Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Memory Lane

Memory Lane is a long lane.  It stretches into forever.  Memory Lane has no end.

Tonight we take a jaunt down Memory Lane.  It begins as we are reading Google News about the Wisconsin coach who bolted away from his Badger team BEFORE they play in the Rose Bowl to take a new job as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks for a $700,000 raise to $3.6-million annual salary.  Of course, the Razorbacks will also pay a $1-million "buyout" fee to Wisconsin so this coach could desert his loyal players before their final curtain call in the Rose Bowl.

All this soap opera stuff got me thinking of Jack Mollenkopf, Purdue's coach when I grew up and went to college there in the 1960's.  Mollenkopf was The American Idol back then.  He was the epitome of a loyal, hard-working coach who toted the same lunch box to work that he demanded his players carry when they showed up to practice or play.  There was nothing fancy about Jack.  He was Old School before people began using the term.

I've spent a lot of time on Memory Lane tonight thinking about Jack.  Jack would have never done what that Wisconsin guy did.  I bet Jack wasn't even making $100,000 a year "back in the day" when he took Purdue to its Glory Days in a 1967 Rose Bowl Victory.  Heck, Jack would have bene lucky if the tightwads at Purdue paid him $50,000.  A million buyout just to claim jump a job for a $3.6-million annual salary?  Jack's gotta be rolling over in his grave somewhere thinking about the absurdity of that.

You see, for Jack, it wasn't about money.  It wasn't about fame.  It was all about football.  Jack lived, breathed, slept and WAS football.  Football all the time, always, all ways 24/7/365.

I have to admit that I knew Jack.  Some people say they don't know Jack.  I knew Jack.  Honest--at least as much as a college kid can know Jack.  I idolized Jack back when I was in grade school.  In high school, he became larger than life and in college, well, Super Human would be an understatement.

And so it is that we now take a stroll down Memory Lane.  You see, I've always loved to write.  I've had writing in my blood and fingertips since I was in the cradle.  I started my first neighborhood newspaper when I was 9 years old. I LIVED to write.  When I got to high school the nuns wouldn't let me write for the high school newspaper.  They refused to allow me to even submit a "letter to the editor."  For four full years, I was excluded from writing and, I have to say, it really hurt my feelings and self-esteem.

When I went to Purdue as a freshman in the fall of 1965, I immediately went to the "Exponent" newspaper, which was first published in December 1889.  I asked to be a Reporter and the Upper Classmen in that dirty old newsroom laughed out loud at me.  It was very embarrassing.  You see, NO freshman had EVER been allowed to be a Reporter for The Exponent in the entire history of the newspaper up to that point.  The idea was unthinkable.

Well, you know me and I was undaunted.  I just KNEW that, in spite of having no resume and nothing to show them, that I could somehow be a Staff Reporter for The Exponent. My glass wasn't just half full, it was overflowing!

Somehow the Managing Editor picked up on my belief and he said, "Well, we're going to give you a test assignment.  If you pass the test, we will make you a Staff Reporter.  Go see the Sports Editor."

Little did I know the test couldn't possibly be passed.  It was a lose-lose situation.  But, nevertheless, I went to see the Sports Editor and he smugly said I had a Story Assignment.  I could see all the rest of the upper classmen in the newsroom stifling guffaws and laughs.  Just like Forrest Gump, I said, "Well, what is My Story Assignment?"

And the Sports Editor said, "You have to go interview Jack Mollenkpof."  At that point, some of the lesser contained newsroom residents burst into audible laughter.  You see, NO ONE from The Exponent had ever obtained an interview from Jack Mollenkpof.  Jack has been coaching at Purdue in one capacity or another since the year I was born in 1947 and he HATED the Exponent.  He HATED the mere mention of the word and (as I learned later) had been known to go into near stroke or heart attack mode simply when someone uttered the word "Exponent" within ear shot of the famous coach.

So, that's what they did--they gave me The Kiss of Failure.  Well, you see, I didn't know any better.  I didn't know the "back story."  Stupid is as stupid does, as they say.

So, I called up Coach Jack Mollenkopf's Office and asked for an interview.  The Secretary paused on the phone and said, "What did you say?"  I repeated myself.  There was a long pause and she said, "Did you say you wanted to interview Coach Jack Mollenkopf?"  Of course, being Forrest Gump, I said, "Yes, that's what I said."  There was another long pause.  Then she said, "Just a minute."  I heard some muffled voices and then this really loud burst of male laughter in the background.  I didn't know what to think.

