The Wizard &
The Miracle Worker


By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Gregg Segal

Published Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM

Q: So what changes would you make in your coaching to allow for the differences between the two sports? Are there changes you would make, Coach, if you were coaching Val’s gymnastics team?

VKF: That’s a good question!

JW: I don’t think I would. In basketball, I’m trying to teach each individual to learn to execute the fundamentals of the sport to the best of their ability. That’s my main thing. My biggest job is to get each individual to put that to use for the welfare of the group. I didn’t see this until I started watching Val’s teams. You’ll see how they support each other. It’s really wonderful to watch them. And they’ll do it even if they have perhaps failed to some extent on something. It’s just the same as when they do well. They’re right there with ’em. And I don’t think that comes naturally. I think that has to come from the leader.

Q: Coach, you advised your players to do a lot of things that most coaches today don’t. For instance, putting on your socks and tying your shoes correctly, and keeping your hair short. Is that something you feel you have to do today with your gymnasts, Val?

VKF: Yes. I had an athlete a few years ago, Jeanette Antolin, show up with cornrows. And I felt it had a very harsh look, a look that I didn’t want to project. And she said, “Miss Val, do you like my hair?” And I said, “Not so much. If you like it, that’s OK. But you need to change your hair before Saturday’s meet.” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, because I’m leading the team, and there’s a certain standard that I would like to maintain. And this harshness is not part of that.” She said, “It’s a free country. I can wear my hair any way I want.” And I said, “Let me tell you a little story ...” So I told her about Coach Wooden and Bill Walton. I said, “This is the same thing. You can absolutely wear your hair like that on Saturday. And you’ll be sitting in the stands.” So she changed her hair.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor)
receives instruction from John Wooden
in 1967

Q: Let's talk about academics. Earlier, you said that the women’s gymnastics team had lost the top GPA title and was determined to get it back.

VKF: Well, what happened was we found out over the summer that women’s tennis had earned the highest team GPA last year. And our team was as feisty about getting it back as it was about winning another national championship.

JW: And that pleased you.

VKF: Very much so. I was chuckling inside, because they were saying, “All right, freshmen, this is how you do it! You have to talk to your professors. You have to meet with your TAs. And this is how you study.” And I found out when we came back in September that one of my athletes, Ashley Peckett, got a C in physics, and she knew it wasn’t the right grade. She had been trying to reach the professor all summer and hadn’t been able to do it. He finally got back to her when the quarter started in September and he apologized. He said, “I gave you the wrong grade. You actually got an A+.” And I didn’t want to tell them because that meant they really did have the highest team GPA again, and I didn’t want to stifle their enthusiasm and competitiveness! But in all fairness, I told them.

JW: Academics are extremely important. I tried to plan the academic program. If you let the students do it for themselves, many of them will take the easy courses, so to speak. And by the time they reach the upper division, they’ve got to take several more difficult courses the same term, and that’s not easy. I don’t know whether Valorie would agree with me on this, but I do believe that in her sport, there’s so much discipline in doing the things they do, her girls are probably a little more disciplined than their peers.

Q: Your former athletes talk about both of you as their coach, their teacher. Do you prefer either of those titles over the other?

JW: They’re both the same. A coach is a teacher. I’ve always considered myself a teacher. Whether I was in an English classroom, where I taught for 11 years, or whether I was on the tennis court, the baseball diamond or the basketball court, I am a teacher.

VKF: The same for me. When people call me Coach, it’s still so foreign to me. And when I’m called “Coach Kondos Field,” I giggle.

Q: Coach, Val has learned so much from you over the years. Is there anything you have learned from Val?

JW: I have already mentioned the love between her and her athletes. It comes out, it just comes out. It’s more than respect, and you can see it. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve watched gymnastics before, but I never looked at it as a team sport until I saw her team. And I think she’s responsible for it.