young age and small size, his mother was opposed to him playing football, but because she was preoccupied with putting food on her young family’s table, and because football was such a strong part of
Anaconda’s identity, she soon gave in to her son’s repeated pleas.
And so it came to be that in a small park, not far from Anaconda’s main mine pit, that Poncho McMahon received his first introduction to coaching. It was an experience that has stayed with him, and one that he counts among the most formative coaching lessons he ever received.
Poncho arrived for his first football practice full of boyish enthusiasm. His expectations were even higher because Hank Laughlin—one of the town’s best athletes and the kind of guy a young kid in a town such as Anaconda could idolize—had agreed to be the coach.
Laughlin began practice by calling for McMahon and the other boys to huddle around him. McMahon and his other wide-eyed peers rushed over and stood ready to absorb every nugget of Laughlin’s worldly football wisdom.
In a deep baritone voice, Laughlin said, “When I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it.” He repeated the statement with great force and added, “Do you understand?” The young players were still nodding their heads appreciatively when Laughlin barked, “Hit the ground!” The sudden and unexpected
directive stunned the kids, and they remained frozen in their upright positions. “I said, hit the ground!” This time every player heeded Laughlin’s directive and dropped to the cold ground.
As they lay there, Laughlin told them they were to get up only when he said they could get up. The boys were still in a semi-state of shock when Laughlin walked to his car and drove away. No one knew what to make of the situation—least of all seven-yearold John McMahon. A conversation soon commenced among the older boys. “Is he coming back?” one asked. “Yeah, he’s coming back...he’s just testing us,” replied another. McMahon listened intently as the minutes passed, and the older boys contemplated their next step. After a few more minutes, a consensus emerged that Laughlin wasn’t returning. Like prairie dogs cautiously popping their heads out of their holes after a close call with a predator, the boys began to stand up one by one. Just as the last boy had gotten up and was finishing wiping the dirt from his pants,
Laughlin’s car came screaming around the corner of the park. The coach jumped out of it and yelled, “Who said you could get up!”
No one dared respond, and Laughlin ordered the kids to hit the ground again. Everyone did as they were instructed. Laughlin then jumped back into his car and drove away a second time. For 15 minutes, the boys lay prostrate on the cold, hard ground until a similar conversation to the earlier one began. “He’s not coming back this time,” said one. “This is stupid,” replied another. Still, no one ventured to get up—Laughlin’s ferocity on the football field was legendary among the residents of Anaconda, and it didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that he was the kind of coach who wouldn’t hesitate to put a good lick on any kid who refused to follow his orders.
After waiting a few more minutes and scanning the environment to see if there were any signs of Laughlin, one of the older boys mustered the courage to get up. Soon the others followed. After a few disparaging remarks about Laughlin having taken a few too many hits to his head on the gridiron, the boys concluded that it was foolish to waste a perfectly good Saturday morning waiting for a coach who apparently had no desire to coach. They decided to split into teams and play a pickup game of football.
Just as they were lining up for the opening kickoff, Laughlin came barreling around the corner. This time his car jumped a small embankment and screeched to a halt a few feet from the boys. The skid kicked up a fine layer of black soot—residue from the town’s mines—and covered the players.
“Who said you could get up?” yelled Laughlin. “Didn’t any of you hear a single word I said? When I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it! And I expect you to do it until I say you can stop. If you can’t follow this simple rule, take up a different sport.” Laughlin was not smiling. He was dead serious and glowered at the ragtag collection of boys standing before him. He could care less that they were all less than 10 years of age. “See that backstop,” he then asked, pointing to a fence on the far horizon and about a mile away. “Run to it.” The boys took off like jackrabbits.
When the last player returned, Laughlin—for the third time—commanded them to hit the ground. Again, he departed. This time, though, no one dared move. No one said a word. A half hour later Laughlin returned and directed his players to get up.
“Now remember this,” he said, “when I tell you to do something—do it! If I tell you to block someone, do it until the whistle blows. Same thing goes on defense—you are to keep tackling until the whistle blows. I don’t care how many of your teammates are already piling on who has the ball. If the whistle hasn’t blown, stick your nose in there.” Looking around at the wide-eyed faces, he asked, “Does everyone understand?” Everyone nodded their heads. “Good. You’ve just learned the two most important lessons in football—listen to your coach and never quit.” Laughlin allowed his words a minute to sink in and then said, “That concludes our first practice.”
It was a valuable education, and over the ensuing months, Laughlin instilled in McMahon a number of other lessons, including a deep appreciation of the importance of fundamentals. He taught the young McMahon how to get into a proper stance, how to keep his head up, and how to anticipate things on the football field. Laughlin also convinced McMahon that even smaller and slower players could often outhustle and outplay larger and stronger opponents, provided they had the right attitude and were willing to work hard. They were all lessons that McMahon took to heart and later became core to his own coaching style and philosophy.
