In Celebration of Coach House
The Aug. 8 passing of Greg House leaves an immense void in the Blue Valley School District. But the impact he made over the years as a teacher, coach and friend won’t be forgotten.
“Begin with the end in mind.”
— The second of Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a Greg House favorite
To say practices with Greg House were arduous would be gentle.
Swimmers who competed for him had free admission to his tough love approach. You knew his infamous goal sets were coming, those unique slices of cruel and unusual punishment designed to be something you’ve never accomplished before. And when things really went off the rails, when he saw lack of effort, Coach House gave swimmers the quick hook.
“If he could tell that you weren’t trying, he wasn’t going to tell you to try harder. He was going to either ignore you and walk off or he was going to kick you out of practice,” says Elizabeth Baddeley, who swam for House at Blue Valley North from 1996-99. “I remember a few times being kicked out of practice and just feeling awful because you weren’t trying.”
Sometimes he would kick himself out of practice out of frustration and leave Tim Burkindine, who worked alongside House as North’s diving coach, the unenviable task of finishing practice.
But here’s what made House special. He loved his kids so much, and expected so much from them and himself. So having his wife, Deb, hear the garage door open an hour earlier than anticipated was probably the last thing he wanted. And deep down, the kids understood he was trying to get more out of them than they could possibly know they had in them. This was his passion. This was his calling, being around these high schoolers and watching them achieve beyond their greatest imaginings. House’s youthful spirit and innate readiness to engage in so many lives invigorated everybody.
“So much of Greg’s success was based on having the trust of young people, both in the classroom and in the swimming pool, and on the football field. They knew that what he wanted was the best experience for them,” Deb says. “He also believed in outworking everyone.”
That belief in Coach House, those intense practice sessions, the emphasis on team, would all coalesce into one of the most stunning records of success in the history of Kansas high school athletics. House would win 20 state swimming championships with three schools: Blue Valley, Blue Valley North and Blue Valley Northwest.
How is it that a guy with no real competitive swimming experience would be synonymous with greatness as a swim coach?
It’s something that even House couldn’t articulate very well. But you can start to piece the answers together.
“When you’re trying to get kids to identify with traditions of a program, one of the ways to do that is to storytell and to tell about the great athletes of the past,” says Steve Rampy, the former head football coach at Blue Valley, second-year offensive coordinator at Pittsburg State and close family friend. “Because I think young athletes want to identify their existence in a program with what’s already been. He and I spent a lot of time talking about that. We would tell stories about the great football teams that we had when he was an assistant for me. I know he used to tell stories about Walter Denton. And I know for a long time, Greg used him and told stories about him to his young swimmers hoping they would aspire to become quote-unquote the next Walter Denton.”
Denton, who arrived at Blue Valley as a sophomore, was a member of House’s first three state championship teams from 1986-88. He then went to Blue Valley North when it opened in 1986, when the swimmers shared a team. The BVN athletic Hall of Famer says it’s the most fun he’s ever had in a pool and above all marveled at House’s ability to listen.
“Not only was he a coach that was barking orders, we’d get done with it and he would say, ‘How’d you like that set? Did it make you tired? Really tired? Kind of tired? Is there something we could do different to it that it would make it better?’” says Denton, who is now the City Administrator in O’Fallon, Ill. “That was refreshing for me from someone who had been swimming for a lot of coaches over the years, to have a coach who asked me what I thought about a set or what I thought about a workout.”
Denton saw House at his formative phase in coaching. House had previously taught and coached at Schlagle, Wyandotte and Sumner Academy in his hometown of Kansas City, Kan. But when Blue Valley needed a swim coach in 1983, he saw he could fill a need.
“Greg never turned down a challenge,” says Burkindine, now teaching at Shawnee Mission East. “He wouldn’t say, ‘I’m only going to do what I’m comfortable with or what I know I’m really good at.’ That wasn’t Greg. I’d venture to say Greg stepped up to the plate—‘yeah, I think I can do that and I’ll see what I can do.’ And then he went out and figured out how to get it done. Not just to do it, but to be really good at what he was doing.”
It was never about the Xs and Os with House either. He didn’t really care about that in any sport he coached. It was about developing heart and character. His background as a psychology teacher made him focus on other motivational methods. As a proponent of visualization techniques he picked up at a seminar with Rampy at the recommendation of then-BV athletic director Harvey Greer, he allowed swimmers to run through the race in their minds before it ever happened.
And when competition rolled around, was it ever a thing of beauty.
