There is no chapter in the coaching manuals on how to deal with death. Football players aren’t supposed to die. Not in their prime.
So Bob Stoops has a challenge in the coming months on how to deal with Austin Box’s death. How does Stoops deal with the tragedy? How does he address it with his team? How often does he bring it up?
Forget the ramifications of who will play middle linebacker. How will Stoops deal with his team concerning Box’s death. They always say that young people believe themselves to be indestructible. So when that belief is shattered, how do they respond? Not as ballplayers, but as people? That is Stoops’ charge as the head coach.
OU has been fortunate over the years. I can’t remember a Sooner who died while still on the football team. Jim Mackenzie died in office as head coach in April 1967, but no player.
But the tragedy has struck Oklahoma State and Texas.
UT lost offensive lineman Cole Pittman in a car crash 10 years ago February. In a recent interview with Leadercast, Longhorn coach Mack Brown called Pittman’s death “absolutely one defining moment that helped me with my leadership. He was a young man who just turned 21 years old, he’d just gotten engaged, he was going to be a sophomore as a starter on our team for the first time.
“He was returning home after spring break when he missed a curve — his truck flipped, and he died. For the next three- or four-day period, I felt the importance of being the head football coach at Texas and trying to manage a tragedy; trying to make some sense out of it for our parents who were afraid of losing their children. It affected me as a father with children; I had to try and make sense out of it for me. I felt the weight that came with trying to figure out how to help Cole’s parents.
“How do you call a father and tell him he’s lost a son? How do you walk downstairs and tell a football team that was getting ready to start spring practice that one of their peers was not with us anymore? There’s the funeral and the memorial service that stick in your mind for life — you never forget.
“And even as you move forward it lingers, it shapes you. That experience changed my life.”
Then in May 2005, OSU defensive back Vernon Grant died in a Dallas car crash. He was a team leader for the Cowboys. Mike Gundy had been OSU’s head coach about five months.
“I don’t think there’s a written plan for it,” Gundy said a few days after Grant’s death. “Just be there for ’em in a sincere way. I am not a psychologist.”
Here’s what I wrote after talking to Gundy in May 2005.
“Coaches motivate and inspire and discipline. They line up young men in the right spots on the field and try to line them up in the right spots off the field. When needed, coaches put an arm around a shoulder or bark instructions. To the good ones, it all comes naturally.
“But there is nothing natural about this. Nothing natural about addressing a roomful of 20-year-olds who 15 minutes ago thought the world would stay forever young and now have glazed looks across their faces. Nothing natural about suddenly coming to grips with vincibility, rather than gradually, the way it comes to most of us.
“They don’t teach this at the Pat Jones School of Coaching. They don’t teach this at any school of coaching. Recall the weathering look of Eddie Sutton, who in the days and weeks and even years after the OSU plane crash took on the aging process of a sitting president, who goes into the White House vigorous and comes out gaunt.”
Gundy said the loss of Grant was “out of my hands. I can’t control it.”
Gundy said he simply told his team how he felt. Told his players how he personally dealt with the tragedy.
“I get up in the morning and go to work, and go run at lunch if I have time, then go back to work,” Gundy said. “I continue with my everyday lifestyle. I know that’s what he would want us to do. If Vernon would come back, he would say, ‘Why is everyone sitting around worrying about me?’”