September 28, 1951
In his first four weeks of college football, Bill Mehrens had learned more about the game than he had in the previous four years. This was less a criticism of his high school football coach at Butte Central, who had honed his techniques and improved his skills enough to garner Mehrens all-state honors at the halfback position, and more of a tribute to his college coach, John Gagliardi, who, in spite of being only 24 years old at the time, already had five years of high school and two years of college football coaching experience under his belt. In 1943, after his high school team’s coach was drafted into the army, Gagliardi lobbied the school’s principal to take over coaching responsibilities. He was so successful that he was asked to stay on after he graduated.
Mehrens’ decision to enroll at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, had been predicated upon two separate and independent factors. The first was that he really wanted to work for the FBI and was under the false impression that a law degree was a prerequisite for a career with the agency. Since Carroll had the strongest pre-law program in the state of Montana, Mehrens felt the college provided him the best chance of achieving his goal.
The second reason he selected Carroll was because he knew that Gagliardi, in just two seasons, had taken the school’s football team—which school officials were seriously considering dropping because of a losing record and a lack of interest in 1949—and turned it into a winner. In 1950, the Fighting Saints won their first-ever conference title. Always competitive, Mehrens had toiled gallantly on mediocre teams in high school but was now eager to play for a winner.
When he arrived at the small liberal arts school in mid-August for the start of football practice, his introduction into what constituted a successful football program began immediately. “Practices start at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. promptly,” snapped Gagliardi before Mehrens had even suited up for the first time. “If you’re late, you don’t start. No excuses.” It was a lesson Mehrens watched Gagliardi enforce the first game of the season when he benched the team’s starting quarterback for arriving five-minutes late for a chalk talk the day before the game.
Mehrens’ next lesson came when he sneaked a peek at his coach’s clipboard before practice one day. Every minute of the two-hour practice was broken down into compartmentalized sections. Not a single minute was left unaccounted. It was a trait Gagliardi had himself picked up from Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy during a summer coaching clinic. Leahy, who was just coming off a perfect 10–0 season and a national championship in 1949, was also instrumental in helping Gagliardi land the job at Carroll by providing him a letter of reference. Gagliardi taught Mehrens the importance of wringing out every ounce of productivity from a practice. He even insisted that every player work on their specialties before practice began. If a player was a center, he was expected to be working on his snaps. Guards worked on their pulling techniques, and running backs practiced their footwork and handoffs. Anyone caught idle could expect to find himself either running laps or on the receiving end of a stern lecture—often both.
Mehrens soon learned that his coach had the first two weeks of practice precisely sequenced. Gagliardi knew he only had so much time to prepare for his first game, and he knew exactly what he wanted all of his players to know before their first game.
The next lessons followed in quick succession. First came the fundamentals. Gagliardi went over everything from how to get into a proper stance to how to make a proper tackle. These techniques were then repeated continuously until the players could do them in their sleep. It was Gagliardi’s policy that he didn’t want his players thinking about the basics during a game. He just wanted them done.
It would have been sufficient for Mehrens to have learned these lessons on the practice field under Gagliardi’s tutelage, but he had the added benefit of having them reinforced in the classroom. For his lone elective during his freshmen year, Mehrens selected a newly added coaching course offered by John Gagliardi. It was a fateful decision because it represented a slight detour from his well thought out plan to become an agent for the FBI.
The detour widened through a series of one-on-one discussions with Gagliardi over the next two years. In the early 1950s, Carroll College had a very modest budget for football. It was so modest that the team couldn’t afford a team bus to travel to away games. Instead, Gagliardi and the few upperclassmen who owned cars assembled a caravan and drove themselves.
In addition to hitching an old wooden trailer to his car for carrying equipment and supplies, Gagliardi usually got stuck ferrying the few underclassmen who were on the team as well as his assistant coach, Father Ray Hunthausen.
On Friday, September 27, 1951, the Carroll College Fighting Saints caravan set off for Vancouver to play the University of British Columbia. Mehrens made the most of the situation and plunked himself down in the backseat. Although Gagliardi was only six years older than himself, Mehrens knew enough to recognize that he was not only a winner but also a special and unique coach. He spent the better part of the trip picking Gagliardi’s brain. The themes of discipline, hard work, and repetition were constantly stressed, but Mehrens was surprised when his coach threw in a little psychology. Gagliardi told Mehrens that it was important to treat each player on an individual basis. “Some responded better to a kick in the butt and others to a pat on the back,” he said. Still others had unique life experiences that a coach had to consider. Gagliardi knew from experience what he was talking about. For the first few years of his college coaching career, it was not uncommon for him to be instructing war veterans who were attending college on the GI Bill and were older than himself. Regardless, Gagliardi told Mehrens, “You have to treat everyone fairly. No exceptions.” Often, the conversations were made more memorable by the philosophical and spiritual ruminations of Father Hunthausen, who, later in life, would go on to become the Archbishop of Seattle.
