Interview with Tom Lawson

What brought you to Middlebury?

It’s loaded in the sense that I, number one, am a native Vermonter. I grew up in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, went to school there, then went to the University of Vermont, and then realizing I wanted to do coaching I finished at Springfield College, in Massachusetts. Then I was coaching in high school here for a couple years or so, and was doing okay. When there was a change in 1969 at Middlebury in the Athletic Department, I think they hired about six or seven new coaches, and a new athletic director. The new athletic director was a retired football coach, Dick Coleman, from Princeton; for years and years, he’s pretty famous down there, or was anyway. So he came in as the athletic director and there was an opening in soccer, and I was coaching soccer and basketball, and I had gone something like four years without a loss or something (I didn’t; my team did). And that led to at least people knew who I was because of the state championships and all that stuff. I was able to have an interview with Dick Coleman. The soccer coach at Middlebury for quite a few years was Joe Marrone, who left to go to the University of Connecticut, where he became very, very successful. Well anyway I got his position, and to be honest with you—I can say this now—not that I didn’t want to coach soccer, but part of it was that with it went the assistant basketball job with Gary Walters. I gather you have quite a bit of knowledge about sports, and Gary Walters was from Princeton, so Dick hired him from Dartmouth to be the head basketball coach and I was the assistant, and he was my assistant in soccer. It was not an easy trade because he knew absolutely nothing about soccer. I knew a little bit about basketball. But anyway we worked it out and Gary stayed, a little less than one year, and went to Union, and one of the gratifying things about coaching is that somehow being the assistant coach I had established a pretty good relationship with a lot of the players. And unknown to me, they went to Dick Coleman, and said instead of having a search, why don’t you ask Tom if he would be interested in taking the basketball [position], which was what I was praying for everyday. But in those days I was a soccer coach, and I took the basketball job too, so now I have two varsity sports for seven or eight years. And on top of that, Dick Coleman got ill, and I assumed the assistant athletic director’s position, so I was like a one-armed paper hanger, trying to get all this done, but it was a great experience for me. So that is how I got to be basketball coach.

You had three straight winning seasons to start as a head coach, what was the transition like from Gary Walters to your coaching style? How did you change the culture of the team or approach of the team?

That’s an excellent question because, although we were great friends and still are, [Gary Walters and I were] different people completely. The philosophy was (this will point it out probably best): when we were playing a team with zone defense, Gary wouldn’t even come to practice. He had this philosophy that you play man-to-man all the time, and there’s no place in the game for zone defense, and so I had to show the defenses to the team. Gary was an in-your-face, very excitable person; very knowledgeable, a great competitor, maybe a little frustrated at the time with the quality of the talent. So [Walters’] season did not turn into a winning season, and that had been fifteen years I guess. So when I took over, the first thing I did was said, I’m a different person. At the time I was an assistant I also at that time had a freshman basketball team, so I had coached that myself in conjunction with working with Gary, and so I ran my own ideals and theories and philosophies, and I had a pretty good group of freshmen, but they couldn’t play varsity at that point in time. So I had that as a basis, and then I had good interactions with the ones who were coming back, which was quite a few. On the comical side, Jimmy Keyes, who was my first co-captain, my first team that I had as a full team, my second year here at Middlebury, and he was a left-handed, very small center, and Gary Walters earlier had said, “Jimmy if you take another hook shot I’m going to cut your arm off.” So in the first meeting I sat in front of the whole team and said, “Now Jimmy, your new position is—I’m going to put your left arm back one—and you shoot that hook shot every time you can and we’ll work on it all season.” It was that kind of interchange, and it was a very easy transition. We stopped doing the Princeton offense and that stuff because we didn’t have the talent to do the Princeton offense. I changed our defense from the pressure man-to-man which we weren’t capable of playing to disguising it as a matchup zone defense and then play the man-to-man defense withi that. We really became noted for that. I remember [the then RPI coach] said, “You’re the worst coach I have to prepare for. We can’t do anything against that stupid zone of yours.” It was a compliment to the kids, I said, “Would you rather play man-to-man and run up and down the court, or play really good man-to-man in this zone? I’ll show you how to do it.” Because in the back of my head I said at least I have intelligent kids, so we used the intelligence and they did a great job.

I spoke to Jim Keyes, and he told me that story about the hook shot.

He did? You should have stopped me. Jimmy was a great player, Middlebury was lucky to have him.

Who were some of the other players who stand out, when you look back, not just for what they accomplished on the floor but also off the floor?

On my freshman team was a young man from Maine and he had open-heart surgery and he was never supposed to play again. Well he played, he played for me for four years, and then early after he had graduated from Middlebury he did pass away. But the commitment and the drive and want that he had to play basketball, and play it well. He did a great job, and he was a great person.

The other captain was a small guy that was a close, close friend of Jimmy Keyes, John Flanagan, who was a very successful financial advisor for Edward Jones, a big promoter of Middlebury College.

Later on, I had a young man called David Pentkowski, who played for me in high school. When I came to the high school, he was in fifth or sixth grade. With very little genius I figured out he was going to be a great player and a great person. His senior year when I left to come up to Middlebury, he was from a very poor family, and we arranged for him to get a full scholarship to Exeter Academy.  He stayed there two years, his senior year and his post-graduate year, and he ended up being the captain of men’s soccer and men’s basketball as well as graduating with honors. He had a full academic ride to University of North Carolina, wanted to be able to play basketball and soccer, knew he was going to be a lawyer, and decided he was going to come to Middlebury. I said, “Wonderful, great. Why?” And he said, “I thought it through, and I can’t fathom a really good lawyer that didn’t have skills in the English language, is articulate, can write, all that stuff. Given the strengths of Middlebury, I know I can get into law school, etcetera, I chose Middlebury.” And he had a great career here.

