Initially, sports and war seem to go hand in hand, what with football’s use of the blitz, bomb, shotgun, and suicide squads (special teams).
A baseball player with a strong arm is said to have a cannon or a rifle. An unanswered serve in tennis is an ace. Woody Hayes, former Ohio State football coach, fashioned himself a field marshal.
And even though the British have long held that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” for practical purposes, the comparisons between sports and war end with the terminology.
As Brea-Olinda High School basketball Coach Gene Lloyd, a former Marine, said, “I don’t tell our kids when we play a game that ‘it’s going to be a war out there’ because it’s not. It’s a high school athletic competition, not a war.”
What Lloyd and several other current and former prep coaches in Orange County have in common is a background in the military.
Lloyd did not see combat, but others such as Bob Lester, El Modena football coach, and John Dahlem, former Loara wrestling coach, did.
What is unusual about all these coaches is not that they have carried over some disciplines from the military to coaching--they have--but that their collective experience has, they say, tempered their approach to coaching.
If you’re expecting these veterans to be latter-day versions of their drill instructors from boot camp, forget it. If anything, they’re especially mindful to treat their charges not as soldiers, but rather as high school athletes.
They are, however, shaped by their common experiences and what these coaches have to say about their military experience highlights a background accounting for their current attitudes about coaching:
Recognized as one of the county’s best wrestling coaches, Dahlem retired from Loara High School following the 1983-1984 season to pursue his administrative career. At Loara, Dahlem’s teams won 10 league titles with his 1983 squad winning the Southern Section 4-A championship.
Today, Dahlem, 41, is the summer school principal and an assistant principal during the rest of the year at Savanna High.
An avid outdoorsman, Dahlem has run in triathlons and his office wall is covered with photos taken while climbing Mt. Rainier and Mt. Whitney.
One small black and white photo, however, pictures a decidedly younger Dahlem--with short hair and wearing combat fatigues--during his military years.
Dahlem is shown receiving the Bronze Star, one of the nation’s most prestigious combat medals. Dahlem’s Bronze Star came as a partial result of a battle in which a rocket-propelled grenade hit the patrol boat he was on, causing shrapnel wounds in his back.
A 1961 graduate of Santa Monica High School with an undergraduate degree from Oregon and a masters degree from UCLA, Dahlem was a company commander in Vietnam in 1968 at the age of 23.
That many Vietnam veterans have had trouble readjusting to society has been well documented, but Dahlem is one who left the war in the jungle.
With prodding, however, he readily recalls the time when he couldn’t brush with toothpaste or use aftershave because the enemy might smell it in the jungle; or when helicopter gunships, the smell of napalm and phosphorus, Claymore mines and concussion grenades were the order of his day.
Dahlem’s boat company, based in Da Nang, was responsible for patrolling coastal and inland waterways and occasionally ferried Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land commandos) into North Vietnam.
Dahlem was Captain of the Army’s 329th Heavy Boat Company, stationed in I Corps, close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Vietnam.
Basically, I never regretted anything I did in Vietnam on a personal basis and I never regretted going. I was extremely proud if it and I’ve always been proud of it, but for a while there I didn’t tell a lot of people that because it wasn’t the thing to say. So you might say I was a closet case for a while.
I feel extremely bad about those vets who have come back and have had the side effects, but I think sometimes that has been overplayed because there are a lot of guys who came back who are normal and well adjusted, and you don’t talk too much about those people.
The biggest shock I had from the war was when I flew back from being in the jungle for a year. I got off the plane in Seattle, called my wife and we met in San Francisco and all that, and I remember that night sitting down and watching TV--Walter Cronkite--and casually saying “Today in Vietnam, 200 American servicemen were killed ... 1,000 VC.... “
All of a sudden it just hit you that you were just there and how casual it was now back in the U.S., like you were light years away.
War is not what it’s made up to be--actually it’s a pretty gory thing. Go visit a V.A. Hospital sometime and you’ll see the end result.
Something like burning flesh is a distinctive smell, but probably the worst thing we ever used over there was phosphorus. Napalm will burn you up pretty good but phosphorus will burn right through you wherever it hits you. It’s unbelievable. It’s like sticking a hot coal on you but you can’t get it off. You see a guy who’s been phosphorized and it’s bad news.
Once you’d gotten back, you’d taken a bath and cleaned up and everything, but I think what people don’t realize is that in a war it’s hot, you get jungle rot, you’re chewed up, you’re tired and you do things then that you normally wouldn’t do--you’re always on the brink.
