Thursday, October 4, 2018

Jonesboro, AR

Afternoon practice

The road that has deposited 61 year old Craig Cummings in Jonesboro, AR this October, 2018 evening has been broken, fateful and audacious. He stalks the sidelines while coaching a high school girls’ volleyball game. Adorned in his trademark Hawaiian shirt, he is the pilot of a team nicknamed the Hurricanes in an area more likely to witness Noah’s Ark floating by before it will ever be ravaged by a tropical storm. This whole perplexing scenario can be clearly explained by the teaching of a two pronged history lesson.

But, first be warned, Cummings personal journey to his current place and time has more twists and turns than the Ozark Mountain logging roads I passed through today on my southern sojourn to Northeast Arkansas. To understand the career coach’s blissful current state of professional contentment as he watches his powerhouse team roll to another three straight set victory will necessitate persistence on my part; when a well-placed poke or a timely prod of Cummings becomes necessary.

Now, for the above mentioned history lessons: First, go back 1200 years and read up on the Four Temperaments of Avicenna. Second, fast forward to the last three generations of modern America culture and picture in your mind a product of the Baby Boomer Age of Aquarius – a California transplant, no less - coaching a troupe of Arkansas teenage Millennials, the off-spring of the much maligned demographic cohort of their parents, Generation X.

Bear with me, please. I promise, it all fits together in the end.

 Pink Out game for cancer research
In the 9th century A.D, smack in the middle of the Dark Ages, the Persian scholar Avicenna authored a medical text book entitled the Canon of Medicine. In it, he established his theory of the Four Temperaments. It became the medieval world’s standard for medical wisdom. To maintain the physical and mental balance needed to live a long and happy life, according to Avicenna, one must balance the following four mental areas: emotional aspects, mental capacity, moral attitudes, and self-awareness. 

I remark to the almost 40 year  veteran coach of the talented Jonesboro squad, that it seems to me, to motivate teenage girls and drive them to achieve a high level of success all one must do is teach his chargers to master the Four Temperaments of Avicenna. Cummings cuts me short and explains it is not that easy, waiving off my endorsement of this ancient nugget of wisdom before I can even name drop the long ago Persian.  I feel deflated for I had spent a good deal of time on my drive down today rehearsing its proper enunciation, four syllables: "AV" + "i" + "SEN" + "uh".

Cummings tells me he intentionally avoids playing mind games with teenagers who are young enough to be his granddaughters. “It would not work,” he flatly states. “They are here to play volleyball and I am here to teach them the proper way to play volleyball. Once we establish this base of our relationship, when they figure out that is what I do, it takes the edge off and the girls can become comfortable with me because they know I have set boundaries that respect their life outside of volleyball. They know I care, that if they need help or support or advice, I am here, but they also know I am not sticking my nose into their personal lives’. I don’t need the drama.”

 Solid wall
To underscore Cummings dismissive rejection of my favorite 9th century Persian philosopher’s work, Avicenna died by suicide at the age of 37 years. Obviously, his demise accentuates that his four “simple” temperaments are easier to project than to conquer.

Good coaches, regardless of gender or age, watch and listen; empathetically remembering how at times being in high school can really suck, low self-esteem so prevalent it is almost a rite of passage. Cummings may without doubt or hesitation let it be known to me he is not a social scientist or a child psychologist, but a volleyball coach. His players and his own words will tell me different.

Prior to his current tenure on the high school level, Coach Cummings spent thirteen seasons, 1996 to 2008, as the head coach of the Arkansas State’s women’s volleyball team. He led the Division I Jonesboro School to 245 wins and was named the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the year three times.  

Before his stint at ASU, Cummings spent nine years as an assistant coach, followed by six years as the head women’s coach at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, at the time, a program competing on the Division I level. He was named to the coaching staffs at three straight U.S. Olympic Festivals from 1993-95. His 19 years Division I coaching record tapped out in 2008 at 326-283. His record to date at Jonesboro High School is 201-77.  

