Stories Behind the Curtain

By: Rob Assise

This past Memorial Day weekend, our track and field program raised the boys’ team state track and field trophy for the first time in school history. It was special watching the athletes we have the privilege to coach do what they did all season – put on a show! While it was something that I really enjoyed watching, and was visible to all those in attendance, I also found myself reflecting on the events which took place behind the curtain. I am writing about those so I do not forget about them, and I am sharing it because I think they matter just as much.


Ubuntu – “I am because you are”

On Saturday, we sat in our traditional spot up high in the bleachers just south of the press box. Nate Beebe’s (our head coach) family was in attendance. Numerous times I heard Nate’s son Aiden asking his dad how he was doing. You could see the concern he had for his father on his face. I also observed Aiden silently put his hand on his dad’s shoulder a few times. This made me reflect upon the support systems we have as coaches and the amount of sacrifice our profession causes others to make. However, they are willing to do it and provide support through it because they know how much it means to us.


I have seen many people step away from coaching in order to spend more time with their own children/family. In fact, I stopped coaching a sport in the fall many years ago to do just that, so I am not passing judgement on anyone who chooses to do so. Everyone’s situation is unique, and it is up to each individual to deal with their circumstances the best they see fit. That being said, in reference to my situation, one of the reasons why it is extremely important for me to stay in the game is for my children to see me serving others, particularly ones who have a different appearance than they do. I am fortunate to have an incredible village which allows me to do this, starting with my wife and immediate family, and extending to working for an accommodating head coach and having wonderful neighbors. The Zulu word “ubuntu” translates perfectly, “I am, because you are.”


Work that Matters

Upon returning to campus late Saturday night, I was part of two interactions that were a reminder of how important athletics can be to a person. One student-athlete said, “I cannot believe I am here. Two years ago, I had nothing going for me. Then I got involved in track, I got my grades together, I kept it going senior year, and here I am, a state champion.”


Another student-athlete shared how much he appreciated the atmosphere we provided. “No matter what I had going on, practice was a place where I could come and dial into a task. I can’t emphasize how important that was for me.”


There has been a big push in Illinois for social emotional learning (SEL). In a staff conversation last year, Brian O’Donnell (our distance coach), pointed out that efforts should certainly be made to address SEL in school, however, there is absolutely no substitute for the SEL which occurs in athletics and activities. The highs and lows involved in athletics and the resulting experiences create unbreakable bonds. Coaches, the work is hard, but it is work that matters. In those hard times, recall all the great work you have done and stay strong!


Stay Humble

Shortly after a firetruck escort back to campus and a celebration with parents and colleagues, we were back to our typical post-meet routine as coaches. Putting away equipment, picking up garbage on the buses and sweeping them clean. Truthfully, I found it refreshing. I will not bore you with the details of the non-glamourous part of coaching high school sports (many of you are already in it), but I offer the thought that maybe the grunt work is a contributing factor to keeping the majority of people in high school athletics grounded.


“The Hardest One to Win”

One of the best parts of coaching track and field are the people you meet along the way. A huge portion of this consists of athletes – for us it is 40ish new faces each year. However, another significant part are the coaches and officials that stay in the journey with you for more than four years. Five years ago I wrote a reflection of our program’s 2018 state runner-up finish. The lead came from a quote by former Thornwood head coach and official Gary Haupert, “I don’t care what anyone says, the track team title is the hardest one to win out of any sport. There is so much that has to go right, and there is even more that can go wrong.”


I have had the fortune of sharing a golf cart with Coach Haupert many times over the years. He probably does not even realize it, but the man oozes wisdom, and I have tried to soak up as much as possible. One of the big takeaways I’ve had from him is to always keep the focus in-house. In track and field, it is easy to get caught up in the performances of other athletes and programs – every performance is registered and ranked. Keeping up with it can be exhausting. The past two seasons, I have taken that to heart with the idea that every moment I spend looking at rankings could be better spent reviewing video or reflecting upon the what the athletes I coach need. In the grand scheme, I have been relatively clueless about other programs, but the service I have provided to HF athletes has improved substantially.


On Saturday after the meet, we stopped in Rantoul for McDonalds, and I received a congratulatory text from Coach Haupert. I immediately thought back to his quote of it being the hardest one to win, and then my mind went to how the “outsiders” who you share the journey with can play such an important role. I am in the debt of so many people who have graciously shared their time and advice. I know everyone reading this has people who fall in this category. My challenge to you is to let them know how much you appreciate them!



The end of the school year is always hectic since the end of track and field coincides with it. Despite looking at a calendar on my desk every school day, the dates really did not register. The calendar just served as a checklist of things to get done prior to heading to the state meet. On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, I looked at my watch, and it told me it was May 30th. My first thought was, “Holy (crap), I forgot to wish my parents a happy 45th wedding anniversary,” which I then realized was on Saturday, May 27th, the day we won state. I called my mom and she said, “Thank you, and it is okay, you were kind of busy.” I takeaway two points from this situation:


1.  Consider yourself lucky if you have work you can get lost in.


2. While my parent’s 45th and our state title were two separate points on a plane in my mind for a moment, I am happy that they have folded together to the same point – two reasons to celebrate May 27th moving forward! Wormhole for the win!


“The hell you enjoy”

At this point, we probably do not need any reminders, but coaching is hard. In a conversation with a neighbor a couple years ago I explained to him that I was tired because I arrived home from a track invite at 1:30 a.m. and headed back to school for another one at 6:30 a.m. He wondered why I would put myself through that. My response was a quote from a friend of mine, “A big part of life is finding the hell you enjoy.”


The work with athletes is a driver of what makes coaching enjoyable, but a huge part of it is also those who you are working with. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with so many great people during my 20 years of coaching track and field. They have picked me up, kept me grounded, made me laugh, and kept me curious. This season was no exception, and some of my favorite memories from this weekend occurred when our staff was just hanging out in the dorms at Eastern Illinois University, listening to Tom Petty and debating important topics like whether Mick Jagger sang back-up on Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain.” This was a reminder that if you find yourself in a situation where you get to work with great human beings working towards a common goal, the work, which can be hell, becomes a lot more enjoyable. 

The Reason

Ultimately, the reason why we get to tell stories is because of the athletes we get to coach. Track and field is often a cruel sport. The state meet produces more instances of heartache than joy, and despite raising the team championship trophy at the end of the meet, we certainly had some of the former during the weekend. I am thankful for the athletes who have the courage to put themselves out there. Track and field does not allow anyone to hide, and because of that, I truly believe it provides lessons which go beyond the field of play.


All that being said, it was special watching the crew celebrate on Saturday. Plainfield North assistant Andy Derks hit the nail on the head, “I love watching your guys cheer for each other – infectious culture you guys have built.” While we can take some credit for this as a coaching staff, the primary driver of culture remains, and always will be, the athletes.