Back in 1991 I applied for the job of head basketball coach at the University of Toledo. The job became open when the coach was let go. At that time I was Toledo’s associate head coach. A few years earlier, the same head coach had applied for a job at a higher profile school and, “as the saying goes,” reliable sources told me he was very close to being named there. Our director of athletics had advised me not to take a job I was going to interview for later that week, that I was in line to be the next head coach at Toledo. For reasons I won’t divulge now (because they violate confidences but, more importantly, because they have nothing to do with what this story is ultimately about), he didn’t get that position.
While not unheard of, it’s always difficult to become the head coach of a program whose coach was fired and of whose staff you were a member. Nevertheless, I was granted a first interview (with selected members of the athletics department) and I did very well. One reason I knew I had done so was a couple of my friends were on the committee and told me as much. But the main reason I knew was one question they had asked me (which I found out later from one of them) was designed to eliminate me from the search.
Our head coach was incredibly passionate, but equally difficult to work with on issues pertaining to our program. He would refuse to take no for an answer and couldn’t comprehend why anyone he was dealing with didn’t see things like he did. Through sheer persistence he usually got his way. The “loaded” question the group put forth to me was, “If you’re such a great coach, why didn’t you have any more influence on Coach,” to which I answered, “Each of you has dealt with him, how successful were you in getting him to see your point?” Empathy is a strong connector so, for the remainder of the first interview, I had won them over.
Our AD saw me in the hall the following day and said, “Hey, I’ve been hearing some good things about you.” My response was I appreciated the compliment and looked forward to impressing even more in a second interview. After a week the first round ended and, sure enough, I was invited for a second interview, only this one was to be with about a dozen people - and their significant others. I was the first (of six candidates) to be interviewed. Jane and I sat at one end with the AD and his wife. The table seemed to go on and on but, for those people who know me, projecting my voice is never an issue.
The session began with the athletics director asking what some applicants might have considered an embarrassing question. In any case it would be considered an off-the-wall inquiry which had absolutely nothing to do with any part of coaching. Its purpose was mainly to see if a candidate could come up with an extemporaneous, interesting response. Each of us have our strengths and quick wit happens to be one of mine. The question turned into a 3-5 minute monologue which, judging from the reaction of those in the room, played to rousing approval. The rest of the evening, including the end which saw the ladies go to one dinner location, while the men ate elsewhere, was a smashing success.
When Jane and I connected at home, I asked her, my biggest critic, how she thought it went. She said, “When you come home from a speech you gave somewhere and I ask you how it went, you say, ‘I killed it.’ I never really know if you did or if you just thought you did. Tonight, you killed it.” It took a week for the other five candidates’ second interviews. Jane and I were never more sure of my progressing to the final group of three. To say I was shocked and disappointed wouldn’t do justice to my feelings when the AD called and said I didn’t make the final cut.
After the new coach was named, I felt betrayed when I saw a quote in the paper from one of the coaches I’d asked to call for me (believe me when I tell you I had some really powerful coaches, ADs and people in basketball call on my behalf, having spent nearly 20 years in the business). I immediately called him and asked why he supported the other guy when he said he was calling for me. He told me he had called for me but was told by the AD I was no longer in the running after the first interview. Apparently, he found it too hard to explain to boosters and the fan base, many of whom didn’t know me, that the new face of the program was a guy from the same staff as the coach he’d let go.
Everything up to now was to set up this part of the story, which to this day amazes me - although not as much as it initially did. Fortunately for me, one of my former bosses (as well as one of my two mentors, the other one, ironically, from Toledo) had a job opening. One of George Raveling’s assistants at USC had moved on as a head coach and I wound up re-upping with George.
Literally, a week or so later I was in New Jersey evaluating out a kid from North Jersey for the Trojans. As always, I stopped by to visit first with my mother, then with my best friend, Frank, from my old days in Highland Park. I told Frank I was going to watch this kid play in the afternoon and wondered if he wanted to join me and then get something to eat.
“Aren’t you going to your reunion?” he asked. Although Frank and I were best friends, he had gone to a different high school.
Because I had moved 15 times after graduating from college, my class had lost track of me (or so the “secretary” of our class told me). I did the math and realized it was time for our 25th reunion. After Frank assured me it, in fact, was that night - at the Hyatt (he’d heard from mutual friends) - I decided to go. Back then, it was commonplace for coaches to wear jackets and ties (except in the summer) when recruiting. I evaluated the kid (which was difficult since I’d yet to see any of our SC guys play), went to the hotel, put on a clean shirt (with my blazer and slacks) and off I went - to see folks I hadn’t seen (and, shamefully, not kept in touch with) since we graduated HPHS.
My former classmates were as surprised to see me as I was to see them (remember, I hadn’t RSVP’d). Luckily, I had just gotten my new business cards and had a stack of them with me (a lesson Rav had taught me). When catching up with people you haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, naturally, one of the first questions asked is, “What are you doing now?” Time after time I was stunned when I’d give each former classmate a card and tell them I’d just missed out on being named the head coach at the University of Toledo.
When they took a look at the card which said, Jack Fertig, Associate Head Coach, USC Trojans, everyone of them - to a person - expressed the same reaction. Basically, it was:
“Man, are you lucky you didn’t get that Toledo job!”