Growing up in the San Jose, CA, area, Cummings spent his high school years playing the more traditional male sports of basketball and baseball. After his 1975 high school graduation, Cummings learned his athletic career had hit a talent roadblock. “I enrolled in the local community college and knew quickly I was not big enough for basketball and the curve ball at the college level was much better than at the high school level,” he remembers.
 After game hugs

Volleyball became his athletic outlet by default. “I had a few friends that played on the college’s men’s volleyball team and I gave it a shot. It was a fun team to play on and I followed a few friends to Obispo,” the coach says. He stayed for 20 years. “I played three years there, graduated with a degree in Physical Education.” In 1981, the year following his graduation, Cummings began his coaching career as an assistant on the men’s team. The next year, at the tender age of 24, Cummings became the team’s head coach. His tenure was short lived as at the completion of his debut season; the university disbanded the men’s program.

Finding himself again an athletic orphan, Cummings returned to his roots, coaching females. “I went back to the women’s side and spent nine years as an assistant and six years as the head coach,” Cummings recalled. In 1996, with San Luis Obispo’s administration sending out signals that the school’s commitment to a division I women’s volleyball program was waning; Cummings took a big professional leap of faith, packed up his wife and two sons and headed for Northeast Arkansas. “This was a program that was just what I was looking for, the right place for me at the right time” he says of his ASU experience. “It was a great 13 years.”

Some major health issues surfaced for Cummings in the spring of 2007.  He was admitted to the hospital for a tumor discovered on the outside of his colon and underwent surgery on May 14, 2007.  He then began a lengthy recovery process that allowed him to finally return to his duties as head coach for the start of ASU’s 2007 pre-season fall camp.

 Student section
That year, the Red Wolves recorded a 21-12 record and Cummings was rewarded with a contract extension. But the grind of coaching at the highest level of college when fighting a tough medical foe had taken a toll on him, draining from him the high energy reserve he had for so long depended upon. “The demands of college coaching had grown exponentially over the years to include more than just the on-court requirements,” said Cummings.  “I found myself lacking the energy to get the job done at the level the players deserved.” So, with absolutely no idea of where he would now go, Cummings took one for the team, resigned from a long time secure job that brought him both respect and purpose, stepping now blindly into an abyss of professional, personal and medical uncertainty.

To teach high school students in a classroom subject, say math, is for sure a daunting task, but, compared to coaching, it is a mere foothill to scale. In the tangible world of academia two plus two is always four.  But, when the coach steps into the gym, onto the track or the playing field of competitive high school athletics, in addition to teaching skills and schemes, he or she finds themselves precariously perched on the slippery slope of motivating teenagers. A coach must find a way to reach the soul of those in his or her charge. The successful ones do. (clue: "AV" + "i" + "SEN" + "uh”).

 All practice drills are scored
Fortunately, within the universal set of constraints placed on today’s coaches, there is still variation, some wiggle room, that creates slots for conflicting beliefs, philosophies, and coaching procedures. Some coaches take on a disciplinarian role, especially autocratic and demanding while others find success deploying a more democratic and humane tint in their relationship with players. Coaching really is an individual philosophy. Most interesting, what propels one coach to a long hall-of-fame career can be grounded in failure for another who emulates the same methods without the personal conviction to follow through with the unwavering implementation of the chosen methods and philosophy. This is the crucible for all coaches and it is a front loaded challenge, faced in the first year or two of the coaching lifespan. The few who understand this will succeed. The majority, who do not, are destined to careers in insurance sales. Techniques differing to the extreme can still find a confluence of success if the coach can motivate athletes while taming unchecked emotions. Even though he denies it, Cummins has figured out how to level the emotions of his teenage players (it is pronounced: "AV" + "i" + "SEN" + "uh"). 

I once worked for a superintendent who thought so little of the impact of a coach that he would routinely suggest hiring an applicant who fit our classroom needs but knew nothing about a sport we were going to ask him or her to take on. “The kids will love him” he would say, “just let the old boy read up a little on the internet and he can do it.” In other words; coaching by YouTube was now our school’s philosophy. It was maddening. After several territorial fights I had won, I resigned myself that this was not a hill worth dying on and I hired his endorsed “old boy” and assigned him as an assistant baseball coach.

