July 2022 —
The MLO Minute: “Consider a Note to a Great Teacher About What That Teacher Has Meant to You”
I have spent most of my professional career in education law, and both of my parents were public school teachers. My undergraduate training was in education, and I taught at the college level for 35 years. In my personal life and professional career, I have seen firsthand the profound importance of excellent teaching, and how a great teacher can impact a student’s life. I recently wrote to a teacher who had perhaps the most significant impact on my life to let him know what he has meant to me. That teacher my was my high school basketball coach, Tony Salerno, who taught me (and everyone who played for him) many wonderful lessons that have followed me throughout my entire life. With his permission, I am setting out below portions of my letter to him, and I hope that at least some of you who read this note will consider writing a letter, however short or long (mine is admittedly long…), to one or more teachers whose greatness has inspired your life. Thank you!
Dear Coach Salerno, I wanted to set down in writing some thoughts that express my admiration for you as a great teacher, and my gratitude for the many gifts you have given to me and to those whose lives you have touched.
I was recently asked to identify a great teacher who had a significant impact on my life. Other than my mother (an English teacher who was a great mentor to me) I wanted to identify which of my fine teachers in elementary, secondary, college, and law school, was my teacher who “moved the needle” of my life in a major way. I believe we naturally tend to focus our thoughts upon academic teachers, but as I considered more deeply the question, I realized that you were the greatest teacher in my entire school career. I learned so many lessons from our years together–hard work, setting optimistic but realistic goals, teamwork, sportsmanship, civility, selflessness, the joy of competition, and “seeing the entire court”– not just in the gym, but in life as well. For the lessons you have taught me and so many others, I (and all of your players) are eternally grateful.
On my desk at work I keep a list of kind, selfless actions by others which have had a meaningful impact on my life. The list is not long (only eight entries), but you are on there from when you talked me out of leaving the basketball team early in the season’s senior year. I don’t know exactly what caused me to feel down about the upcoming season, but your thoughtfulness, patience, and wisdom convinced me that I needed to get past that lapse of judgment and continue on, which was life-changing for me, as I love the game of basketball (even to this day) and would have deeply regretted not being part of our undefeated championship season that year with you at the helm and a magnificent group of teammates.
As I composed this letter, I thought about what a wonderful athletic journey we experienced under your tutelage. When you took over the reins of coaching at North Pocono High School, the school had a great basketball tradition, but had fallen on some very tough times with losing records and diminished interest. You immediately saw the need to rebuild the program from the ground up, and beginning in seventh grade, I and others were permitted to practice in “The Pit” at the old high school with the JV team of 9th and 10th graders. Although I confess to not remembering exactly who was part of that cohort, I do remember Mike Ognosky, Walter Kieselosky, Ted Davis, and Paul Kelly with me in some or all these practices. By the end of eighth grade, we were competitive with, and often defeated, the JVs at scrimmages. I do remember, however, that the first JV game when I was in eighth grade was against Abington Heights at their gym, and I learned the next day that the JVs had lost 61 to 5. I’m glad I wasn’t present to witness that away game, as JV Coach Wright was none too happy about that performance at practice the next day.
