Typically we turn to sports to get away from the struggles of real life.
We want to feel good. Or feel bad about something trivial. We curse when the field goal misses the uprights, but it’s easier than dealing with that problem in our personal lives that seems insurmountable. And when the field goal goes in, it’s a quick and easy way to feel jubilant and escape reality for a while.
Of course, the actors on the stage of sports are indeed real flesh-and-blood, as are we the fans. And real life catches up to them too.
In the University of Kentucky athletics family, we were reminded of that twice this week in the most somber terms.
On Thursday, the Kentucky football program’s John Schlarman. In simple terms, he was 45, had battled cancer for two years, and was the team’s offensive line coach. Truth is, he was so much more than that.
Later that evening, Matthew Mitchell retired as head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team. This summer, doctors performed brain surgery on Mitchell to repair damage sustained during a fall earlier in the year. Mitchell was gearing up for what looked to be a very successful season for the team, ranked just outside the top 10 in the preseason. Instead, he’s stepping back to concentrate on what matters most in life following a fight for his life.
“I have been open about the fact that the surgery and recovery process has been life-altering for me and my family,” said Mitchell in a statement Thursday. “Through that, my priorities toward my family and my faith (have) grown even larger than before and that has led me to make this decision.”
Football is fun. Basketball is fun. But these are real people, battling real problems.
In a way, Schlarman was larger than life, however. He was an avatar of sorts for the average Wildcats football fan, a Kentucky boy through and through who found himself present at some of the biggest moments in the program’s recent history — and experienced some of the highest highs up close and personal.
An alum of Ft. Thomas Highlands in northern Kentucky, Schlarman played for Bill Curry and Hal Mumme in the mid-’90s. A kid growing up in a basketball state who knew more of names like Melvin Turpin and Rex Chapman when I was little, was never really aware of UK football until that first Governor’s Cup game against Louisville in 1994, the establishment of Big Blue’s biggest rivalry series; I didn’t become a fan until the historic win over Alabama in 1997, with Tim Couch at the controls of the Air Raid offense. Schlarman was present for both moments — both of them wins.
As a grad assistant, he helped guide the surprisingly successful 2002 team, which won despite a bowl ban with Derek Abney breaking kickoff and punt return records and the “Hefty Lefty” Jared Lorenzen (another gone too soon) slinging it all over the field. After some time in the Kentucky high school ranks and then at Troy with fellow former Wildcat Neal Brown, Schlarman returned as a full-time offensive line coach when Mark Stoops took over in 2013. Here, he developed one of the best offensive lines in the nation, one that gained national acclaim for the record-setting running games of Benny Snell in 2018 and Lynn Bowden in 2019. He coached Bunchy Stallings to First Team AP All-American status two years ago, and helped bring the rare 5-star recruit to UK in offensive tackle Landon Young.
And who can forget the image of Schlarman screaming like a madman — like we all were — in the locker room following the ‘18 game in which UK broke its obscene losing streak to Florida? Or the last game Schlarman would coach at UK, the first win in Knoxville since 1984, which the Cats scored last month? Schlarman didn’t look the same — physically, he was smaller — but he still spoke to the players and inspired them to go out and kick some big Orange butt.
Players often talked about what a great man he was, and what a role model — even though he was undergoing treatments for cancer that drained his strength and made him feel awful, he never complained; how could they gripe about minor bruises or petty things like playing time? As a fan, though, you felt that excitement at Gainesville two years ago, you felt that joy at Tennessee. That was a young man from Kentucky who grew up to be a part of the program he loved in so many ways and was there for so many historic moments, improbably so. He truly lived the dream of a UK fan, and coached until he could do so no longer. Schlarman died only a little over three weeks after that win over the Volunteers. If there’s any way a UK fan would want to pass on, their last moment of glory ... man, you’d have to think it would be like that.
Instead of coaching right up until the end, Mitchell took another path — after staring mortality in the eye, he took a step back and decided to experience a calmer life, outside the high-pressure world of big-time college athletics.
I never met either Schlarman or Mitchell, but my dad got to experience an unforgettable memory with the latter. Dad plays with the Lexington Philharmonic, the string bass. During one concert, the orchestra got cheeky and played P.D.Q. Bach’s comical version of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, with the novelty of announcing what the orchestra is doing as if it were a ballgame. Mitchell and UK announcer Carl Nathe did the “call” during the performance, and at one point Mitchell pointed out the bass player (Dad) suffering a sudden groin injury. Dad also got to quip around with the coach during the downtime and found him to be a great personality.
But we knew that already. Mitchell’s strength was his self — his positivity, his sense of humor, his way with people. He’s the all-time winningest coach in UK women’s basketball history, and he got there through promoting the program and selling it to Blue Chip recruits, much the same way the fabled men’s team has always done it in Lexington. Before Mitchell, most people knew the name “Valerie Still” in reference to the women’s team and that was about it — she was the answer to a common trivia question: Who’s the all-time leading basketball scorer at UK? Nope, not Dan Issel. When Mickie DeMoss came to Kentucky in 2003 and brought some of her Tennessee legacy with her, the program started trending in the right direction, but it was her former assistant Mitchell who really took it to new heights.
His big personality was evident in his coach’s show, unlike any you’d ever seen before. Rather than dry X-and-O talk, Mitchell had segments like the “Guitar Tip of the Week” — which usually involved Mitchell and a particular player talking about things other than guitars — or a cooking segment with his wife Jenna. Even if you weren’t a die-hard fan of the team, it was still a fun show to watch. Mitchell helped women’s basketball get noticed at a school where the shadow of the men’s team blankets nearly everything else — the program will miss him, no way around it, even if he’s put them in a good position to succeed moving forward.
Schlarman and Mitchell took starkly different paths after facing their health scares — Schlarman stayed with the team and coached as hard as he could for as long as he could, until there was nothing left to give. Mitchell reshuffled his priorities and gave up the game for his loved ones and his health. Both approaches are valid. Both are inspirational. Both tell of of the kind of men Schlarman and Mitchell were and are — dedicated, loving, and rock-solid.
How do we handle our problems in real life? Everyone is different. Every situation is different. But we can look to the likes of Schlarman and Mitchell, and see two fine examples of how its done — two sports figures teaching lessons about real life.