 Believe the warning
On the other end of the spectrum, I once played for a football coach whose discipline was so draconian that his players' war stories became myth, classic beer drinking lore amongst us at periodic reunions. Forget your jock strap? Athletic tape will adhere just fine and no under wrap ever needed.

Surprisingly, in time, both had very successful coaching careers. The former admitted to his players he didn’t know the difference between a bunt and a fly ball, but he was willing to learn. His candor and honesty was more effective than an ego-based authoritarian approach his players would have immediately seen through as laughably hollow, guaranteeing him no respect. The latter was consistent and made sure his players knew it, “I don’t like any of you so you all get treated the same; like shit birds,” he told us often. We loved his moxie. We ran four plays, three running and one pass play; but we ran them very well. Like the bland Penn State football uniforms, there is sometimes beauty and efficiency in simplicity.

 Visitors beware
The calendar has just turned to October, the most glorious of months to be found in the nation’s heartland, as I roll down Highway 61, headed for Jonesboro, just a short leap over the Missouri border. Highway 61, with a nod to its rep as birth place of the Blues, is now officially known as the Rock and Roll Highway. Due to the adjoining Arkansas counties ban on distilled spirits, as I leave Missouri I pass a gauntlet of liquor stores hugging just north of the state line. The area is peppered with a like number of Free Will Baptist churches, leading to a thought that runs through my head as I drive: with such a small population and so many churches, how many of these disproportionate to the population liquor stores have back doors?

 Over the top
This evening, Coach Cummings and his Hurricanes will take to their home court to tangle with the Greene County Tech Eagles from nearby Paragould. The 'Canes are on a roll, sporting a record of 20-2. They have won to date 53 of 60 sets played. With a roster full of returnees from last year’s 28 win state runner-up squad; this season’s success was not unexpected. In nine seasons, Cummings has led Jonesboro to 8 state tournament appearances and two state titles; 2013 and 2016. “Right now,” he tells me, “we are in an up cycle.”

Greene County Tech falls in three straight sets, 25-20, 25-10 and 25-13. After the game Cummings is chintzy with any praise for his team. “At times,” he says, “we struggled. Greene County Tech has a nice team and they really competed hard tonight. I don’t know, you look  at the scores and it looks we dominated, but then you sit back and watch the match, we didn’t play with any consistency. We have got work to do, for sure.”

I compliment the home fans on the gym’s fun and rowdy atmosphere. A good student section is on hand and they are here to cheer, not gossip, one informs me. Several parents quiz me in a subtle way as to why I am here. I am evasive with my answers. I make sure to periodically move my tote bag as to leave it too long in one spot, I fear, could provoke a 911 call and the appearance of the local SWAT team. I make sure for the duration of my stay to not mention the name of the state’s least favorite son and daughter-in-law, Clinton. We all agree that the Hurricanes are rounding into top form and as a mother tells me after the match, “no way,” will these girls be denied top honors at next month’s state tournament. It's refreshing to see the faithful linger long after the match is over and the net is down, soaking in the good late season vibes their team is sending.

Northeast Arkansas is a long time hotbed for high school girls’ volleyball. The non-school clubs here are organized and have a long time success rate. The high school coaches in the area are very hands-on, involved with player development year round.  Several years recently, when the state title weekend’s dust had settled, the majority of the state’s classification champions hailed from the Jonesboro/Paragould area. In 2014’s Class 5A title game, neighboring districts and fierce rivals Paragould and powerhouse Valley View played what many consider the best match in state volleyball history. Paragould pulled off an upset in a five set nail-biting classic tilt, prevailing in razor thin fashion, 23-25, 26-24, 22-25, 25-22, and 15-12.

 Coach Cummins, 2018
Situated on the postcard worthy Crowley's Ridge, Jonesboro is the seat of Craighead County and the home of Arkansas State University. According to the 2010 Census, the city had a population of 71,551 and is the fifth-largest city in Arkansas. Crime and the cost of living are low while the influence of the town’s numerous churches is high. The political lean is bedrock conservative with a pinch of liberal thought on economic disparity issues.

