Cortez: Retired coaches deserve a break

03/19/2014 8:21 PM

03/19/2014 8:22 PM

Last weekend, as I was running errands with my family, I noticed two little girls operating a lemonade stand on a street corner not far from my house.

As I got closer, I not only noticed that these weren’t “little girls” – turns out they were high school students – but also that the lemonade was free.

Since it was just about 80 degrees, we stopped for a cup and, being naturally nosey, I asked why they weren’t charging for their product.

“I have a lemon tree in my back yard and we had a whole bunch of lemons,” replied one. “So, we thought we’d make lemonade.

“And we can work on our tans sitting out here.”

Ah, when life hands you lemons …

It’s not such a different tale from that of Modesto Christian boys basketball coach Gary Porter. Or should I say, former Modesto Christian boys basketball coach Gary Porter.

The coach’s legendary career came to an end Tuesday night in a gymnasium in Oakland. It’s a story that came three victories shy of ending just like it began.

Eighteen years ago, Porter was talked into coaching the boys team, agreeing to do so on a one-year basis. So what did the fill-in coach go and do? Win a state championship, is all. And who’s going to let go of a coach who just won a state title?

Thus, a coaching career was born.

“Winning is nice,” said Porter, his eyes blinking back tears moments after his team’s 74-51 loss to powerful Bishop O’Dowd in the NorCal semifinals. “But that’s not what it’s about. And you don’t define a career, or a life, based on one or two games.”

True, but you can define a career on 632 games. That’s the number of games Porter coached at MC and Central Catholic (he was a fill-in coach for the Raiders, going 7-18 in his lone season). And 16 section titles in 18 seasons, plus two state titles and an average of 28 wins per season reads like the definition of success to me.

But Porter views his coaching through a different prism.

“This was more of a ministry for me,” said Porter. “I’m fortunate to be good with people and I love kids.”

He sure does.

As the buzzer sounded to end the first half of the Crusaders’ Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 playoff opener against Rio Americano on Feb. 28, both teams headed for the locker room. Porter, on the other hand, had to crawl under the bleachers to fetch some wayward grandkids. A week or so before that, Porter coached an entire half with a granddaughter occupying each of his knees. It’s a luxury he can afford as he’s relied more and more on co-head coach Richard Midgley, a former MC player, while slowly stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the program.

“It’ll probably hit me harder later,” said Porter, standing in the hallways of the Laney College gymnasium. “I told my wife earlier (Tuesday), ‘I’m gonna miss the heck out of it.’

“But it’s cool. I’ve got a lot of good memories.”

And now he gets to sit back and enjoy those memories … maybe even with a tall, cool glass of lemonade.

Moving from basketball to baseball, Beyer High will honor longtime coach Paul Cornwell by renaming its field in his honor during a brief ceremony at 3 p.m. at the school today.

After the ceremony, Cornwell will throw out the first pitch for the Modesto Metro Conference game between Gregori and the host Patriots. A reception will follow at Marie Callender’s Restaurant & Bakery, 3500 Coffee Road.

The game will start around 3:45 p.m.

Cornwell was as good a coach as there was in the old Central California Conference, winning more than 500 games and seven league titles in 31 seasons at the helm.

More than that, though, he was utterly committed, overseeing every aspect of the program.

I remember traveling to Beyer for a Central California Conference game when I played baseball at Merced High. I couldn’t believe what a well-manicured field Beyer possessed. It was like playing on top of a pool table. By far, the best field in the area.

That was all Paul Cornwell’s doing.

“After he retired a few years ago, I forgot to ask for his keys and he forgot to turn them in,” said Beyer principal Dan Park. “He went out to the field and continued to work.

“I went out to the field and there’s sweat pouring down his face and I say, ‘Paul, I gotta have your keys.’ It was like asking God for his keys.”

Mitch Munthe, who served as an assistant and later took over for Cornwell with co-coach Steve Clark, remembers when Beyer’s field wasn’t much to look at.

“When he took over, the only thing on the field was a backstop,” said Munthe. “If the shortstop overthrew the first baseman, he had to go get the ball out of the vineyard. There was no fencing anywhere.”

In other words, Beyer baseball was nothing before Paul Cornwell.

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