National commentary on Union High: We have a winner for coach of the year

By Paul Newberry

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 6:25 p.m. MDT

Union High School football player Zach Roll talks with a community member after receiving his jersey back Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. Some players were told they wouldn't be playing in Friday's homecoming game. The football coaches at Union High in Roosevelt have taken a stand against poor performance in the classroom and bullying outside the classroom, including disrespect of teachers and students.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The competition for coach of the year is over.

Finally, someone has put sports in its proper place.

In the midst of prima donna athletes, win-at-all-cost coaches and out-of-control fans, we can take comfort in knowing there's at least one guy out there who recognizes there are far more important things than what happens on the field.

We salute you, Matt Labrum.

For those who haven't heard, Labrum coaches high school football in Roosevelt, Utah, a hamlet about 100 southeast of Salt Lake City, population 6,100.

While most coaches fret over missed tackles and dropped passes, Labrum grew more and more concerned about the way his players were acting away from the gridiron. Skipping classes. Not doing their homework. Bullying classmates over the Internet. Disrespecting teachers.

So, after last Friday's game at Union High School, he called together the varsity and junior varsity players for a meeting.

The message he delivered had nothing to do with a 40-16 loss, though the parents lingering outside didn't know that.

"We waited for them to come out of the locker room — and waited and waited and waited," said Tammy Kelly, whose has one child on the junior varsity and two more on the freshmen team. "It must have been an hour and half before they came out. We were all like, 'I hope they're not getting their butts chewed out by the coach for the loss.' We knew that's not his style."

This was something much more serious.

Turn in your jerseys, he told the varsity and junior varsity players.

You're done playing football at Union High unless you start acting right.

According to the Deseret News, each player received a letter that outlined the problems and told what they would have to do earn back their spot on the team.

Most important was this passage:

"The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field," the letter said. "We want student-athletes that are humble to learn and grow through adversity and success on and off the field. We want a team that others want to associate themselves with and support; winning isn't the most important criteria for that to happen."

How refreshing is that.

Instead of practicing Monday and Tuesday, the players pulled weeds, washed windows, and visited two nursing homes in their town, including a 16-bed facility that is owned by Kelly, where three players called a game of bingo, another played checkers with a resident. They also had to do a project for their families, complete with a typed report, pictures and their parents' signatures. In addition, there was a class on character, which came with homework.

On Wednesday, practice was replaced by a two-hour study hall, the players needing to show significant improvement in any class they were struggling in. Finally, the team was required to memorize a quote and recite it to the coaches.

"Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it, piece by piece — by thought, by choice, courage, and determination."

Kelly said the visit from the team did wonders for the elderly in her facility.

"They have a lot of stories to share," she said. "The boys were very compassionate. I think it really touched them as well as the seniors."

Her son, Cache Connary, had more work to do at home.

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