In late 1999, while interviewing John Fallis for a small film I was producing, the hall-of-fame high school coach uttered a sentence which I would toss around in my head at least once a week for the next 16 years.
“You can’t win if you’re not physically conditioned,” Fallis said. “It’s impossible…because your body gives out, and then you give up. So, we conditioned.” In fact, a few years later—when Fallis had returned from retirement to serve first as Jim Hummer’s assistant and then take the helm again in 2004—the genius of his physical conditioning program played itself out in front of me. Game after game, Greencastle’s Tiger Cubs often played their opponents close through three quarters. But in the final stanza the Cubs would make the game boring. Because they were in much better shape than the Cloverdales, the North Putnams, or the Cascades of the time, Fallis ran the ball. All quarter long he called off-tackle, trap, dive, option-read…the other teams, accustomed to slugging out those last quarters with opponents which were equally gassed, laid down. Usually by the 8:00 mark, Greencastle had pulled ahead by two scores. By the 4:00, they were up three or four touchdowns. Like I said…boring.
Except that it wasn’t. Football is different from other sports in that upsets—particularly at the high school level—are almost non-existent. The physical nature of the game, the repeatedly brutal collisions along the line of scrimmage, override the talent among the skill positions in the backfield. Ask Andrew Luck, who’s spent a lot of time lately on his back peering into ceiling of Lucas Oil Stadium looking for loose bolts in the rigging, and he’ll tell you that the ability to throw with precision to a timed route is pretty meaningless if you’re getting pulverized.
In the 1970’s and ‘80s, most high school coaches knew that football games were won and lost in the weight room, but John Fallis was one of the first coaches in Western Indiana to put that principle into tangible form. Other coaches held open-gyms and workout sessions, and maybe three or four players—usually 92-pound second and third-string wide-outs—would attend. Fallis got everyone there, and he got them there at 6:30 in the morning, and he did that every day.
This is perhaps the first life-lesson he taught me—a 30-year-old, married, father of two: preparation is to performance as a dozen is to one. In other words, a single play in a football game (or a swing of the baseball bat, or the golf club, or the tennis racquet) happens in seconds. And a single football season lasts little more than 10-11 hours in game time. The amount of time getting ready for that is vastly longer.
The rest of life follows the same pattern. Steven Spielberg’s two-hour movie needed thousands of man-hours to create. The 40-minute lecture in a college physics classes required years of study on the professor’s part. If you don’t work in the shadows, if you skimp on that grunt work, you’re rendering your moment on the stage into a fiasco. And this is especially true in a sport such as football.
But I also learned one more, perhaps more important, lesson from this “Fallis Factor:” none of that work guarantees success.
Last Friday, Greencastle honored Coach Fallis’ 1985 and ’95 squads, both of which ran the tables on their respective regular seasons. When Fallis spoke to them in the McAnally Lobby before the 2015 team stepped onto the field, he told them of their precision. How their timing on the field was spot-on…how their execution was impeccable. When everything comes together, as it did for GHS in those two seasons, you can look at Fallis’ attention to detail, the hours he spent in preparation—both with and without the boys on the practice field—and you can say, “Well, that makes sense.” But also sitting among those ’85 and ’95 athletes were members of the coach’s 1998 team as well. That year, something went wrong every game. That year the hard work didn’t translate into success. That year, the Tiger Cubs lost every single game.
But if you were there in ’98, and if you watched the season unfold, you didn’t see the typical earmarks you’d see in other winless campaigns. There was never any visible infighting among the staff. There was no chaos on the sidelines. There were no panic-button decisions to bench the starting quarterback in favor of a hot-shot freshman. What I did see was discipline. The team remained composed. They went out, ran their offense and defense, and except for two games, they were competitive. They stopped the Danvilles and the Tri-Wests on first down, then held them on second.
But the plight of that ’98 bunch always seemed to hit them on third-and-long, where a pass to the flats was followed by three or four missed tackles. It wasn’t a disorganized effort, either. The outside linebacker form-fitted the tight end who’d caught the ball, but was shivered off. The corner filled in next, his facemask on the football, but he couldn’t pop the ball loose. And the safety wrapped correctly, too: face across the ball-carrier’s front, his body bent and the power-angles…but the tight-end crossed the down marker anyway.
That team was two or three good tackles away from at least two wins, and they were a bad no-call on a pass-interference away from a third. We will never know if they could have won more games, but we can say that they prepared much the same way as the undefeated teams. It simply didn’t work out, and no one—not even Coach Fallis—promised them that it would.
It’s easy to look at our greatest moments and say, “Wow! I was awesome!” But the real measure of someone’s accomplishments rests with their failures. When nothing is going right, are we still talking about the same man? Coach Fallis taught us all to get up, go to our respective “weight rooms” and get to work. We know that everything we’re working for could fall apart, but we also know that it most certainly will collapse if we don’t take the time to prepare. All we can do is work hard, expect success, and regroup and start over if that doesn’t happen.