By ninth grade, we were all on the JV team, and that team significantly improved even as the varsity continued to struggle. It was in ninth grade that I began to hear a phrase barked at me which I heard for the next four years: “Too slow McAndrews!” Of course, I knew that this statement was accurate…
In 10th grade, our JV team won the league championship, and the varsity finally had a winning record of seven wins and five losses. Terry Pitta was the star, and Walter and Mike had meaningful playing time with the varsity. I was on both JV and Varsity squads and mostly watched the varsity games from the bench that year, but one game is memorable to me. In our only game that season against Lake Ariel, we played in their small gymnasium. It was a very close game, and about halfway through the fourth quarter, our star Terry Pitta fouled out. At that point, the game was tied, and I was the only guard available to go into the game. When you called my name to go into the game, I confess there was a look of some trepidation on your face, but since I was your only option, I knew you couldn’t take me out! We worked the ball for a while, and when we weren’t finding a shot, you yelled to me to call timeout to set up a play. Since I had possession of the ball, I turned away from the defense, cradled the ball like you taught us, and called/motioned to the ref for a timeout. Incredibly, a Lake Ariel defender came directly behind me, climbed over my back, wrapped his arms completely around me, and put both hands on the ball after I called for a timeout. The referee incredibly called a jump ball, which had to be among the most bizarre calls I’ve ever seen. You yelled at the ref about the call, which was rare for you. Despite my modest jumping ability, my timing wasn’t bad and I got the jump–the ball soon came back to me and I was fouled. I made the foul shot which gave us the lead for the first time and that we never lost, as we held on for the win, which set the stage to give North Pocono its first winning season in several years. When we went into the locker room, you had an enormous smile on your face, and happily tousled my hair. Toward the end of the year, we lost a second time to perennial powerhouse Waymart, but this time only by four points at home, which was far better than the 30-point loss we suffered in their tiny gym early in the year. A lot of progress was made that year and I think all of us looked forward to the 1969 – 1970 season, which was my junior year with Walter, Mike, Paul Kelly, Ted Davis, and others.
Our junior year was a breakout season, went undefeated in the league, and lost a close game in the Districts. Walter and Mike really came into their own and Walter was on pace to eventually set the school scoring record, while Mike became a college level prospect. Paul Kelly was a fabulous defender with a jump shot that brought rain from the clouds, and Ted became a force inside. I made my share of jump shots and layups even as “Too slow McAndrews” undoubtedly went through your mind. We successfully ran the fast break and pressed and had a great time doing it. My best game was against Dunmore with 22 points when you instituted your revolutionary high post offense, and Assistant Coach Coslette was shocked at that production. I think we all came to understand how lucky we were to have such a magnificent coach in “Chip” Salerno. It was that season that you taught us how to attack Waymart’s very unique matchup zone, which had baffled other local coaches for years and which later was used by Jack Kraft at Villanova, John Cheney at Temple, and Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. I think a lot of the other teams believed that the defense was only a switching man-to-man, but you taught us its true principles and how to attack the zone through movement from one side of the court to the other, which confused Waymart, and we beat them at their home court which was the first time they lost in that tiny gym in a many years.
Our senior year in 1970–1971 was another great season, undefeated in the league and 19 – 3 overall. By that point, Walter was unstoppable, Mike had tremendous range on his jump shot, Paul Kelly stole the ball constantly, Ted became a very good center, and Dan Kopcza and Joe Bartoletti were key contributors. We had other great teammates who contributed in their own ways, including Tom Koflanovich, Tom Wolfe, Ed Sosik, and Bob Capple. It was early that season in some strange moment of confusion that I pulled you aside after the third day of practice to say I was going to leave team as I didn’t look forward to the season. There was no good reason for me to feel that way, as I loved basketball and I was slated to start for the team and again get a lot of playing time. You pulled me into your office and talked to me for over an hour, and somehow brought me to my senses, which was an act of immeasurable kindness and wisdom on your behalf. I enjoyed that season so much and learned a great deal more from you about basketball, teamwork, friendship, and life. I believe it was our senior year when we were behind Pocono Central Catholic by 13 points with just over two minutes to go. At that point, Walter started stealing the ball in your innovative “panic press” that you worked on frequently with us, and everyone’s shots began to fall in. We finally took the lead with 30 seconds left and had four very capable guards who could hold the ball against almost any team. It was a remarkable comeback victory, and I think even our team was surprised that we were able to pull it off. A great memory!
I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to put these thoughts down in writing. It’s one of those things that can be delayed too long. I treasure everything you’ve given to all of us, and to the many lessons I learned from you. It was also wonderful to see your beautiful and dignified Mary Lou by your side and to observe the two of you enjoying each other and respecting each other, which was yet another great example to apply in our own lives, where I too have a wonderful wife and four beautiful daughters who I adore. You are one of the many blessings in my life, and I’ll always remember everything you did for me. It’s not too strong a thought to say that I treasure you and have so much respect and gratitude for everything you’ve been for me and for so many others. Please take good care of yourself and please give Mary Lou and your children my regards and affection.