As memorable as those discussions were, what ultimately had the greatest impact on Mehrens was seeing Gagliardi’s coaching philosophy in action on Saturday afternoons—and sometimes before.
After the team arrived in Vancouver for its game against the University of British Columbia, Gagliardi caught the team’s starting tackle, a 26-year-old college senior who had spent two years with the Marine Corps fighting in the Pacific, smoking in his hotel room. Gagliardi didn’t allow smoking during the season and promptly benched the player, who also happened to be the team’s best and strongest lineman. Even late in the game with the score knotted at 13 and Carroll driving for what would have been the go-ahead score, Gagliardi refused to allow the player in the game. “The rules are the rules,” he said when the man pleaded to be forgiven and begged his permission to go into the game. Gagliardi didn’t budge, and it likely cost his team a victory. The drive stalled, and the game ended in a tie. The message, however, was received loud and clear by everyone on the team. No one is above the rules.
It was a lesson Mehrens learned himself the following Monday. The previous week in class, Gagliardi had assigned a paper. Due to the extraordinary length of the trip to and from Vancouver, Mehrens didn’t have a chance to complete the assignment. Because Gagliardi had been with him the entire trip, Mehrens expected his coach to grant him an extension and was shocked when he received an “F” for his failure to turn in his paper on time. Adding insult to injury, Mehrens was told that if he didn’t improve his grades he would not be allowed to continue playing football. “You’ve come to college to get an education, Mr. Mehrens,” Gagliardi said. “Football is a game. An education lasts forever. Never forget that.” Mehrens heeded his coach’s advice, hit the books, and stayed on the team.
Following the tie to British Columbia, the Fighting Saints went undefeated the remainder of the season and won their second conference title. The following year, as a sophomore, Mehrens, who was a four-year starter, helped guide Carroll to its third consecutive conference title.
The next year—1953—Gagliardi accepted the head coaching job at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he has remained the last half century. Over his career, Gagliardi has compiled the most victories in NCAA football history. As of the 2008 season, he had 461 victories and a winning percentage of .781.
In his senior year, employing many of the techniques Gagliardi had ingrained in him, Bill Mehrens had an outstanding year and was named to the 1954 Catholic Colleges All-American Football Team. However, it wasn’t on the gridiron where Gagliardi had his greatest impact on Mehrens. The lesson that most resonated with Mehrens was a simple one. Gagliardi always told him that “Ordinary players doing ordinary things extraordinarily well will win games.” He then added it was the coach’s responsibility for seeing that those ordinary players were taught this lesson and given the tools to do extraordinary things.
The advice led Mehrens to a new calling. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI would have to wait. In large part due to Gagliardi’s influence, Mehrens put his pre-law and FBI career aspirations on hold and decided to pursue a different, but no less promising, career. He became a high school football coach.
Armed only with a letter of recommendation from his current coach, Father Hunthausen, and his old coach, John Gagliardi, Mehrens received his first opportunity when Great Falls Central took a chance on him and offered him his first head coaching job in the spring of 1955.
August 21, 1961
Lieutenant Colonel William O. “Bill” Dickerson arrived at Father Arbanas’s office at 8 a.m. The tall officer cut an imposing figure. His Air Force uniform was immaculately pressed, his shoes spit-shine polished, and his bearing undeniably military. The two men shook hands, and the priest invited Dickerson to have a seat.
It was not unusual for many of the officers stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base to send their children to Central. Since Arbanas had taken over as the principal, he had practically willed the school to new heights by virtue of his forceful personality. In 1959, Life magazine had rated it among the 25 best high schools in America.
What separated Dickerson from the other officers who visited the school was the color of his skin. Lieutenant Colonel Dickerson was black. “I’m here because my family and I have just been transferred from Tokyo,” began Dickerson, “and I’m looking for a school for my daughter. I visited the public school the other day, and I didn’t like what I saw.” Arbanas said nothing, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the less than enthusiastic response Dickerson and his daughter received was likely related to their race. Great Falls had very few black families, and racism, while not prevalent, was not uncommon either. “I have every intention of seeing to it that my daughter receives the education she needs to attend college.”
Arbanas looked Dickerson in the eye and replied, “I—and the rest of the staff here at Central—have the same expectation.” Never one to dance around sensitive topics, the priest cut to the chase. “Great Falls Central is a Catholic high school. That means we are grounded in the teachings of our faith. My staff and I treat everyone the same. Let me be honest with you though. At the present time, we have no other black students.” Dickerson absorbed the news without reacting to it. “What’s your daughter’s name?” continued Arbanas.
“And what grade will she be in?”
“She’ll be starting her sophomore year.”
“Does she have any special interests?”
