The acclaimed Coach Billy Fitzgerald has retired.
He is known, far and wide, simply as “Coach Fitz.” His forty-year career as coach and teacher has left an extraordinary mark.
I would have followed his work with great interest no matter how it initially came to my attention. Through serendipity, it came to my attention early.
Coach Fitz led the athletic program at the small, independent school from which I graduated, Isidore Newman.
Coach Fitz on Management
Coach Fitz was immortalized in the bestseller, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life, by Michael Lewis. Lewis, a Newman graduate, was transformed by his experience as a baseball player under Coach Fitz.
Among the quotes from Lewis’s works:
—”Fitz has made my kid a better person, not just a better athlete. He’s taught him that if he works at it, anything he wants, it’s there for him.”
—”The breaking of things was a symptom; the disease was the sheer effort the man put into the job of making us better. He was always the first to arrive and always the last to leave, and if any kid wanted to stay late for extra work, Fitz stayed with him.”
—”We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same. When I came home one day during my senior year and found the letter saying that, somewhat improbably, I had been admitted to Princeton University, I ran right back to school to tell Coach Fitz. Then I grew up.”
As Lewis at once recounts and exemplifies, Coach Fitz taught science, and he coached sports—but his real subject was creating character in young people embarking on the high seas of life from the berth of a cosseted community.
Ripples of Influence
You might be wondering at this point: Is the writer about to descend into humble-brag? Will he replay his high school athletic triumphs as part of his tribute to Coach Fitz?
Not hardly. Not even close.
My high school athletic attainments were, to put it charitably, undistinguished. Even under his peerless tutelage, any no-hitters I might have rang up would have been far more likely from the batter’s box than the pitcher’s mound.
Nonetheless, I have followed Coach Fitz’s career with admiration from afar. I’ve observed the bright lights of his teams’ accomplishments. I’ve heard the stories of now grey-haired men, still fueled by the influence of his inspiration.
He was able to effectively manage spectacular talents who emerged. They include the Manning brothers, Randy Livingston, and Sean Tuohy. Each counts himself among Coach Fitz’s most dedicated admirers.
Coach Fitz’s influence goes much further. Michael Lewis, and many others who were schooled by Coach Fitz, might not have achieved sports excellence. Nonetheless, they learned individual excellence. They learned how to serve a team, looking beyond themselves. They learned how to put defeat behind them. They learned not to rest on the perilous laurels of success.
An Ecosystem of Excellence
When I reflect on Coach Fitz, I see him as the hub of an ecosystem of excellence.
One of the early influences on his career was his legendary predecessor, Coach Edward “Skeets” Tuohy. Isidore Newman School, which Coach Fitz served for four of its eleven decades, is itself an incubator of excellence. Fitzgerald and Tuohy improbably molded championship athletic teams from the soft clay of a school justifiably recognized for excellence in the classroom.
Coach Fitz brought the athletic and academic together. He is renowned for inculcating his young charges with wisdom from sources as diverse as the Stoics and Viktor Frankl.
In a time when excellence is unsettling and character education is under challenge, Coach Fitz persevered in upholding high standards. The intervention of helicopter parents might provide a welcome respite for students buckling under the weight of Coach Fitz’s unrelenting expectations.
And yet, when the same young people face the ever rising reality of smart, tough, hungry competitors from New York to New Delhi, the rigors of that preparation may be seen in a new light.
Sustainable excellence, in any endeavor, draws upon one’s life and work, renders them one. That is the essence of an integrated character, of integrity. Coach Fitz’s leadership project might be seen, from one vantage point, as reconciling an Athenian breadth of vision with Spartan determination.
This is admirable in any time and place. In the 21st century, when the role of coach is increasingly recognized as an archetype for leadership, it holds inspiration for anyone prepared to seek it out.
Well played, Coach Fitz. Your influence, your ecosystem of excellence, reaches further than you could know.
Coach Billy Fitzgerald | An Ecosystem of Excellence