#MakeLove — Inspiring Messages From a Coach

Published on October 16, 2015

Good coaches inspire their players, but Jerry Wainwright takes it a step further. Mr. Wainwright, a longtime Division I college basketball coach, sends about 300 to 500 handwritten notes each week to former players, as well as many coaches and managers. He’s been doing it for 30 years.

It would be easier and cheaper to email or text. But Mr. Wainwright, 68 and now associate head coach at California State University, Fresno, says he prefers to hand-write his notes, which often accompany a carefully chosen quotation. Writing takes time, which is the point. “I love getting a personal letter because I know what went into sending it,” he says. “It’s such a great compliment.”

Barry “Slice” Rohrssen, associate head coach at St. John’s University, received his first letter in 1991. The latest envelope arrived the other day. Usually they include a joke, a practical tip on basketball and a motivational quote, such as: “The team of entitlement never wins titles.”

“I’ve kept them all,” says Mr. Rohrssen, who met Mr. Wainwright at a basketball camp decades ago. Mr. Rohrssen recently filled a second 1,000-page binder with Wainwright notes and posts some on the locker-room door for his team.

Mr. Wainwright’s letters followed Mr. Rohrssen to six different universities in four states and to the Portland Trail Blazers development-league team in Idaho. “He has kept up with me and been with me throughout my life journey,” says Mr. Rohrssen. A few years ago, Mr. Rohrssen was fired as head coach at Manhattan College. During that time, he says, he turned often to his binder of Coach Wainwright letters. One letter contained the quote “Successful leaders create environments where people connect.” Below, Mr. Wainwright wrote “Slice, you do this.”

Mr. Wainwright began coaching in the 1970s, first at the high-school level in both Denver and in Chicago, where his team was among the final “sweet 16” teams in the state tournament. For years, he ran Five-Star, a respected national high-school basketball camp, and worked among such players as Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas and coaches including Bobby Knight and John Calipari.

Although Mr. Wainwright loved developing young high-school athletes, he remembers watching an elated North Carolina State coach running across the court after an upset national-championship win in 1983 and wanting to be part of the collegiate world. He got a chance the following year, when he was named assistant coach at Xavier University in Cincinnati. In the 30 years since, he has been assistant coach at Wake Forest, Marquette and Fresno State universities, and head coach at three, NCAA Division I level colleges: DePaul, Richmond, and University of North Carolina Wilmington. In his 16 years as head coach, he led his teams to seven postseason tournaments.

Scott Wainwright, now a high-school basketball coach, was playing for his dad at UNCW when he began getting a daily message on what he needed to focus on. His dad, he soon learned, left 15 different notes in 15 different lockers. “It was not one message to the whole team,” says Scott. “ ‘I want to share with you what Michael Jordan did as a sophomore in college,’ ” his dad might write, and then explain, says Scott.

When the players or Coach Wainwright moved on, the notes continued and ended up in offices, gyms and locker rooms across the country. A few years ago, Scott was visiting high schools in North Carolina to recruit players for a community college. He walked into the office of a coach he had never met and saw four of his dad’s letters taped to the wall.

“As I started traveling, it was pretty cool to see how many people get them,” says Scott, who receives several packets weekly, including plays and shooting drills for his own team.

Mr. Wainwright wakes early, sometimes at 3:30 a.m., and spends about 1.5 hours a day writing to keep up his correspondence, which has mounted over the years. When his team is on the road, he brings along stationery, envelopes, stamps and addresses. If he knows someone recently lost a family member or is going through a divorce or illness, he looks for an appropriate passage in his big three-ring binders, which are divided into subjects including “leadership” and “loss.” He dashes off notes to some people daily. Others might receive big envelopes every few weeks with a dozen or more articles and notes he has been putting aside for them. Occasionally, people write back. More often, they call or text.

Mr. Wainwright doesn’t use the Internet, but he is typically reading about 15 books. When he comes across something he likes, such as James Brown’s line “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready,” he jots it down.

Sometimes what touches his recipients is less the motivational quote than the effort it took to write and send a personal and often affirming note. “That someone is taking the time to impact your life, after all these years, is really quite special to me,” says Peter Rudman, college basketball producer at ESPN.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Rudman received several notes in the mail. One included a quote about problem-solving and a note: “Pete—I hope you and your beautiful family are well and happy. You are a problem solver!”

Mr. Rudman read the notes to his son, 12, who is nearly the same age Mr. Rudman was when he played basketball for Mr. Wainwright at Illinois’s Highland Park High School during the 1980s. He takes pictures of his favorite notes and keeps them on his phone so he can easily pull them up.

Mr. Wainwright plays down his endeavors. “It is just a way to communicate with people who are special in my professional and personal life,” he says. “Maybe there’s an easier or more meaningful way to do it.”

He benefits, too. The day he was fired as head coach from DePaul in 2010, he says he received about 300 phones calls, many from the people who receive his letters. They repeated the same advice he sent them: Don’t forget the worst way to feel is to feel sorry for yourself. “It’s not about winning. It’s about who you are when you win and lose.”

Soon thereafter, he was diagnosed with cancer. It was a difficult time and he found that the quotes he was reading and sending to others were messages that he himself needed to absorb about the importance of maintaining perspective.

He has also developed close relationships with people who might otherwise be passing acquaintances, including Kelly Church. A high-school basketball coach in Hedgesville, W.Va., Mr. Church brought his team to Mr. Wainwright’s basketball camp about 25 years ago. Soon, the single father of twin boys began receiving mailings. Coach Wainwright, who had been divorced and has two sons, sent not only articles on team cultures but also notes commending Mr. Church on the job he was doing raising his sons. Mr. Church, whose father died when he was 9, began calling Mr. Wainwright when he needed help.

A year ago, one of Mr. Church’s best players broke his leg, which in a small school has a huge impact. Mr. Church had never had a losing season and called Mr. Wainwright for advice. “I’m worried,” he recalls telling Mr. Wainwright. “You should be. You’re not going to win very many games. And it’s going to be difficult,” he remembers being told.

Mr. Wainwright added that Mr. Church and the team would get through it and be better because of it. “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” read a quote Mr. Wainwright sent.

The other day, Mr. Church received a letter with a quote about fully living each day. “Kelly—You make the most of every day. That’s why you’re my guy,” Mr. Wainwright wrote. Mr. Church is compiling the letters in a book for one of his sons, who wants to be a Division I college coach.

By Clare Ansberry – Wall Street Journal

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