We love our coaches, don't we?
We love to see them work the refs, pace the sidelines. We love to see them explode after a horrible call. We love to see them pull a young player to the side for a teaching moment. We love to see them devise the right play with 8 seconds left and their team down by one. We love to see them embrace their players after winning the conference title and console a senior who just played in his last game.
But all the things we love to see our coaches do during a game sometimes make us forget they're real people with real lives and real families away from the court or field. For the most part, we know them as the coach, but look past their job and status and coaches are just like the rest of us.
We don't see Brad Bigler as a coach right now - not because it's not basketball season, but because of how his personal life has taken a nightmarish turn. We see this family man today as a human being, a husband and a father who is enduring something no one would wish on their worst enemy.
Last weekend's crash took its toll on Bigler's body, and it will do the same to his mind and his heart. The crash not only put him in a hospital bed, it took from him his youngest child, Drake, born just hours after Bigler's Mustangs toppled the ranked Huskies of St. Cloud State, on the road, to complete a weekend sweep. During the game, Bigler showed what kind of coach he is by guiding his team to an upset win without his starting point for most of the game. After the win, Bigler changed gears and raced home to help welcome Drake into the world.
Bigler's road to physical recovery will be aided by braces and medicine, and time will heal his body's wounds, but for Bigler, his wife, Heather, and the rest of his family the road to complete recovery past the emotional pain is a winding one they will navigate at a speed of their choosing. But the young couple isn't facing this journey alone. They'll need a bus to bring everyone along. People from SMSU and the community have already chipped in or plan to in some way sometime this month. And Brad had more visitors this week than the Corn Palace.
When Bigler's boss, SMSU intern President Ron Wood, checked in at Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, S.D., to visit him Tuesday, he was told he might have to wait a little. You see, Bigs is a popular guy at SMSU, and it became clear this past week that it is possible for a 33-year-old to be the Big Man On Campus.
"I'm standing here and I can't get in to see Brad because there's 30 people from SMSU here," Wood said from the hospital Tuesday. "We're here to support Brad and each other, to try to make a difference. The SMSU community is always there for people; I think that's what being a family means; whether it's good times or bad times, we're there."
There's not a university in this country that doesn't sell itself with that family label, but the smaller schools pull it off the best. Students attend SMSU partly because they like the size of it, and SMSU capitalizes on its small-townish feel to attract students. But there's more to being a family than just saying it.
"I think it's the people who are here," Wood said. "It's about the people who are hired, people we bring in have that kind of compassion for others. And that's the same for the community we live in, the city of Marshall, and southwest Minnesota. That's the kind of compassion that exists. In a smaller environment, it's not as compartmentalized."
If SMSU is a family, that would make Wood the father. And if you don't think the compassion he speaks of is genuine, then you don't know Wood. When I asked him about what impressed him most about Bigler, he struggled to complete a sentence without getting choked up.
"One of things I look at is the young people he influences," Wood said, his voice trailing. "That has impressed me so much with him. You look at his team his players it tells you what kind of person he is, and he's a good person. His players have respect, integrity and honesty, and they're there to help people."
It wasn't easy, but Wood fought his way through his emotions enough during the interview to explain how Bigler's SMSU family will be there for him. He wants to let Bigler know he's cared for. As for an open-door policy, the president would take his office door off its hinges if he thought Bigler needed him to.
"I think the worst thing you can do is always push yourself on somebody; you need to give them space, too, ask, 'Are you OK?' 'Can I do anything?' You've got to let things heal on their own, at his own pace. Just make sure he knows you're there to help him get through the next few weeks and months."
Wood had never met Bigler before taking over at SMSU in April 2011, so it's not as if these two have a history together. And that's what's so impressive about the kind of person Bigler is. You don't need to have a past with him to have a bond with him. In Wood's case, 15 months sufficed.
"I knew him by watching the games; I didn't know him personally before I came here," said Wood. "I've seen how much his players care about him, and I see how much love there is among the players for their coach."
Yes, we sure do love our coaches.