Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Coach battles unruliness

Speech aims to undercut ugly rivalry

        Last fall I had harsh words for the ugly behavior of some football fans at Covington Catholic High School.

        Today I have admiring words for this CovCath phenomenon: basketball coach Mike Listerman.

        He didn't ask me to write this column. On Feb. 13, he made an extraordinary speech before a gym full of fans, but he didn't do it to impress the newspapers.

        He did it because it was right, and because he has high standards for his community. He saw a chance to teach, and he took it.

        “I had been wondering to myself since April, what am I going to do? What am I going to say? Should I do anything?” Mr. Listerman says.

        His soul-searching paid off for everyone.

        Mr. Listerman became Covington Catholic's head coach last spring, after years as an assistant. On Feb. 13, he faced one of his biggest challenges: CovCath's annual matchup with archrival Highlands High School of Fort Thomas.

        Victory wasn't the issue; Covington Catholic easily won the game. Mr. Listerman's concern was attitude.

[photo] Covington Catholic basketball coach Mike Listerman, coaching a practice.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        As I learned last fall, a nasty edge has crept into the longstanding rivalries between some Northern Kentucky schools. This season's football game between CovCath and Beechwood High, for instance, was marred by vandalism, obscene cheers and reckless behavior by fans on both sides.

        In the wake of that controversy, future games between Beechwood and CovCath were canceled. I received nearly 170 e-mails and phone calls from irate CovCath fans, many of whom thought my column exaggerated the problems.

        But behind the scenes, some teachers and students quietly began looking at ways to change. Students came up with new, positive cheers, even turning church songs into rousing chants.

        Mr. Listerman's reflection started even earlier, when he became head coach.

        The annual game against Highlands troubled him. Like siblings who are close in age, the two schools had a habit of nasty, needless taunting. Especially during football season, the tensions set the stage for violence: In 1997, a brick was heaved into a loaded CovCath school bus after a game at Highlands.

        “Neither one of the schools needed victory to justify their existence,” says Mr. Listerman, who has taught at both. “But I think that's what happens sometimes — we have to win to prove we're better.”

        Determined to find another way, he sought the help of his best friend: Highlands basketball coach John Messmer.

        The men's relationship spans 35 years. They have fished, cheered, mourned, coached and traveled together. They have helped paint each other's houses. Mr. Listerman has even spread manure at the Messmer family greenhouse.

        On Feb. 13, the two stood side by side on the basketball court at CovCath. With the restless crowd awaiting tipoff, Mr. Listerman picked up the microphone.

        What followed was a heartfelt meditation on friendship, community and the proper role of sports — directed primarily at the grown-ups in the stands.

        As Mr. Listerman recalls it, this is the gist of what he said:

        “We both represent schools that are well-known for academic accomplishments and athletic endeavors. And in recent years, we as adults have allowed a spirit of animosity to pervade athletic competition between the two schools. And John Messmer and I stand here tonight to say it doesn't have to be that way.

        “What we need to do here as adults is to show all our young people that we can cheer hard for our teams, but we can do it without animosity; and aftewards, we can walk out of here together.”

        Then the captains of the two basketball teams — Gino Guidugli of Highlands and Chad Wachs of CovCath — came forward with corsages for the coach's wives. Both school's initials were printed on the ribbon around the flowers.

        The crowd broke into applause. And for the rest of the game, people cheered with gusto but without the usual taunts or profanity. Highlands Principal George Frakes says it was the best atmosphere he had seen in 14 years.

        “It definitely changed the emotions of the game before it started,” said CovCath senior Ben Thamann. The speech calmed the crowd but didn't take the fun out of the evening, he said.

        A simple act, a few simple words, a friendship between men.

        By sharing their bond, these two coaches taught a lesson that transcends the temporary glory of sports. Bless them for having the courage.
       Karen Samples can be reached at 859-578-5584 or


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