Authors: Steve Sullivan
A black baseball team had a game in the park where the class D teams played. The ball
field was near the school gym. The showers in their bathhouse didn’t work. The solution
was simple. I talked with their coach and told him they could use the showers in the
high school. He was hesitant. I guess he knew a whole lot more about racism than I
did. He understood the implication of that act. I didn’t. I convinced him it wasn’t
a problem. He told me they didn’t need to shower. I now realize he was probably trying
to protect me. I took a stand and they got clean. As they walked out of the locker
room each ball player made a point of shaking my hand and thanking me. I was surprised
because I thought it was no big deal. I was wrong.
Next morning, the chairman of the school board was knocking on my door and she was
mad. “Come with me,” she commanded. I obeyed. We went to the store and bought soap,
detergent, and disinfectant. We went back and scrubbed the showers. For an hour I
got to listen to her tirade. It was personal. Her son played on the high school
team and the last thing he was going to do was shower where a nigger had used the
The next day I was counseled about being color-blind. I decided it was time to leave.
I could hear Roswell, Georgia calling my name. I took my daughter and headed out.
It was 1954 and I was back at work. I coached football and track. I raised my girl
and enrolled in a master’s program.
Experience had taught me good and bad fortune usually arrives unexpectedly. That sure
was the case. One day I was working in the student center, when the most beautiful
girl in the world walked up and asked me a question. Her name was Betty Watson. Looking
at her my heart began to thump. My tongue got tied. I was having trouble getting the
words out. She gave me a pass.
I’d seen Betty around and on a few occasions heard her talking about sports. I figured
that was my ace in the hole. Roger Bannister had just broken the four-minute mile
so I played that card. She responded enthusiastically. I asked her some other stuff.
She had answers. It turned out she was an athlete. Her life centered on sports and
games. In ping-pong when Betty was my opponent I got killed. She could fish. I’d bring
in a minnow and she would hook a whale. There was nothing she couldn’t play and nothing
she couldn’t do.
I’d never met a woman like Betty. In the south, at that time, if you wore a dress,
sweat was a sin. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. She was beautiful, smart, funny,
generous, and best of all she had pants and sneakers too. We started thinking about
a future. She told her parents she’d met a guy. They were overjoyed. She explained
I had a child. They were underwhelmed. I could understand it. Like any parent
they wanted the best for their daughter. Becoming a wife and mother on the same day
could be tough. Maybe for someone else but not for Betty. She had the biggest heart
I’d ever seen.
She said she’d be my wife. The next day we went to the courthouse and tied the knot.
The date was July 11, 1955. Her parents weren’t happy. It wasn’t that they didn’t
like me it was just that they could see trouble ahead. They were right.
We went back to Roswell. I had my hands full coaching everything in sight. One day
she told me she would take the girl’s basketball team off my hands. I let her have
it. They got better. I can tell you a thousand things that made Betty special or I
can tell you one. She was the most enthusiastic person I’d ever met. And it was that
enthusiasm that made others excited.
We were a team. Betty was my wife, lover, confidante, and best friend. I didn’t know
how I had gotten to that point without her. One day she came home with a smile on
her face. She said she was hungry. I asked what she wanted. She replied, “A pickle
and a shake. Put a little Tabasco on top.” Nine months later she delivered Angela.
The date was August 19, 1956.
An opportunity opened up south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Betty and I talked about it
and decided it was time to go. In 1960, we moved to Alexandria, Virginia. It was a
major step for us. It was a different world. Being next to Washington, D.C., we thought
we were in the center of the universe. It was nice that they didn’t roll up the streets
at noon but there was a cost associated with that. Alexandria
was much more expensive and we had a hard time making ends meet. But in her typical
Betty Watson fashion she kept all the balls in the air while I worked on my career.
I had a job at Hammond High School teaching and coaching. Hammond sat in the most
prestigious part of Alexandria and if the kids I coached didn’t have silver spoons
in their mouths it was because they were getting dry-cleaned. Initially I coached
track and the junior varsity football team. I was having success doing both. We were
raising our two daughters and things were moving on.
Betty got pregnant again. A lot of things have been said about me over the years;
good and bad but nobody has ever said Bill Yoast couldn’t make kids. Sheryl arrived
February 5, 1962.
It was 1964 and my football team had just gone undefeated. I decided to go home early
one afternoon and celebrate with Betty. When I arrived she wasn’t there but I could
hear some loud music coming from Bonnie Jean’s room. I was surprised because she should
have been at school. I knocked on the door and walked in. On the table, a container
filled with incense was burning to the beat of a Hari Krishna drum. I didn’t give
it much thought. I asked her why she was home and she told me she was sick. I gave
her the benefit of the doubt. Given that she was acting like her distracted teenage
self I decided I’d leave her alone and go celebrate the season with a glass of milk
and some cookies. In retrospect it was a terrible decision.
Her act of generosity has never been forgotten. When I became a coach a few years
later, I decided to buy a letter jacket for at least one athlete who couldn’t afford
it. Sometimes I bought more. Mrs. McDonald started a tradition. Now the first black
captain in the Florence police force, Spencer Butler, does the same thing. In 1990,
I went to visit Mrs. McDonald. I showed her the sweater she gave me in 1942. It was
an emotional reunion with tears filling her eyes as well as mine.
I don’t know anybody who has ever achieved anything that didn’t question what they
were doing. It’s what makes responsible people responsible. Self-assessment provides
a compass that can keep you outta the swamp. In 1966, I found myself in the middle
of the Okefenokee. Surprising in that my football teams a couple years earlier had
run a string to 20-0.
The ’66 season that was to be . . . never was. The ticker tape parade took place on
foreign soil. I was up to my neck in crocodiles and all of them knew my name.
