My View from South Hill
Friday, September 18, 2009
What holds people together for over half a century in ties of deep affection and mutual respect? How do bonds between people remain strong even when they are physically scattered and no longer see each other on a regular basis?
Last weekend I attended a reunion of Ithaca College alumni who played together on the football teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, organized by John Fasolino '60, Guido Maiolo '59, and Mike Angelo '60. These gentlemen and their spouses have been getting together regularly for the last forty years, beginning about ten years after their graduation. Each time they gather, they find new and deeper meaning in their shared academic and athletic journey of fifty years ago.
This was no mere sentimental journey to the past, though there were certainly a lot of fond remembrances. The players spent Friday evening whooping and hollering at highlight films of their gridiron exploits. The needling was merciless when one offensive lineman moved before the snap, but was not caught by the official and ended up leading the way on a touchdown run. The action on the field looked like the plays a Bomber team would run today, but the facilities left something to be desired back then. These men recalled showering while still in uniform to rinse off the mud at halftime of a game played in a downpour, and huddling together in the back of a flat bed truck to ward off the late autumn cold on the long ride from the newly-built field on South Hill to the locker rooms in town. Dick Carmean '60, captain of the 1959 team, told how he and the Cortland football captain decided to buy the jug that still serves as the trophy in the Cortaca Jug game. Cortland captain Tom Decker – a childhood friend of Carmean’s – conned Dick into paying the full cost of the jug. Which means that the jug belongs to Ithaca!
But these alumni also gathered for a more serious purpose. On Saturday morning they stood at the Schenectady grave of their coach, Dick Lyon, along with Coach Lyon's children, Tim Lyon and Kathy Staak, and their families. Lyon came to Ithaca in 1958 to coach a team that had run through a series of head coaches in the previous decade, that had seen football players leave the program and the school, and that had produced a 2-5 record the year before. Lyon turned all that around his first year, drawing disgruntled players back to the team and ending the season at 6-1. Coach Lyon’s teams had winning seasons every year for the next eight years, until he left in 1967 to join the coaching staff at West Point.
Dick Lyon’s winning records, though, were not what brought players back to talk about him. Dom Pacio '60 was a bruising running back who transferred to IC from Syracuse University, which already had a running back named Jim Brown. Pacio, who had a huge reputation coming in, watched on the first day of practice as upperclassmen were given low cut cleats to wear – a new style of shoe that everyone wanted. Coach Lyon gave Dom a pair of high cut cleats. When Dom asked his coach why he got the high cut shoes, Lyon replied “You have to earn the low cut shoes.” Dom swallowed his pride and ran onto the field determined to show Coach he deserved the low cut shoes.
Larry Karas '63 worked his way up from the demonstration team in his freshman year (the squad whose job in practice is to mimic the offense and defense of the next opponent) to being the starter at quarterback in his junior year. A few games into the season Coach Lyon took Larry aside and said “You are always looking at the ground when I talk to you. I won’t start a quarterback who doesn’t make eye contact and show he is really listening.” Larry told me it was a watershed moment in his life, and he looked me in the eye as he told me this story.
These teams of the late 1950s included many veterans of the armed services, men who were often married and had young families. They had little money. Players with children were often invited to Coach Lyon’s house for Sunday brunch – in some cases the best meal they had all week. Years after graduating, players would get a call from Coach asking how they were doing, suggesting a coaching job they might want to apply for, and showing concern for their continued development in their careers and as men. Standing at his grave almost fifty years after graduating, player after player told of the thoughtfulness and the life lessons that Dick and his wife Helen had given them. If you had to boil those stories down to four words, they would be: “He changed my life.”
The bonds between Coach Lyon and his players were created because he cared for them, he held them to a strict code of ethics and behavior, and he challenged them to give their best in everything they did. When the IC Board of Trustees resolved to name the press box in Butterfield Stadium after Coach Lyon, they noted not just his winning records but that he had been “a steadfast mentor, role model and friend to hundreds of students.”
We have had just two head football coaches in the 42 years since Coach Lyon left Ithaca College, both of them very much in the mold he created. And we have 23 other varsity coaches at IC who are also described as life changers by their players. Our sports programs have never been, and will never be, just about sports.
Next » « Previous