Dickerson contemplated the question a moment and then replied, “She’s a gifted speaker.”
Arbanas smiled. “It just so happens that we have an excellent speech and drama teacher here at Central. I’ll arrange for you to meet with Father Harvey Livix right after we’re through. He’s just down the hall. I can also guarantee you that for the next three years your daughter will be afforded the same opportunities as every other student at Central.”
“How do I know that?” replied the colonel.
“You don’t. I am asking that you take my word on it.” Dickerson eyed the priest skeptically. “Let me just tell you a short story that I think captures our attitude here at Central,” continued Arbanas. “Last year, we had a wonderful boy named Joe Lloyd. He was a senior, and he also happened to be black. Lloyd was a good student and a good athlete. He was a particularly talented sprinter. This past spring he was preparing to compete for the state championship in the 100, 200, and 440 sprints when our coach, Bill Mehrens, noticed that his spikes were worn out. On his own initiative and with no prompting from Lloyd or his family, Mehrens bought the boy a new pair. He didn’t do it because he felt obligated or sorry for Lloyd. He did it because he knew the Lloyds had sacrificed to send their son to Central, and he did it because he wanted to give Joe Lloyd the same chance his competitors had.” Arbanas paused and then added, “Coach Mehrens would have done the same thing for any other kid because—like all of us here at Central—he believes in giving our students the tools they need to compete...on the track field, in the classroom, and in life.”
Arbanas then walked Dickerson down to meet Livix. The following week Valerie Dickerson enrolled at Central.
March 16, 1962
Bill Mehrens had met John McMahon once before in Choteau, Montana. The meeting occurred the previous fall when both men were scouting an upcoming opponent. Mehrens was the head coach at Great Falls Central, and McMahon was a first-year assistant football coach at Billings Central, where he served as the coach of the junior varsity team and the varsity line coach.
The two were formally introduced by “Swede” Bushly, the assistant football coach under Mehrens, who happened to come from McMahon’s hometown. Things deteriorated swiftly after formal introductions were complete. McMahon gave Mehrens the cold shoulder, figuring he was there to do a scouting job. He
didn’t have time for idle chitchat. Moreover, he wasn’t the least bit interested in comparing notes with a coach from another school, especially the head coach of a rival school.
McMahon grunted something indecipherable about having work to do and arose from his bleacher seat and stalked away. “Poncho has always been an intense kid,” offered Bushly, trying to explain away his rude behavior.
“Is this his first year of coaching?” inquired Mehrens. Bushly replied that it was. Mehrens laughed and said, “He’ll learn the ropes soon enough and come to find out that we’re not out to steal his reports. Heck, he might even find that we can help him a little. How’d he get the scar? It’s huge,” said Mehrens, referring to the large slash across McMahon’s face.
“Car accident. Apparently, he and some buddies were driving home from Carroll for the Christmas holiday a few years ago and got into a severe accident. I forget the details, but I think the driver of the other car was killed. McMahon ended up getting something like a thousand stitches to his face.”
“Really?” said Mehrens before adding, “He’s a graduate of Carroll, huh?”
“Yeah, he played football through his senior year, but I don’t think he saw much playing time that year, because, after the accident, his head kept swelling whenever he put on his helmet.”
For the remainder of the game, Mehrens sat in the stands and did his own scouting. As he was filling his notebook with reams of notes, sketches, and diagrams of various offensive and defensive alignments, occasionally he would spot McMahon on the far sideline or in the end zone. He was impressed with what he saw. McMahon was studying the teams from a variety of angles and perspectives. Mehrens could tell he was the kind of coach who wanted to uncover every advantage to help his team.
The following month Mehrens encountered McMahon again. This time he was lined up on the sideline opposite him as his Great Falls Central Mustangs faced off against their Catholic school rival, Billings Central. Mehrens’ front line was the more physically talented of the two, but his Mustangs were worn down by Billings Central’s smaller, nimbler, and more aggressive line. Great Falls gave up two late touchdowns and lost by a single point. In reviewing the film afterward, it was clear to Mehrens that Billings Central’s line exploited the Mustang’s Split-6 defense and had benefited from superior scouting and some excellent coaching.
The third time the two encountered each other was in the spring of 1962 at the divisional high school basketball tournament in Billings. Both Mehrens and McMahon were assistant basketball coaches for their respective schools and were biding their time until their teams played in the evening’s later rounds.
Mehrens reintroduced himself to McMahon, who was easy to remember because of the large hockey puck-shaped scar that covered his face. Mehrens was pleasantly surprised to find him in a much more agreeable mood than the first time they met. McMahon even invited Mehrens to have a seat next to him.
He soon discovered why. Although John McMahon also coached basketball, it was clear that football was his true love. He would talk about it with anyone who would listen—any time of the year. Mehrens was no different.