I never saw a toilet in Vietnam. That opened my eyes right away. And the first time I ever saw anybody get hit, you know, just blew him apart and you’ve got something over here and something over here, well, you just get sick.
We had a lot of guys hit with mines and it would blow a leg off and you’d see a boot over here with a foot in it and a body over there.... and that’s hard to talk about and hard to explain to people--you just can’t conceptualize it. Anything you saw on the news never shows anybody actually getting hit. When somebody gets shot, it’s not very pleasant.
I was in Vietnam for all of 1968. I arrived in-country during the (Viet Cong’s) Tet Offensive and was right away shipped up to front lines, by the DMZ. Didn’t know diddly--I was a 23-year-old kid who “knew it all” because I was in college and there wasn’t much you could teach me. You know, I was “Mr. Cool.”
Well, I had my face reorganized real fast, as they say. The company commander before me had been zapped--that was a nice thing to step into. There were about 200 people under my control.
We were running boats--and if you’ve seen “Apocalypse Now,” that’s what I was basically doing with the Army. We ran those PBRs (Patrol Boat, Reconnaissance) up and down the rivers. We got a lot of boys chewed up, a lot of boys killed.
The stuff hit the fan real quick. We were under fire: I was in the Battle of Hue, retaking Vietnam’s ancient capital--well, I was there when they took it, and then we sat there for a while, and then retook it in another battle.
The North Vietnamese Army came over the bridge once while we were under it--that was interesting. It got pretty hairy. So for about six months in-country, it was constant combat the whole time.
I used some things from Vietnam when I was coaching. In the Loara wrestling room, guys would be getting tired and my famous quote was always, “I once saw a man stop running and it took us a week to find his body.” The kids would say, “What is he talking about?”
I also found out in Vietnam that the mind generally always goes before the body. I learned a lot of psychology--how to motivate kids past the time that they’re tired. Psychologically going where you don’t want to go.
It really helped me a lot in coaching. It really gave me an appreciation of things. Of kids, and of what they have to go through--their fears.
Fears are something I can really deal with because I would get a kid in wrestling and I could see that he was really afraid. I’d seen that fear before--you could smell it. But you have to tell the kid that that’s OK--you can work through it and don’t be ashamed. MIKE GIDDINGS
For the past three seasons, Giddings, 51, has been the Newport Harbor football coach. His team tied for the Sea View League championship last fall.
Previously, Giddings had been head coach at the University of Utah, an assistant to John McKay at USC from 1961-65, the head coach and general manager of the Hawaiian team in the World Football League and an assistant at San Francisco and Denver in the NFL.
Today, Giddings also is a successful pro scout with his company, Pro Scout Inc., which analyzes and rates every player in the league, serving a dozen NFL teams.
Giddings, a Cal graduate, entered the Marines at age 21. From 1955-57 he served at Quantico, Va., and Camp Pendleton. Giddings keeps a painting of General Douglas MacArthur in his office and continues the Newport Harbor tradition of having the American flag decal on Sailor football helmets.
A former First Lt., Giddings was in the First Marine Division, Reconnaissance Company, Third Platoon.
Am I more patriotic than the next guy because I served? I hope not, but I probably am.
(At a recent high school all-star game) I watched our kids at the national anthem and what we do is stand at attention. We hold our helmet under our right arm and I was terribly proud to see our three kids do that.
I’m not a flag waver, but I was at an Angels game about a month ago and the national anthem comes and they’ve got a color guard marching out. So there’s a father with his baseball cap on and his son eating popcorn and drinking a Coke.
And I’ll be very honest with you--I said something to him. I said “Now , isn’t that a great example?--they’re playing our national anthem. . . . " Somebody else came up and said you have no right to say that to them. I wish everybody felt toward the flag as I do.
The Marine Corps was a key factor in my decision to go into coaching. In those days most of the college players went into the service and played service football.
The great thing the military, especially the Marine Corps, taught me was that you have to learn to take orders before you can give them.
We were also taught that the most important man in the Marine Corps, the rifleman, supposedly is the lowest man. Never could you forget that the most important man was that guy that had the rifle.
Always in my coaching then, that guard and tackle is the rifleman. Our heroes at Newport are the linemen. The big guys. That comes from the Marine Corps. The most important man is the rifleman--the lineman. GENE LLOYD
Lloyd has coached basketball at Brea for the past 12 seasons. Last season, the Wildcats became the first team to go undefeated (10-0) in the Orange League since 1947. Lloyd, 47, gets his Brea basketball team pictures taken in front of an F-18 Hornet jet fighter at the El Toro Marine Air Base every year.
