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Archive for Sunday, June 9, 2002

Wives of coaches have always been taken for granted

June 9, 2002

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I think it was Henny Youngman who declared that behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law.

Maybe so, maybe not. But I'm positive about one thing: Behind most successful athletic coaches there's a marvelous, dedicated, long-suffering wife. From junior high on up. Think of all the great coaches wives we've seen, enjoyed and admired at the high school level here, for example.

Single coaches might make it on their own, but not most married guys. Too few of us regularly take into account what these women go through to back their fellas and help out those front-men who function notably and productively.

With the emergence of women's sports, there are good husbands behind the bench, like the spouse of basketball coach Pat Summitt of Tennessee. It's just that I'm more familiar with the guy-gal format.

The thing that reminded me of all this was a note that Adamarie Easton soon will be celebrating her 90th birthday with family and friends in Georgia. Her late husband, Bill, was one of the greatest coaches in track and field history  cross-country, indoor, outdoor, Olympics, the full megillah.

Ada had much, much to do with Bill's long string of successes, in athletics at Drake and Kansas, as a summer camp operator and in various businesses. With each always picking up where the other left off, they constituted an unofficial Easton Corp.

Same way with perky Pat Timmons doing so many things so well for husband Bob in all his outstanding tutoring years, so many of them at Kansas.

Basketball-wise, there was KU's fabled Phog Allen and his Gallant Bess. Along came successor Dick Harp and his multi-talented Martha Sue. Roy Williams and his beloved Wanda now hold forth.

There's often an interesting and heartwarming pattern of longevity here.

Football's Don and Del Fambrough were sweethearts virtually from adolescence. Del, whom we lost not so long ago, not only juggled the many assignments as a high-profile coach's wife. As a noted English pedagogue, she several times was voted by students as teacher of the year at Lawrence High. You didn't slip English blunders past Del.

Phog and Bess had a long and productive relationship. Dick and Martha Sue met when he was an Army sergeant at Fort Riley and she was a non-commissioned officer in the Women's Army Corps. They married in 1944.

Dick and Martha Sue handled the Wilt Chamberlain era and aftermath with poise, dignity, imagination and humor. Susie earned advanced degrees and became a topflight (she doesn't do it any other way) teacher. Dick promised her in '44 he'd do anything he could for her to complete her education. He did and she made it with honors.

Roy and Wanda are the equivalent of high school sweethearts who are more devoted to and appreciative of each other than ever. Williams is the king of sports around here in countless ways; he'd be the first to tell you that Wanda is the power behind the throne.

Never underestimate how much Wanda Williams has to do with the success of the KU basketball program, without which Jayhawk athletics would be a gaping black hole right now.

The marital conditions of some former KU coaches such as Glen Mason, Ted Owens and Larry Brown were not always perfect, but they got strong backing from good women at important times.

Consider the difficulty Lynn Allen had trying to keep things working well for coach Terry in football the past five years. Win or lose, coaches' wives pay heavy dues to help their men stand in the spotlight while they too often are underrated. Margey Frederick often made athletics director hubby Bob look pretty good.

I never knew a coach's wife more entertaining, or more attractive, than the incomparable Jeanne Mitchell, the blond bombshell who favored football coach Jack Mitchell with spousehood. Jeanne could wheel and deal with charm and style in a drawing room and later match barracks talk with the bawdiest. Man, she was fun, and nobody appreciated her more than genial Jack. Her loss was devastating.

Then there are aspects to the post-coaching period where the wives become even more important, and gallant. Ada Easton went through a difficult time as Bill slipped into senile dementia and then Alzheimer's. Typical Ada, she always had her head up and a smile on her face and made every effort to be sure Bill was happy even though he might not have realized it.

Martha Sue Harp went through a similar ordeal with Dick and did it such dignity and grace that few were aware of her many severe tests, made even worse because her health often was terrible.

Then there is something else about these women that lends so much to a sports program. The athletes grow so fond and appreciative of all the wives do for the kids that they keep in touch for years and years. Share delights and grieve in times of loss.

Don't know about surprised mothers-in-law but I do know a lot of good coaches never would have made it as they did without Big Mama riding shotgun on their bandwagons.

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