“I like your team’s chance to win the divisional championship,” said McMahon, referring to the basketball tournament.
“Me, too,” replied Mehrens. “They call themselves the Running Runts.”
“I like it. You can tell your players are in excellent shape,” said McMahon, who although he didn’t really care for the sport, refused to take his eyes off the action on the court. His intensity and competitiveness was evident in the way he twisted the tournament program into a rod and smacked it against his left hand
whenever something displeased him on the court. “Height in basketball, like size in football, is overrated. I’ll take a well-conditioned team any day of the week. I noticed that most of the guys on your team are juniors and sophomores. Think you’ll have a good football team this fall?”
“I honestly don’t know,” replied Mehrens. “I’m only returning two starters. My line is going to be pretty green.”
“You can overcome that. Just make sure they’re in top shape when they arrive for the first day of practice and then pound the fundamentals into their heads. Next teach ’em how to get into a proper stance and how to fire off the ball. Just keep working on those things until they can do ’em in their sleep. Even if they’re
small, if they can get into the neutral zone first and put the defense on the defensive, they can control the line of scrimmage.” McMahon was now engaged in football, and there was no stopping him. “That was your team’s problem this year. You had some really big guys—they just weren’t quick enough. They
thought their size would be enough to control their opponents. It’s not. They needed to work on their quickness. They needed to learn how to anticipate things and make adjustments.”
Mehrens didn’t like hearing this critique from the younger coach, but he had to admit that McMahon was right. The offensive line on his 1961 team was almost as big as the starting line for the University of Montana, but he couldn’t maximize their potential. Part of the problem was that his current assistant coach, Bushly—who also happened to be the head basketball coach—was more interested in and more knowledgeable about basketball than football. He simply wasn’t grounded in the finer techniques of football.
Mehrens, however, was never one to lay blame elsewhere. “I agree,” he replied. “We had some other problems as well. Our seniors just didn’t assume leadership...and that was my responsibility. You said earlier that you’d take a better conditioned team over a more talented team. Well, I’d take a team that has some leaders who know how to get their teammates to work together over one filled with talented, individual stars.” McMahon concurred, and for the remainder of the weekend whenever their teams weren’t playing on the court, the two football fanatics found each other in the bleachers and talked shop. They didn’t know it at the time, but each had found a gridiron soul mate.
Swede Bushly’s decision to retire from coaching was not unexpected. He was getting older, and his seniority earned him the right to focus on his true love—teaching science. When his 1962 “Running Runts” captured the Montana Western Divisional basketball championship, he decided it was time to call it quits on all of his coaching responsibilities. Mehrens wasted little time lobbying Father Harvey Livix for his help in hiring a new assistant football coach.
Mehrens was confident that he would find a receptive audience in Livix, who in addition to his responsibilities teaching speech and drama had also been asked by Father Arbanas to focus some of his attention toward improving Central’s extracurricular and athletic programs. Livix jumped at the opportunity, and in his first year he and Mehrens had struck up a solid friendship that was based in equal parts on their shared faith, love of football, and commitment to excellence. Livix, with Mehrens’ assistance, reinvigorated the Mustangs’ football booster club, the Roundtable, by hosting an end of the year event in which he used his impressive networking skills to land some of the games top keynote speakers. In 1960, he brought in Frank Leahy, the former Notre Dame coach.
Mehrens had told Livix: “Harvey, I need a football man for my assistant coach. I have a great deal of admiration for Swede, but if we want to compete for a championship, I need a guy who knows football inside and out.”
“I take it you have someone in mind,” replied Livix, who appreciated not only Mehrens’ passion for football but his competitive drive. He was also impressed with how Mehrens used sports to reinforce the school’s mission of preparing Central’s students for life beyond high school.
“I do. There’s a young coach at Billings Central. He’s got an economics degree from Carroll College, so he can teach, but he also—”
“Knows football,” said Livix, completing the sentence for Mehrens.
“The guy really knows football.” The enthusiasm in Mehrens’ voice was like that of a small child describing to his parents the gift he most hoped to receive from Santa. Livix promised to speak with Arbanas about the matter. Arbanas, who had only recently been informed by the Archbishop that he was being sent to Billings Central to turn around that school, allowed Livix to conduct the interview.
Mehrens called McMahon and sounded him out about the job. Because Mehrens was only offering him a comparable position, McMahon said he would consider it only if the pay was better. On the spot, Mehrens offered him the possibility of living with him for the entire year. “It’ll save you close to $500 a year in rent...you’ll have your own room in the basement and the run of my house.” It was a gutsy move, especially since Mehrens hadn’t yet cleared it with his wife, Shirley. McMahon remained noncommittal,
but at Mehrens’ insistence he agreed to don his best suit and drive to Great Falls for the interview.