Lloyd joined the Marines at age 17 and served from 1955-58. He later received his undergraduate and masters degrees from Indiana State. His first high school coaching job was at State High in Terre Haute, Ind. From then moved to Thousand Oaks and West Torrance before joining the Brea staff.
A machine gunner in the marine infantry, Lloyd spent most of his time as a military policeman at Barbers Point Naval Air Station in Hawaii, where his top pay was $95 per month.
I definitely can tie in some things as far as the military is concerned. I think that organization--which I feel is one of our strong points--stems from that; the esprit de corps , even down to all of the guys (players) getting flat tops last year.
That was the team’s idea--I was the last one to get it cut like that. And I’ll never do it again, I don’t care what they do. But at the same time, I felt it was one of those esprit de corps type of things and I thought it would be a good idea if I joined the group. And it worked out with us breaking a number of school records.
All that may have come about anyway, but it was certainly helped in my mind to do those extra little kinds of things to build pride and to build satisfaction in what we were doing through things that I saw in the Marine Corps.
I feel that I have many of the same disciplines for myself, and expectations of my players, that I had when I was playing in the ‘50s. I can’t stand sloppiness. I can’t stand not being able to adapt.
And if you’re going to lead, get out in front and lead. Don’t expect people to do things that you can’t do yourself. Quite frankly, my all-CIF players generally sweep the gym floor more than my 12th man. If you’re going to get the glory, you’ve got to put the work in.
And those are the things that you learn to do in the Marine Corps. BOB LESTER
Lester’s football teams at El Modena have won the last two Southern Conference championships and Lester is generally recognized as one of the best prep football coaches in Southern California.
When he was 18 years old in 1948, Lester left Pueblo, Colo., to join the Marines and two years later was in the Korean war. Lester was injured in a battle in North Korea in 1950 and spent a month on a hospital ship before returning stateside.
Lester was a staff sergeant in the 5th Marines, 1st Provisional Marine Brigade.
What the military will teach a guy, if he’s going to use it for coaching, is that he knows what he can take. Mentally more so than physically.
The coach doesn’t have to demand so many things anymore because athletics are sought after--a kid who comes out today doesn’t need to be brow-beaten or punished. He’s there because he wants to be. He wants to excel. He wants to be good. He does what the coach says and the coach doesn’t have to use military tactics to get him to do things correctly.
All we are is teachers. We may motivate differently than the guy in chemistry class, but it’s all there. I don’t see myself as the staff sergeant and these are my troops running around, even though, there are some overall similarities. It’s more like a business.
I thought the military was a great experience for me. I was in the Marine Corps four years and I don’t think I ever had a training experience as bad as the two-a-days (football practice) that my kids go through now.
I went over with the first group, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, which was the first Marine outfit to go to Korea. We went to the Masan-Naktong line, which was a 40-mile perimeter--the North Koreans were close to Pusan, the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
We were there for just a short while and then everything was stabilized. Then we went back to Japan and there was invasion group preparing for Inchon. I was in the second wave of the Inchon invasion.
Then we went all the way up into North Korea, to the Chosin Reservoir. Then in the winter time, the Chinese came in. The whole damn thing was scary for me.
When I first went over there I was really anxious to get there because I’d been in the Marine Corps for a couple of years and that’s what you train for. We got within a half-mile of Pusan when I first got there and I heard somebody shooting, and I thought, “What in the hell am I doing here?”
It went quickly. When the North Koreans collapsed, we invaded Wonsan up in northern Korea, I mean a full-blown invasion, and Bob Hope was waiting there after we invaded the place. He was already there! It gave you an idea of how quickly things were moving.
We went right up to the Yalu River (the Chinese border) and that’s when the Chinese came and things changed up a little bit.
I was back in the states before I was 21. I remembered I tried to get a drink in San Diego when I got back and couldn’t because I wasn’t 21. I was a buck sergeant and still couldn’t get a damn drink.
What the experience does is that anytime I really start feeling sorry for myself, I think back that that was the pits. The most joyous time I ever had was when I was told I was going to come home. I can always picture it and always use it. Times aren’t bad--those were bad times. Those are the worst times you can get into.
You know, when you’ve been to a lot of different countries and you’ve seen all the crap and corruption and total lack of love for life, I don’t care what they do, I don’t care how much they raise the taxes or whatever, America is the only place. Definitely.