April 6, 2015

Greg Clink, head coach of the Division II Chico State Wildcats basketball team, must have been exhausted. 

His regular season had ended more than a month ago, yet here he was, again at the Senior Banquet having to work a different kind of floor. He seems to enjoy it, though, and has the glow of a man who not only realizes that he has been blessed but is grateful for the blessing. Clink talks to parents and thanks them for their support. His neck must be sore from bending down so much as older women whisper into his ear. 

Acker Backers, the fans that are official season ticketholders and athletic boosters of Chico State basketball, ask about his next recruiting class. Clink tells them in a tone that sounds as if he's filling them in on a secret, giving them just enough information to make them feel like they know a little more than the average fan. 

At the banquet, alumni and boosters speak softly of "Greg." The name "Greg" sounds like December snow falling on pine needles. Sports fans like to call their heroes by their first name. No, forget about like — they need to call them by their first name. They want to get close to the untouchable, and for many basketball fans, coaches are untouchable.

Most top Division II programs like Chico State reside in small town America. Since the teams do not get television exposure, the only way folks in the community ever see the coach or the players is if they go to the games. If they don't go to the games, then the folks in the community might be standing in line next to the coach while checking out at the grocery store and not even realize it. 

Clink says that after the Wildcats won the West Regional in 2014, he noticed that a lot more people were watching him. "We were in the news so much that spring. People I'd never seen or met before were following us and would come up out of the blue and congratulate me." The fan gets that same kind of excitement seeing a coach out and about in public as a schoolchild gets upon seeing his or her teacher out in public. Fans and schoolchildren are similar in this way; they find it hard to believe that someone whom they respect so much is subject to the same daily grind as they are. ​

GRADUATION RATES FOR COACH GREG CLINK'S PLAYERS ARE WELL ABOVE 80 PERCENT, AND [PLAYERS] GRADUATE WITHIN FIVE YEARS." 

And that's the thrill that Division I basketball fans who fall upon their knees and wash the feet of a one-and-done freshman, those fans who call their big shot seven-figure coach by the first name when that coach has his eyes set on a bigger job in a bigger town, will never feel. The only time Clink's student-athletes are one-and-done is if they leave the team for personal or academic reasons. 

This rarely happens in his program. In fact, while NCAA Division II basketball rates are around 46 percent, the graduation rates of Clink's basketball players is well above 80 percent and within five years. 

What a strange sensation it must have been for the Wildcat players as they arrived at the Canyon Country Oaks club for the Senior Banquet, this country club a glimpse into a life they might one day have, a reminder in the present of what little they have materially. But what they lack materially they've made up for with their physical gifts.  

A private golf club that on this one evening of the year is open to these young men who otherwise would be turned away for not being members. However, they are members of a club that money cannot buy: to join this club, character is the most important commodity for entrance. The players, dressed in their Sunday finest, or trying to veil their Sunday best in the fashion of the big dance that will happen later that night at The Graduate, a college bar in town, walk past men smoking cigars and reclining in golf carts, strut past pretty women in matching springtime pastels and putting on manicured greens. 

The players walk up the stairs. They turn to look at the rolling green hills behind them  —that verdant, vibrant green grass that is the promise of their future and the reminder of their present struggle. Carts are lined-up in front of the green as the players watch a foursome put. The players' jaws work, their eyes squint, and they crane their heads to watch the competition out on the course. This is how the moneyed compete when they can no longer jump and run and shoot: golf.

These young Chico State basketball players have plenty of time and days ahead to play golf, but only when their bodies are worn out from a life time of scrambling for loose balls on a hard floor, nerves tested and steely after a lifetime of whistles being blown in their ears and one coach after another screaming his head off and telling them what they have to do to get better. 

Across the banquet room, Clink pauses and stares out the big glass window looking out into that sloping sea of green lawn that washes upon the shore of the 19th hole. Maybe he's thinking it is an ocean, but an ocean far away from the landscape of college basketball, an ocean with real waves, the salty kind that smell of seaweed and ocean life, a salve to assuage the cuts and bruises and broken bones of a season on the grind, a season that began long before he wore a wedding ring, long before his three children arrived, a season that began when he was first introduced to the game of basketball in a California town called Morgan Hill.

Clink will take a vacation soon, though. He will have a small sliver of time before mid-June and the month of July when he will kiss his wife and children goodbye and head back into stuffy summer gyms, back into airport hangars that have been converted into mega-gyms, back to looking for the best players that scholarship money mishmashed with federal student loans and grants can buy. 

But even then, when he is with his family on vacation, allegedly far away from the hustle of recruiting, and the responsibility of keeping 15 young men walking a straight line, the strain of keeping fans and alumni and boosters content and hopeful, he will have his phone with him. Someone will have his number. Someone will text him when he's out to dinner with his family. Someone will Tweet while he's walking on the beach with his wife at sunset. 

Clink might be out bodysurfing with his kids, but from the ocean he will be able to see his beach umbrella. He can see the brightly colored towel and his bag of beach gear. He can see his wife reclined and drinking something fruity and losing herself in a book. He can also see his phone. 

Clink cannot help but think about the text or the voicemail message from that recruit he has sent a letter to every few days, the kid who is almost perfect yet flawed enough that he might choose a high-flying Division II program like Chico State rather than a down-in-the-gutter Division I school. It always occupies his mind. Basketball is in his blood, a coach with an insatiable hunger to win.

Excerpt used with permission of Carson D. Medley. Medley's book can be purchased at ThroughtheRedDoorBook.com.