“That was really Camelot for me, being around kids who really devoted themselves,” Burkindine says. “Just to see the effort, the commitment to one another. It was a fable. It was legendary. Greg and I would walk through fire for our kids. We got 10 times that back from them.”
“Train like warriors, love like family, and compete like champions.”
The doctors told him in May. Right when his girls’ swimmers at Blue Valley were preparing for the state meet, House was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Here the Houses had gone through Deb’s breast cancer a decade earlier, with Greg shaving his head along with his team in solidarity.
Suddenly the roles were reversed.
He didn’t show up for the Friday practice. That wasn’t like him. Everybody was on to him. They just didn’t know what it was. And he kept it to himself, through the state meet, through the awards banquet, through graduation. He didn’t want to be a source of distraction. Only when the graduation parties subsided did he address the diagnosis with his team.
But Deb, his wife of 30 years, saw some classic Greg in his final awards appearance. Still without notes. Still knowing every finishing time and every contribution each swimmer made with his phenomenal memory.
“That said it all,” she says. “I was at every one, because I just loved listening to him talk about each athlete. And he didn’t miss a beat. The last one he did was with the same interest and enthusiasm and the same spirit that he’d done all of the others.”
House then suffered a stroke, which complicated matters further. It affected his left leg, but it gave him something to work on.
“He loved going to therapy, because it felt like being in the gym,” Deb says. “He had a habit of going to the gym for two hours a day, so he trained like a warrior too. His spirits would always be so lifted when he would come back. He made such progress, but a different play was called, and he was reassigned.”
A second more debilitating stroke occurred not long before his death. Yet House handled it with grace, dignity, courage and strength, the things he inspired in others.
“As soon as he passed, the quote that Jack Nicholson said in ‘The Bucket List’ about Morgan Freeman came to my mind,” says Rampy, who along with his family, was among the last to see him alive. “The concept is, I’m just extremely proud that he thought it significant to be my friend. Greg was such an amazing person; that I was important in his life is something really, really special to me.’”
House may well have saved his best for last in his final year of coaching. Not only did the Blue Valley boys and girls win their respective state championships in 2011, he was an assistant for the Tigers’ state championship football team in the fall.
The perfect conclusion to 61 well-lived years.
“I look at people’s deaths as what a lot of people imply they are—the celebration of their life,” Rampy says. “I really believe that’s what this is. He had an incredible life. While it was too short, it still was an incredible life. And his legacy and the effect he had on hundreds if not thousands of people will stand the test of time.”
Memorials have been established for Greg House through the Blue Valley Educational Foundation (www.bvef.org) and the Emporia State University Foundation (www.emporia.edu/saf/foundation).
A Swimmer’s Tribute
Elizabeth Baddeley left her job at Hallmark to pursue other opportunities in illustration. This past winter, Baddeley began to sketch out ideas related to her time with Coach Greg House on the swim team at Blue Valley North. Meanwhile, she was given a huge assignment as a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City to put together a book of artwork about anything she wanted to draw.
“And you form your visual voice and the style of your work off of just drawing what you know,” she says. “I still swim. I go through phases where I swim more than other times. But of the times I’ve been swimming a lot at the rec center here [in New York], I have these random thoughts that go through my head. And I’m just going to do paintings of water and swimmers and see where that takes me.”
Baddeley spent a few months painting and sketching swimming scenes, yet up until a few months ago still didn’t know what her book would be about. But she kept coming back to her scrapbook of high school memories, combing through newspaper clippings, photographs and sheets from meets with their results. Ultimately those swimming memories, even the ones away from the pool, made the decision for her.
“It was always a tradition to go out to Godfather’s after every meet to eat pizza,” she says. “And usually he’d come with us unless you had a bad meet. You wanted Coach to come, because he’s fun. He’d tell stories and he’d have you laughing and he’d tease you.”
Her book project concentrates on the apprehensions a swimmer can face, the coach who would help overcome them and the friendships formed by teammates who share in the journey.
It’s also an expression of just how much swimmers had to give to meet House’s expectations. One illustration shows a swimmer looking back at the scoreboard, only to see the words “Not Fast Enough, Better Luck Next Time, Kid,” with Coach House stalking in the background.
But like countless other swimmers through the years, Baddeley was willing to give that much for him.
“We had the same mentality that we want to work hard because we want to be good at what we do,” she says, “and take pride in the things that we’re interested in.”
To see Baddeley’s completed project, “Swimmer Girls,” visit www.ebaddeley.com.