Father Livix had been thoroughly briefed by Mehrens on McMahon’s football prowess, and based on his own inquiries into his teaching performance at Billings Central, he knew he would probably offer him a job. Livix was confident enough in his skill as a negotiator that he could convince McMahon to accept the
job. But before he made McMahon such an offer, he wanted to get a sense of who his newest teacher and coach was as a person.
“So why do you want to teach at Great Falls Central, Mr. McMahon?” asked Livix to start the interview.
McMahon took a moment to size up the solid, crew-cutted priest before responding. “Let me be honest, Father. I want to coach football. I understand my primary mission is to teach. I have a degree in economics and am happy to teach that course or any other subject for which you think I’m qualified, but my career goal is to become a head football coach.” McMahon was unsure of how the priest would react to his honesty, and in the ensuing silence he tugged at the thin black tie that was uncomfortably laced around his large, thick neck. It was clear McMahon was not a guy who either enjoyed wearing a suit or would ever look entirely natural in one.
Livix was instantly taken with his forthrightness, but he still wanted to know what made McMahon tick. “And why is that?” he asked.
McMahon pondered the question for a moment. By his nature, he wasn’t a reflective man. He was more emotional, and football was his passion. It just made sense to him to follow his passion, which was evident in his response. “I love football. I love everything about it. I love the contact. I love the hard work, the discipline, and how players have to work together as a team.” He then stopped, but it was clear he wasn’t done answering—he was thinking.
“You know,” he said, continuing, “my dad died when I was four. Sports—especially football—was all I had. I wasn’t a big guy. I wasn’t a particularly fast guy, but I had a coach who convinced me I was a football player...and because of that I think I’m a better man. The discipline I learned on the football field helped me make it to college—and I’m the first person in my family to have done that. And the toughness he instilled helped me survive my accident. There wasn’t a day I didn’t think I’d make it through that ordeal, and I’m convinced it was my experience as a football player that helped me persevere.
“So I guess I’d say I want to become a football coach because I think that’s where I can do my best teaching, and because it is where guys like me—guys who don’t have all the tools or who aren’t necessarily book smart—do their best learning. I believe I can reach kids on the football field...kids who might not be able to be reached anywhere else.”
“I see,” replied the priest. He did not let on that he was deeply impressed by what he had just heard. Nor did he share with McMahon that his own father had died when he was young and that he had benefited from a teacher much like McMahon. “If I were to offer you the position, you will need to conduct yourself within the spirit of the Great Falls Central. Our primary mission is to provide our students with the academic and spiritual tools they’ll need to achieve future success.” McMahon nodded his head in agreement. Continuing, Livix said, “I agree with what you said about the values that football can instill in young men. But I also think some coaches these days go too far. Young men need models, not critics. Too many coaches lose focus on what’s truly important. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as competitive as you, and I want to win. In fact, I expect Great Falls Central teams to win. But as I told Coach Mehrens when I came here a few years ago, I will not sacrifice either the values or principles of this school to win a football game. I want the students of Great Falls Central to win at the game of life.
“Let me put this another way, John. The Bible says that ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.’ Does that make sense?” McMahon had prepared himself to answer questions about his coaching skills and his teaching experience, but biblical and philosophical questions were beyond his scope. He began tugging at his tight collar when, much to his relief, Livix let him off the hook by speaking again. “What I’m saying is that it’s fine to be tough on our players, but I want you to remember at all times that you aren’t just here to make them better football players—you are here to transform boys into young men.”
Livix knew that McMahon did understand, and he knew that his understanding came from the best source—personal experience.
Now that Livix knew he had the right coach and teacher, he wasn’t about to let him out of his office until McMahon had accepted the position. Aware that Mehrens had already invited McMahon to board at his house, Livix felt he still needed to sweeten the $2,500-a-year job offer a little. “If you commit to the job today, I’ll give you a onetime bonus of $500.” Livix didn’t have the money yet, but he always subscribed to the “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” philosophy.
McMahon’s eyes lit up at the prospect. He had been ready to accept the position before Livix even made the extra offer because he wanted the opportunity to coach under Bill Mehrens, who had already won two state titles. He quickly extended his meaty, calloused hand to the priest. “It’s a deal,” he said.
“Welcome aboard, John,” replied Livix. “You’ve made a great decision. I know that you already know that Bill is an excellent football coach, but I want you to know that he is an even better person. And, to my mind, the two go together.
“I want to tell you a story about Bill Mehrens because I think it captures this point. A few years ago, we had a freshman by the name of Frank Kohanek. He was a big, strong kid. Probably weighed 240 pounds and was 6'3" in ninth grade. I mean the kid was huge. But he also had some real problems at home. His mother died when he was seven or eight, and his father took to the bottle too much. Sometimes when he came home late at night, he’d take it out on the kid.” Livix’s voice tapered off. If there was one thing he despised it was bullies, and when confronted with such people, the force of his otherwise warm and magnetic personality could grow stern. “Well, to make a long story short, Kohanek dropped out of school his sophomore year and enlisted in the army. He was only 16, but because he looked like he was 21, he had no trouble getting in. He served two years, and then last summer he returned to Great Falls. The first person he called was Coach Mehrens. He told him he wanted to return to school. Kohanek also wanted to know if he could still play football. Since he wasn’t yet 19, Mehrens told him that he could.