Jonesboro is both the cultural and economic center of northeastern Arkansas. The city’s population has exploded, more than doubling between 1980 and 2010. No letup in growth is expected as local civic leaders marketing efforts purport the town as a regional center for manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, education, and trade. The area embraces, at least on the overt surface, its diversity. The latest census figures show the racial makeup of the city as three fourths White and 19% Black. The growing Hispanic community claims a 5% slice of the population.  Twenty three percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. The iconic author, John Grisham was born in Jonesboro in 1955, son of a cotton farmer/construction worker and a stay at home mother. At age five, his family relocated to Mississippi.

I am up early my second day in Jonesboro with the intent of hitting several popular coffee shops to speak to locals about life in Jonesboro. The coffee is great, the conversing not so great. At 11:00 am I head over to the Western Sizzler Steakhouse and hit the jackpot, the local Touchdown Club is setting up for their weekly meeting. I explain to a member of law enforcement what has brought me to town. He extends a hearty welcome and introduces me to several other early arriving club members. An insurance salesman is proud to point out to me the diversity of the group, running off  a list of the various occupations of club members. I am impressed, I congratulate him. But in my mind, I am thinking, what diversity? Every one of the 40 or so members seated in the banquet room is white, male and pushing or exceeding middle age. But, I remain a gracious visitor, bite my tongue and note in my mind that us middle aged white guys get beat up enough in today’s  evolving society. I thank everyone and head to volleyball practice.

"What ya doin here"
The Jonesboro school district opened its first school in 1899. JHS lays claim to a “highly awarded performing arts program.”  The high school campus houses a Performing Arts Center that seats over 1000 people. The girls’ volleyball team has been a torch bearer of achievement for the athletic department, laying claim to a state-high 12 state championships between 1978 and 2016. The Hurricanes volleyballers won three consecutive titles in 1994, 1995, 1996. In 2002, the team has its most successful campaign with a then state-record 39 wins in a season. In 2013 Coach Cummings squad defeated Benton for the Class 6A title. In 2016, after losing three regular season matches to area rival Marion, the Hurricanes found their groove at the most opportune of times, pulling off an upset in the state title match. Last year, 2017, Jonesboro took second at the state tournament. The goal for the next month’s post season tournament, which Jonesboro will host, is not up for debate. “We are good enough to win it,” says Cummings, but cautions, “so are several others in our class.”

Is a different approach needed when coaching girls as opposed to boys?

Legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit was once asked at a clinic she was giving by a male coach of a high school girls’ basketball team if she had any advice when it came to coaching girls on the hardwood as opposed to boys. “I leveled him with a death-ray stare,” said the coach with a reputation for gruffness that would rival a grizzly bear, and told the male coach, “Go home and coach basketball.”

Cummings disagrees with the legendary hoops coach. He says it might be different for a woman coaching men, but for him, gender is a factor that cannot be ignored when a man coaches teenage girls, that the Psychology of Coaching applies equally to both genders. “Of course, I have been on the women’s side for many years but when I did transition to women’s volleyball (from men’s’), the physical size and strength were different and had to be adjusted for.” But what about the mental side, I ask? Cummings softens now some from his answer to my original questions of the importance of the mental side of coaching, admitting that the girls tend to be more motivated by compliments than by derogatory criticism, than boys.

 Assistant Coach C C Smith
Assistant Hurricane Volleyball Coach C.C Smith is an institution at Jonesboro High School. He moved to the city from his birth place in rural Arkansas in 1971 at the age of 1. He has spent his entire 25 year teaching career in the Jonesboro school system. He started in alternative education and now teaches high school social studies. He has been an assistant volleyball coach since 2003. He is also the girls track coach and a few years ago when approached by a group of students, started a school step team that to this day he still sponsors. Consider him Coach Cummings' alter ego and staunch supporter. Senior setter Bailey Tequpa says that the longtime assistant coach is invaluable to the team’s chemistry. “He always knows the right thing to say at the right time,” the three year varsity starter confides. “I couldn’t imagine him ever not being here. They will never replace him. Someday they will have to bring someone new in, but they will never replace him.”

