I grew up innocent of sports hustling, shenanigans such as what got Mount Vernon a one-year probation by a Virginia High School League committee this week. A farmland school where milking time overlaps practice time and whose nickname is Golden Mules very likely is destined to athletic averageness.
There was recruiting at Solanco; close to unique, I now realize, although limited to the intraschool level. The football coach was always trying to coax the band director out of beefy and swift tuba and trumpet players--and failing. Our Ralph Downey was the Lombardi of band directors.
You think Lyndon Johnson was persuasive? Mr. Downey (I called him that at 16, call him that now at 40 and will greet him thus at 80) had a way of looking over the rims of his glasses that caused otherwise strong-minded faculty peers to quake. You might not finish physics; you always gave triple-tonguing a go.
Our band was terrific. Behind horses in parades, with one eye on the music sheet and the other on the road, we always stayed in tune and kept our feet clean. We had several all-state musicians; the football team once went two years without scoring a point.
Solanco 20-plus years ago might have been the only high school in the galaxy that had faster clarinet players than halfbacks. A snare drummer 50 pounds heavier than its middle linebacker. The choice between trumpet and football was never close for a buddie gifted at both, Bob Wittlinger. Instead of scoring touchdowns, he was the only one allowed to try for the octave leap at the "land of the free" part of the National Anthem.
The rest of us, the noisemakers, Mr. Downey firmly mandated, would mouth it there.
So I assumed that because Solanco was hounds-tooth clean athletically, everybody else was, too, that all coaches made do with the available talent inside a school's natural boundary. Except for Columbia.
That was the county force in basketball, and the whispers in every gym were that the left-handed shot-blocker and scorer was being mentally taxed with nothing tougher than leather shop. Hoping that made losing by 40 seem a whole lot easier.
Such gossip is one of the prices of excellence. Every Columbia, every De Matha, every Penn State and Georgetown has a flock of sore-loser harpies who refuse to accept that sustained winning can happen within the rules.
Older and more experienced, if not wiser, I also believe that nobody wins regularly without some sort of compromise, in time, money or academics. Or parts of all three. As in life, lots of jocks want an edge. Our band was fine mostly because we worked harder and Mr. Downey was a better recruiter than the football coach.
Evidently, Mount Vernon basketball dribbled right past the outer limits of fair play. The committee that acted as judge and jury said it was convinced seven players not within Mount Vernon's boundaries had been recruited. That's blatant, and sad.
I've always thought that, with the exception of some small colleges, high school was the last time a wondrous athlete had uninterrupted fun in sports. Each new experience, each game, each successful push toward another level is almost totally pure, hassle-free joy.
And high school might be the last place a coach is a coach, in the strict sense of being nothing more than a teacher.
Or ought to be.
If a college coach cannot recruit, if he cannot go out and charm mothers nationwide into believing their sons were born to play on his team, all his strategy smarts won't make him win. But winning should be no higher than the fourth or fifth priority in high school.
Learning is first. How to play, how to try, how to win and how to lose. The nasty part can wait. College is life. It'll come soon enough. Along with victories, THIS MORNING By Ken Denlinger Washington Post Staff Writer At Leaemphasize the number of times each player or team reacted well to a new situation.
That's undoubtedly stretching for an impossible utopia, unrealistic bunk from a man who tooted a horn instead of wallowed in football grime and had two knees that would tolerate no more serious abuse before basketball and baseball got cut-throat.
We're competitive beings, determined to keep score. We chart who wins and who loses, regardless at what level or how much is at stake. Some golfers I know are as likely to kick the ball out of the rough during a no-bet round as they are for a $50 nassau.
So about all you can do when one of these Mount Vernon messes comes along is say "maybe" a whole lot. Maybe if football and basketball were not so important at so many high schools, these violations wouldn't happen. Maybe it would help if the papers and television ignored athletes until after high school, or at least honored the triers along with the achievers.
Maybe more Mr. Downeys would be useful.
Let's say every band director at every high school in America struck his baton on the back of the football and basketball coach and said: "From now on, many of your guys play for me."
The sounds, of music and silence, would be heavenly: pleasing music and no cacophony of cheating charges in sports. Then, as sure as night follows day, competition among bands would become intense. And an exceptional flutist from Maryland suddenly might be coaxed into moving to a particular section of D.C.
Woodwinds won't warp at Wilson.
Band leaders would be pouncing at every 13-year-old prodigy in sight. Headlines would blare: "Charges of mouthpiece tampering aired." Make bands, or team calculus, seem vital and sensibilities will snap. Maybe Mount Vernon basketball is an area athletic aberration. We can hope so, but also tell the investigators not to stop working.