“On the second day of practice, Mehrens arrived for practice at 6 a.m.—he’s always the first to arrive and the last to leave—and he was surprised to see Kohanek’s old, beat-up car on the street outside the school. He went over to investigate and found the kid asleep in it. Turns out Kohanek had no home or family to go to when he got out of the army. That day after practice, Mehrens took him aside and invited him to live with his family. At first Kohanek declined, but Mehrens told him it was not an invitation—it was an order. He told Kohanek that the only way he’d let him play was if he agreed to the arrangement.
“I’m telling you the story because I want you to know the kind of man you’ll have the pleasure of working with. Coach Mehrens didn’t have to do that. He just did it. The great coaches don’t just see their players for their athletic skills and talents, they see them as people.”
August 16, 1962
Father Livix made good on his promise to find an additional $500 to lure McMahon from Billings to Great Falls by finagling it out of a more well-to-do member of the Roundtable. With the money, McMahon could have easily afforded a small apartment in town, but he still chose to take Mehrens up on his offer to live in the basement of his house because he wanted to save up enough for a down payment on a home of his own some day.
McMahon moved in with Bill and Shirley and their two daughters on the evening of August 15, 1962. The next day, Amos Alonzo Stagg, football’s most famous coach and the “grand old man of football,” turned 100 years old. Mehrens saw a mention of the milestone in the Great Falls Tribune while reading the morning paper and used it as an occasion to talk with his new assistant coach about the upcoming season. The pair would soon find that they didn’t need any such artificial prompts to talk about football. It would soon be all they would talk about at meals—much to the consternation of Mehrens’ wife.
“Look at this,” said Mehrens, pointing to the article. “Coach Stagg is turning 100 today.”
“No kidding? I’m just lucky that I’ve made it to 23,” replied McMahon with a laugh. His infectious smile reached up toward the massive curved scar in his forehead and appeared to make a full circle on his face.
“I’ll be lucky if I can survive this season,” added Mehrens. “I’ve already told you our line is going to be pretty green. What I haven’t told is that we’ve lost our starting quarterback for the first two or three games of the season. Gary Wolf broke his left arm last month. Our backfield still has a lot of potential, but now our line will have to work that much harder.”
Mehrens then did a little coaching of his own on his new assistant coach. “I don’t know if it was Stagg or my old coach at Carroll College, John Gagliardi, who said: ‘If you accept a boy as he is, you’ll make him worse. If you treat him as though he is capable of becoming something more, you’ll help him reach that higher capability.’” Mehrens paused and then added, “But that’s what we’re going to have to do this season. We’re going to have to convince our boys that they are capable of becoming champions.”
“That’s why I’m here,” replied McMahon.
August 17, 1962
The bluish-purple mimeographed letter, produced with the help of Bill Mehrens’ wife, had arrived in the mail of all prospective Mustang football players two days earlier. It directed the players to report to the school gymnasium on the evening of August 17. The recipients of the letter were reminded to bring $2 for a mouth guard—a relatively new safety device mandated by the Montana High School Athletic League for the first time in 1962—and a jock strap. Scholarships were available for those who could not afford the fee. The letter concluded with a reminder that each player was also required to donate two white towels to the locker-room kitty.
By 4:55 p.m., 70 boys were seated in the bleachers. Each was aware of Mehrens’ legendary penchant for punctuality, and none wanted to risk being even a second late, especially for the first meeting of the year.
At precisely 5 o’clock, Bill Mehrens and the new assistant football coach, John “Poncho” McMahon, entered the gym and walked to the front of the seated congregation. Looking like an older version of James Dean, except with a flattop haircut, Bill Mehrens began with a few welcoming remarks. His firm, authoritative voice then dropped a note as he turned to the business at hand.
“Football is more than just a game,” he intoned, scanning the eager, anxious faces before him. “It is about life. It is about life because football teaches us that even people of limited talent and ability can play. It teaches us that if ordinary players do ordinary things extraordinarily well they can become champions. More important, it teaches us that because we’re a part of a team, we have an obligation to play to our highest ability—not just for ourselves, but for our teammates.