Coach Cummings, at 50 years of age, had no choice but to reinvent himself. The year after his ASU resignation was long and trying. “I did some subbing in the district,” he recalled, “and I officiated volleyball and helped out with the area club teams. The whole time I was dealing with health issues, related to the cancer. I did everything to keep busy and not go stir crazy. “

Fortune would soon smile on the former beach boy from California when Jonesboro High Coach Jo Beth Mathis resigned after the 2008 season. In her two years as the volleyball program’s head coach, Mathis won a state title in her first season and reached the state semis her second.  “She lived in the Valley View school district,” says Cummings, “and her son and daughter both went to school there. Her kids did not want to leave their school and Coach Mathis did not want to coach against her daughter. She had a chance to go to Valley View as an assistant and she took it. She called me to tell me the job was to be open and that I should apply. I did and I was hired.”

 Cummings 2007
Most jobs are open for a reason.  Not the case in 2009 when Cummings stepped on to a high school court as a coach for the first time. It was a fortuitous set of circumstances he readily admits. “It (the last nine years) have had its bumps, but I have always felt supported here.” After years of coaching college athletes whose parents were not at every practice, not on the school board or related to half the town; often times college coaches who move to the high school level are blindsided by the nuisance of parental influence and demands. Not here, says
Cummings. “You saw after the game tonight how the parents were on the floor congratulating the kids. I have never felt parental pressure or interference here. We have always both pulled in the same direction.”

Cummings spends his days teaching elementary physical education and moves over to the high school each day at 1:30 to drill the Hurricanes. I think to myself that if wears he game day Hawaiian shirt to teach teach physical education, do the kids call you Magnum P.E.? 

“I fast tracked through the state department to get my certification. I enjoy working with the younger kids,” he says of his class rosters comprised of first through sixth graders.

Coach Cummings shows stoicism when he denies to me any altruistic based intent with the two hours he spends each afternoon with his 20 Varsity and JV players. So, I decide to ask some of his players. Does he only care about volleyball, I ask?

Avicenna, he would have
made a fine volleyball coach
Senior setter Bailey Taqupa is a three year varsity player. Her older sister was a valued member of the 2013 state championship team, Coach Cummings first. “It seems like I have known the man my whole life,” says the self-confident Taqupa. During the 2013 season, at a weekend tournament, Cummings felt a discomforting tightness in his chest. Between matches he sought out Bailey’s father, a cardiologist, for an opinion. “He thought I was coming over to tell him to stop yelling at his daughter-Bailey’s older sister. I ended up with two stents,” said Cummings.

“Coach encourages me to be a leader", says Taqupa. “Knowing he believes in me means a lot and gives me confidence to take a leadership role (self-awareness-one down).  He and I get into it all the time. I like to ask questions but he doesn’t always like to answer them and when he does, often, I don’t like his answer,” laughs the senior. “I tell him all the time that when I leave he is going to miss me more than I (will) miss him.” The academically blessed senior will mothball her volleyball knee pads after the end of this season and concentrate on her life goal of becoming a dentist. “I have played (volleyball) year round since I was 7 years old,” she says, “It is time to move on, but I am going to miss it and I don’t regret any of the time I have devoted to volleyball. I really am going to miss coach but please don’t let him know,” she pleads. I promise her it is our secret.

Cummings points out to me before an afternoon practice that he has learned to be flexible with the outside needs of his players. This afternoon; two of his mainstays will miss practice as they are playing as a doubles entry in the state tennis meet.  Two other current volleyball players run cross country and occasionally miss practice for meets. In past years, some members of the volleyball team played in the marching band that required the juggling of daily practice schedules. "In college, says Cummings, "if we had practice, you were at practice. That doesn't work here and besides, I want them to have a good well rounded experience. They are only in high school once." A current JHS volleyball player confides in me that if she had wanted to continue a promising basketball career she would not have been allowed to play any other sports, it had to be basketball year round. She dropped out of basketball.    

