Don Fambrough showed it was possible to be both a good coach and a good person


Mike Rice recently caused a stir when video surfaced of him berating his Rutgers players. The video led to his dismissal and sparked a debate about coaching. Tracee Hamilton says that Don Fambrough was a good example of how treating athletes well made for better coaches and teams. (Mike Derer/AP)

The box came in the mail the same day as the Mike Rice video hit the Internet. In it was a gold football from the 1948 Orange Bowl; on the back was etched “Don Fambrough/Guard.”

Most of you haven’t heard of Fambrough, who was a two-time football coach at Kansas. (That wouldn’t have bothered him; he’d have liked you just the same.) His second tenure overlapped with my days covering the team for the student newspaper. I came to love him dearly — a journalistic mistake I’ve never made again — and I stayed in touch with him long after graduation.

We both left KU that year, because Don was fired for the second time. Don wasn’t the greatest coach I ever covered (that would be Chuck Daly), but I would have wanted my son to play for him. More important, I would have wanted my son to emulate him. I can’t say that about much of the population of the sports world.

I attended nearly every KU practice for roughly three seasons and I never heard him verbally abuse a kid, or saw him physically attack one. Sure, he yelled. He had a very colorful vocabulary, which he tried to rein in when I was around. (He was an old-school Texas man who didn’t believe in swearing in front of the womenfolk.) He might grab a kid’s pads and move him to a different spot, maybe.

But shoving? Throwing balls? Hurling invective? I think one reason I had such a visceral reaction to the Rice video is my memories of Don at practice. He was a teacher, a mentor, a disciplinarian when needed. He also believed that his players were men, and that they would behave as such. Sadly, some of them didn’t, but most did.

He also taught me an early lesson in forgiveness. He was fired by KU and then took the job again. He never held a grudge over the first firing, or the second. I’ve never met anyone who was as passionate about our alma mater as Don. He came to Lawrence to play football after serving in World War II and just fell in love. And he was faithful in that love.

When I visited him in the final years of his life, after his wife Del passed away and the days were long, I would ask what he’d been up to and he’d never talk about himself. He would rattle off the latest news from his former players, who used to call and write him, send photos of their kids and grandkids. And he would talk about the current crop of Jayhawks. KU fired former coach Mark Mangino, allegedly for some of the same bullying tactics used by Rice, but I will always be grateful to him for what he did for Don: He invited him to practice. Don didn’t try to coach; he just loved to be around the kids, giving them an encouraging word and delivering a rousing speech before the Missouri game.

Then came a new administration. Don had hip replacement surgery, yet somehow lost his parking pass to games. (That was rectified.) And the invitation to attend practice and to give his Mizzou talk? That went away as well.

How mad did that make a man who had literally done everything asked to promote the University of Kansas? I don’t know, because he never said a bad word about anyone involved. Nothing dimmed his love for KU, right up until the day he died, on the first day of the 2011 football season.

I gave a eulogy at his funeral — where some university representatives were conspicuously absent — but I was still stunned when his son Preston called to say the family wanted me to have one of Don’s gold footballs. Would I want one? Oh, yes.

I miss Don, and I miss knowing he’s in the world. I would love to know his feelings about Rice. Then again, I do know. Don taught by example, after all, and I have had more than 30 years to learn. He taught me what to look for in a coach, and in a human being, and that the two are not mutually exclusive. I wear his football every day to remind me that there are good people in college sports. Some days I need that football very badly.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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