“It’s my job as head coach to get all of you to play to your highest potential. Once Coach McMahon and I have done that, it’s our responsibility to get you to come together as a team—a team whose sum is greater than its individual parts. And when we have accomplished that, it is our job to give you the confidence to succeed on your own.” Standing ramrod straight, with his solid gray T-shirt, clipboard, coaching shorts, and Converse sneakers, Mehrens looked every bit the high school football coach that he was. “But it starts with a decision: Do you want to contribute? If you do, you will contribute.” Mehrens stopped to let his words sink in. “Let me make this as clear as I can. It’s not complicated. If you want to contribute, I will find a spot for you on this team.” Mehrens again stopped to survey the faces in the bleachers. He
held his gaze on the long, angular face of Greg Steckler for a second longer than everyone else. He was surprised to see that the quirky and somewhat rebellious senior had decided to go out for football.
“You might be slow, you might have limited skills...but if you stick your nose in there, I promise you, you will get better, you will play, and you will help this team.” Mehrens repeated the last phrase. “And you will help this team.”
His gaze moved. It came to rest upon the wide-eyed, thin shouldered, 135-pound frame of John O’Rourke. Due to GaryWolf’s injury, Mehrens had only recently informed him that he would be his starting quarterback for the first game of the year. “As coaches, it’s not just our job to make you better football players. It’s our job to make you better people. And that is precisely what Coach McMahon and I intend to do. The next two weeks are not going to be easy. In fact, this entire season isn’t going to be
easy. But few things in life worth pursuing ever are.” Mehrens’ eyes moved on. They settled on Glenn Fish, whom Mehrens expected to challenge for a starting position at guard. “But you will find over the course of this season, if you work hard, persist, and keep your nose to the grindstone, good things can—and will—happen.
“But the first trick to having good things happen is knowing what good things you want to happen. And the first step in that process is to set clear, firm goals. Before the beginning of our first practice this Monday, I want everyone to write down their goals for this team as well as your own personal goals on the 3x5 card that is being handed out.” He nodded to John McMahon, who efficiently divided up the cards and handed a stack to each player seated in the first row.
“Pass ’em to the person behind you,” McMahon grumbled. It was the first time any of the players had heard the new assistant coach speak, and his deep, raspy voice seemed to fit perfectly with his scarred face. His vocal cords sounded as though they were bruised.
“My only request,” added Mehrens, “is that you set the bar high. I want your goals to be realistic, but they should also challenge you.”
Next, the 1962 Mustang football playbook was handed out. Over 60-pages thick, Mehrens stated that he expected every player to know every play for his position. For those who had grown up in the Great Falls Central feeder system and played grade school football at the likes of Ursuline Academy, St. Thomas, St. Gerard’s, Our Lady of Lourdes, or the handful of other Catholic schools, it wasn’t as daunting as it looked. Mehrens had successfully woven his offense and defense into the grade school system, so that by the time they reached high school most of them came with a solid base of standardized knowledge. Still, the addition of a number of new plays together with Mehrens’ admonishment that there was to be a graded quiz—with punishments meted out in the form of laps and sprints for every incorrect answer—caused even the seniors to thumb through the contents of the fat playbook with a look of dread.
For the remainder of the meeting, Mehrens ran through his expectations for every player on the team. He began by reminding them that football was like life in another important way. “There are boundaries on the football field, just as there are boundaries in life. And I expect every Great Falls Central player to abide by the rules of this school and by my rules. Any player late for practice or a game will not start and will not play until the second quarter. No exceptions,” said Mehrens, looking at Wally Berry, the team’s star fullback.
Mehrens then informed the players that the Friday before every game he would conduct a comprehensive quiz to assess their knowledge of specific blocking and running assignments. The only acceptable score was 100 percent. Any player scoring less than that would not start. Again, there would be no exceptions.
“Everyone is expected to know his job!” said Mehrens.
He concluded with a warning that his players were to accord themselves to the highest standards at all times. “Remember, you are representing this school. Any action on or off the school grounds not in keeping with those standards will be grounds for disciplinary action and, possibly, suspension or removal from the team. This includes maintaining at least a ‘C’ average in every class.” And unlike the inflated grading systems prevalent at so many schools today, a “C” average at Great Falls Central in 1962 required real effort.
Only at the very end of the session did Mehrens take a moment to introduce McMahon. The new assistant coach remained silent. All he did was tilt his head to acknowledge that it was he about whom Mehrens was talking. For most players, an introduction no longer seemed necessary. They felt they had learned everything they needed to know about their new assistant coach from hearing his gravelly voice and feeling the glare of his intimidating stare. For the last hour, McMahon had simply glowered at them with a look that seemed to say, “I can’t wait to get you on the football field.”
Upon the conclusion of that first session, there was a general consensus among the players as they quietly talked among themselves after the session—well out of the earshot of either coach—that the new assistant coach seemed to represent a new and decidedly tougher era in Great Falls Central High School football.
They further agreed that Coach Mehrens was setting a higher standard for this year’s team. They had little idea how right they were. Both coaches were preparing to light a fire in their players that would not be extinguished.