Junior Kellen Church is a rarity in this age of specialization; she competes in four varsity sports for the Hurricanes: cross country, track, softball and volleyball. “It keeps me busy,” the junior understates, when I asked how she finds the time. She also maintains a grade point average of 4.0+. Her parents were both former college track coaches and her father is currently a professor of exercise science at ASU.

"It does get crazy," Church admits, "but coach never pushes me farther than I want to be pushed. The school here is real good about supporting each other. Coach Cummings can challenge me without loading more on me, if that makes sense. I guess a better way of saying it is that he challenges me to challenge myself.” (mental toughness- halfway there)

Breanna Moore is, by her own words, a very short but very productive  hitter. “I moved here from Georgia two years ago,” she says “when my mom got a job at the university.” She is also an honor student with a 4.0+ plus GPA. Her senior year, to this point, has been smooth sailing, “I had no trouble getting into things (when I moved here). Volleyball has been a big part of life. I just jumped in and pretty soon I was accepted. This team is just one big melting pot.” Her teammate Church shoots  her  a quizzically glance, Melting Pot? But Moore is now on a roll, a steady stream picking up steam. “You know,” Moore says, “You're white, I am black, Bailey, I am not sure what she is, Asian something, maybe, but volleyball brings us all together. Melting Pot, yeah that is it.”  I mentioned to Moore it was a safe bet she is seldom called shy. “Never," she says with a big smile.

Church says volleyball has taught her to roll with punches of high school. “Sometimes,” the soft spoken athlete says, “it can get overwhelming, not just with all of my activities but also with school work and just everything that goes on in and out of school. I like it that Coach is not a yeller and overly emotional with us. By being that way, it not only takes the stress off me but also his low key approach makes me settle down.” (Emotional stability-one to go)

Moore, says Cummings, is “approachable.” “I never feel I am asking a dumb question,” she says while her friend Church is losing a battle trying to suppress a grin. “Ok, sometimes he says it is a dumb question, but he will give me (an) answer. Sometimes, I think Coach tries too hard to be fair and patient. He doesn't tell us how old he is, but we figured it out. He comes from a whole different time and age. But we keep him current," she says with a laugh. "I (get) more fired up than coach gets. Like, some girl messes up in a big match and I am like, ‘darn coach, get her out.’ Be he will say ‘no, no; she just needs some time to get it figured out,’ and I am like, ‘darn,’; but then I think about it and I am starting to see his point. If it was me I would want another chance, to be supported.”(moral attitudes –  BINGO.)  

“But, hey, when we get to state," Moore says as she shakes both index fingers for emphasis, “no, no coach, she is screwing up, she is going to have to sit.”


Two years ago, Cummings’ cancer returned, this time as two tumors in his abdomen. “We found it in August,” he remembers, “but it didn’t seem to be growing as fast this time, so we decided I would coach the season and have it out the week before Thanksgiving and I would be back to work the next week. I knew we were in for a good season so, the decision to wait was not that hard.”

The volleyball season went better than the medical procedure. Two weeks after defeating Marion for the state title, Cummings was back in the hospital. “It didn’t go as well as we had hoped,” he nonchalantly informed me. “Taking the tumors out went fine, but in recovery, I had some infection problems. I didn’t get back to school until the second week of January. But, I am fine now.”

Cancer, says the coach, has changed him. “It scares you,” he admits. “But I have learned to deal with it in a positive way. I have kept my faith and just push on. I can’t worry (cancer) away. It is a mental challenge, for sure.” (Emotional stability and mental capacity) ” You learn to live for the day,” he says, “do the right thing and make each day count. I believe everything works out. There have (been) some things happen in my life that were not good, but those circumstances are what has brought me here now, and it is a good place I am now, so I focus on doing things that have an impact. That is important to me.” (self-awareness and moral attitudes)  

I asked Cummings if he thought his players learned to model the positive behaviors he had just mentioned by the way he interacts with them, in essence to develop strong character traits through their high school volleyball experience. “I hope so,” he says, “that is why I am here.”

So, chalk one up for my Persian friend, after all. It is pronounced: AV" + "i" + "SEN" + "uh”.

In November, the Hurricanes capture the state Class 5 state championship. They sweep all four state matches 3 sets to none.