She came back on the phone and said, "The Coach will be happy to see you tomorrow at 1 pm in his office."

Well, you see, I didn't know this was historic and that no one from The Exponent in a couple of generations had done this so I thought it was normal and I made my notes for questions and so forth and went to the Coach's office the next day.  I wondered by everyone looked at me so weirdly as I walked down the hallways toward his office.

People were looking at me like I was some guy walking to his death in the electric chair.  Luckily, I was too stupid to know WHY they we're looking at me like that.

The secretary ushered me into the Coach's office.  to me at the time it seemed palatial--trophies and plaques where everywhere.  Mementos, game balls, jerseys, framed autographed photos and much more filled the walls and the surfaces everywhere I looked.

The Coach was truly gracious.  He stood up and told me to "sit down and make yourself comfortable, young man."  Before I could begin asking my questions, he leaned across his expansive desk and asked in a very simple, innocent way, "Why are you here?"  Well, not knowing the back story, I told him the front story about how I wanted to be a Staff Reporter and how they gave me this assignment and so forth.  I was quite honest.  The Coach sat back in his chair and stared off into space.  He was quiet for a very long time.  I sat and became somewhat nervous as he stared into space.

Finally, he swiveled his oak office chair back toward me, steepled his hands on his desk, smiled and said, "I'd like to answer your questions.  What do you want to know?"

I proceeded to ask him a list of questions and he proceeded to answer each and every one of them dutifully, honestly and graciously.  I took notes as best a freshman could and then I stood up and thanked the Coach for his interview and we shook hands and he simply said, "You're Welcome.  Good Luck, Young Man."  I will never forget him staring me in the eyes and saying "Good Luck, Young Man."  I can still see his eyes staring into mine as I write this.

(That's why this is a trip down Memory Lane!)

Anyway, I went back to my little freshman hobbit hole or whatever it was and I really put my heart and soul into writing up what the Coach had told me during the interview.  I finished up my story and took it down in the bowels of the basement newsroom of The Exponent.

I walked up to the Sports Editor and said, "Here is my interview of Coach Mollenkopf."  The haunty upper classman grabbed it out of my hand and started to read it.  As he read the story, I could see his demeanor and body language change.  His head leaned forward--his eyes changed.  He pulled the story closer to his eyes.  He looked at me and he said, "Just a minute," and he took it right over to the Main Man--the Managing Editor--and I heard him say, "You've go to read this."

The same thing happened to the Managing Editor.  His head and eyes and body language did the same thing.  Then they both came over to me and the Main Man said, "How did you get this story?"

I said, "Well, I called up his office and asked for an appointment."  The Main Man and the Sports Editor looked at each other in disbelief.  The Main Man said, "You mean you just called up and got this interview, is that what you said?"

Heck, I didn't know what else to say so I just said, "Yeah, that's what I did."

Then the Main Man and the Sports Editor went off and had a huddle between themselves.  After some time, they called in a couple of other people and the four of them talked and pointed and passed around my article and finally they broke their huddle and the Main Man came back to me with three other people standing behind him.

He said, "John Parsons you made history with this article.  Nobody from this newspaper has ever been able to get an interview with that football coach--he has hated us his whole life.  We've decided to make you the first freshman Staff Reporter in the history of this newspaper.  And they they started clapping and then everyone in the newsroom started clapping and they go up from behind their desks and they gave me a freaking standing ovation.

Well, nothing like that had ever happened to me before in my life and I really didn't know how to take it or what to make of it.  It was all so surreal and I didn't even know what surreal was back in those days.  All I could do was blush and look around like a sheep at a mountain lion party.

I went from a nobody to a somebody in a blink of an eye and they gave me huge latitude right from the git go.  I got to get a field pass for the Boilermaker's football games and open access to the players and the coaches and it was just so totally freaking awesome.  Whenever Coach Mollenkopf saw me he would smile and touch his hat and even nod sometimes.

Oh, geeze, maybe I ought not travel Memory Lane--sometimes those memories can become very emotional.

I think of that Wisconsin coach basically abandoning his players, fans and community on the eve of the Rose Bowl and all those fond memories of Coach Mollenkoph come flooding back.

Ah, come on, cue "The Way We Were!"

Many Cheers, jp

Coach Jack Mollenkopf (November 24, 1905 – December 4, 1975):

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