It was during this period I started to have marital problems. I knew I was working
too late. My nerves were frayed. I talked with an edge. Stress had stolen my smile.
One day the papers arrived. Betty wanted a divorce. I was despondent. I thought we
could work it out but I didn’t know the depth of the problem. A while later we showed
up in front of the judge. His frown could sour sugar. He read the decree. As he looked
at my wife you could see the sympathy in his eyes. He looked at me with a scowl.
“I’m in agreement with Betty, Bill. Any coach who can’t win “The Big One” doesn’t
deserve a wife.” I looked at Betty and asked her to give me one more chance. Her smile
told me she would.
I wanted to blame someone else. I thought fate had done me wrong. And then one day
I looked in the mirror. It didn’t help. A mirror only reflects what’s on the outside.
I knew to fix the situation I had to get at the core of who I was. Failure may not
be fatal but it sure hurts. I wanted the pain to go away. I figured there were two
things I could do—placate my ego with excuses or fix the problem. I took the less
I have to confess. I was surprised by my approach. I decided to open my mind. Math
teachers are known for precision. Science centers on being exact. There is no maybe
in two plus two. Coaching is a different issue. Alternatives abound. Could it be what
made me a digital wizard hindered me as a coach?
I pulled out a pad and began my search for the Holy Grail. I began to write down everything
that came to mind. Nothing was off limits. At the top I had headings. Coach, Leader,
Teacher, Parent, Priest. On the side I had Actions. In the middle, Reactions. I had
arrows and numbers. Within minutes the page was filled. On to page two. More scribbling.
More notes. Successes. Failures. Examples. Role Models. Input. Output. My mind raced.
On to page three. Two days later I’d filled the pad. I went to the fridge and grabbed
a Coke. I lit a fire and sat down. I wasn’t getting up until I figured out what went
As I looked at the chicken scratch and tried to find meaning amidst the mess, I went
into a state of shock. I couldn’t believe it. The words jumped off the page. No, it
can’t be true. Yes it is, I concluded. I’m not as dumb as I thought. And then I remembered.
I didn’t get the job because I’d been a loser. I scrutinized my past. It looked pretty
good. Two years earlier the Mayor asked to bronze my whistle. Miss Alexandria wanted
to drink Gatorade from my cleats. I was feeling better.
I gazed at the words and found meaning everywhere. Sure, fate had not been kind, but
I’d also made mistakes. The good news was they could be fixed. With some modifications
and a little luck, Yoast would be back. Glory Hallelujah.
If you didn’t know it, your responsibility as a coach, or parent, or priest, or teacher
is no different than any leader. Intuitively, I’ve always known that leadership played
a role in achievement. The luckiest kids are those that get to grow up under leadership.
From the very beginning they are directed, counseled, nurtured, and guided by someone
who cares. They’re encouraged to extend themselves. They are put in situations where
there is an upside and downside and asked to perform. They’re challenged to excel.
than not they do. As a result, confidence grows. And the confidence that comes from
testing yourself and winning manifests itself in a variety of ways—none more important
than the creation of energy. People that are well led are filled with energy. They
are excited, enthusiastic, and optimistic. Children that are blessed by leadership
know that anything is attainable.
As young men and women came into my life I could tell almost instantly which ones
had a leader in their life and which ones didn’t. Kids that had been well led were
up for anything. All I had to do was make a suggestion and they were after it.
On the other side of the coin, kids who had grown up without leadership were less
open, less adaptive, and more hesitant. Coaching them is where I earned my pay. Making
them better was when I felt the best.
Leadership at times can be overwhelming. There are many who think about leadership
and see icons. They visualize countries on the march and armadas preparing to do battle.
Some believe there isn’t anything small about leadership. I think they’re wrong.
Leadership has nothing to do with size or scope. Believe it or not most results start
at the bottom and work their way up. The performance of a thousand little groups determines
the performance of the parent. World War II was won with a lot of little teams shooting
rifles. Great companies are made on the assembly line and in customer service. Forget
to put the screw in the widget and it will be felt across the country. Five people
answering the phone correctly are how reputations are built.
Most of the championships I’ve won did not come from anything notable. An undetected
effort in the middle of the line sprung a running back free. One effort by one player
made the difference and the rest was history.
So if you are thinking you have to come up with something profound think again. Think
small and if things aren’t working out, think even smaller.
Little stuff counts.
There is a common thread that runs through every leadership action. All leaders have
a goal and that is to produce results. Leadership involves doing something. Leadership
involves accomplishing something.
Leaders are called many things and you can add catalyst to the list. Leaders are a
catalyst for generating emotion because emotion is at the heart of elevating performance.
Your MO as a leader may require that you be smart, aggressive, creative, humble, clever,
disciplined, courageous, empathetic, or invisible. In a leader’s bag of tricks there
are numerous tools to get people excited. Excitement creates energy and energy creates
One year while coaching track I had to place two runners in the top four to win the
state meet. One of them, David Sullivan, had never run the 440. I knew he was a competitor.
I went and told him I thought he could beat my ace 440 man, Jasper Kirk. He liked
the sound of that. I went to my 440 guy and told him I couldn’t believe what I just
“What’s that’s coach?” he asked. “David just told me he could beat you in the 440
and he doesn’t even run the 440.” I could see the fire in his eyes. “Bring him on
coach,” he replied. They finished one and two and we took the title. Who won? The
When people are well led they do amazing things. They do incredible things. They do
unexplainable things. They will give their life for their leader and have no regrets.
If you are going to get your team to a higher level of accomplishment don’t hesitate
to ask for more. Don’t be afraid to demand more. That’s your job. I’ve never met anyone
who didn’t want to do better. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t appreciate the person
who made them a success. Since the beginning people have responded to leadership but
there are some things about leadership that the non-leader doesn’t understand.