Young man, his name was Zenon Smotrycz, he came from Jersey City, New Jersey, and he was about 6’10,” blonde hair, thin face, and a clone of Larry Bird. It got to be a joke, he would go to Boston, people would say, “You Larry?” and he would sign something for him. He went to work for New Balance, and then went out on his own, to this day he has a consulting business designing running shoes, and he goes all over the world. His son [Evan Smotrycz] played at University of Michigan, unfortunately he took this year off and transferred to Maryland, so he’ll play at Maryland for the rest of his career, but he started for Michigan, was a good player. I said all the genes must be from your mother because your father wasn’t that good. But he was interesting.

An Afro-American man who I’m very proud of is the Dean of Students and Bates College, great person, he played for me here, Jim Reese. He was a great person to talk with.

Dave Nelson was from North Quincy, Mass. His father was a cop, the whole nine yards, grew up very tough, good student, and somehow a good basketball player. He was about 6’2,” he was a very good basketball player but probably a better catcher in baseball. He hurt his shoulder, otherwise he would have been in the pros. But he ended up becoming a Lutheran minister. During Middlebury I’d ask him and he’d say, “I’m going to become a Lutheran minister,” and I said, “Sure.” His first request for an assignment was in some downtown totally tough, low-income, primarily black area, in Detroit. In the first three months he was there, his apartment was cleaned out three teams. He had a parish with 30 people in it. Three years later when he left, they had over 3,000 people. I had him back in that span of time and he spoke at the Chapel, and he just gave a great talk. He was all dressed in white, and he had a black beard at that time, a pretty impressive person up there, and I’m very proud of that.
There’s lawyers, Indian chiefs, and as I became athletic director in 1977, I kept the basketball job, and Russ Reilly was my assistant, and I finally said, I can’t do this, and I became full time athletic director in ’78.

What are some of your fondest memories interacting with your players off the court?

[Pauses] It shouldn’t be hard, but it is. I almost feel apologetic, in the sense that, with three major assignments, out of season, off the court, having a family I never saw, I didn’t seem to have any time. Now it seems like an excuse, but it’s an explanation. But I’ve seen our kids do unbelievable things. What some of the players did for smaller kids, going in to schools, not as much as they do now I think, but with the same dedication and feeling of “Hey, I did some something real good,” the interaction with players who have helped other players or other students. As you know, there’s something special about Middlebury. That just made me think of one basketball player that actually played a couple years for Russ, but I recruited him, the guy that is the CEO of Sony, Kevin Kelleher, his son went here and his daughter went here. I use him as an example. He was from Massachusetts, right outside of Worcester. He was a good student, a great basketball player, and a wonderful, wonderful kid. Anyway, I think I still have scars on my knees from getting on the floors to say [to the admissions office], “You’ve got to take this young man.” They didn’t think he could do the job. I said, “How many kids have I brought in that haven’t done the job?” Something I’m proud of, they admitted, well, none. I said, “Am I allowed one mistake then? Because this won’t be it.” So anyway they took him, and he graduated with honors, went to Rutgers, and then he was an accountant, and Sony saw unbelievable potential in him, and that’s where he is now. And he is the most humble guy, you would think he was sleeping the floors at Sony, he is that kind of person. He’s done a lot for Middlebury. Those are the ones, there’s a lot, I cut myself off from coaching but I said to my staff my job was to make the environment better, easier and more successful, for coaching, and I hope we did that over a period of twenty years and I’ve been retired for fifteen years. I tend to wander when I speak.

What games — great wins, bad losses — stand out in your mind?

I’m pretty sure it was my first basketball game at home against Trinity. I had an assistant basketball coach, who knew a little basketball, but I hired him because he was a strong soccer coach. I remember it well; I learned a great lesson. We were up more than 20 before halftime. And he said, “Aren’t you going to sub more?” We would play seven guys and hope we didn’t have to sub more. And I said, “ Yeah, you’re probably right.” So we subbed a little bit and came out the second half starting some subs. And our lead went down to 15, I put two more starters back in the game, went down to 12. I finally put everybody back in, but by that point all the momentum … everything was gone. They hit a shot from midcourt on the run to win it by one. And I sat there and I’m saying, “I’ve got to learn from this. And I did. That was one of the hardest, most hurting losses I’ve ever had.

We beat UVM two out of four in a four-year span and we beat St. Michael’s three out of four. And this particular year we had lost three games in a row; we weren’t playing very well. And Vermont came in and we won by about 15 points. It was such a gratifying win.

We were probably one of the most wanted Christmas tournament teams at big schools because of the 15 years without a winning record. So we played at Bentley and they had a 6’6’’ and 6’7’’ guards — All-Americans. With less than a minute to go, we were up one. We had a 6’9’’ kid at center, and he turned to hook one in and the refs called him for an offensive foul, which was very debatable. It was his fifth foul so he fouled out. And they beat us by one. But I was so proud of the way they played. They were in way over their heads. It goes back to the intellectual side of the game, which is a real deciding factor.

How do you think Middlebury basketball has changed from your days coaching to today?

One thing that I wish I had, since I had such great shooters, was the three-point line. I had one kid who would be the top scorer at Middlebury. Slower than death on defense, but could he shoot it.

The other big factor is scheduling. A lot of that isn’t by choice [unfortunately].

Any last things you’d like to add?

I pride myself on being humble. I didn’t like getting up and speaking, but I did. I liked working and helping young people. Of all the things I am probably most proud of was weathering the storm when I arrived here with the lack of facilities and Title IX.

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