Banna struck me like an All-State linebacker. The culture he created exluded life lessons wrapped up in statements about football: work harder than everyone else, never quit, overcome adversity, face and overcome your fears with tenacious self-determination, recognize the difference between pain and injury, cultivate mental and physical toughness, gain requires pain, get up after being knocked down, focus on your effort instead of the result, practice selfless dedication and humility, embrace change, how to work as a team in a diverse environment, and peak at the right time. I learned a lot about football, but volumes more about life from Coach Banna and the culture he created through his assistant coaches.
When I realized what I had learned I was in the process of applying to various law schools, uncertainty being the only certainty in my future. Realizing that I had used these lessons to get me that far, I decided they would also get me through law school, and they did. I wrote Coach Banna to express my belated gratitude. These lessons are subtle enough that many former players may never fully recognize what they learned from their athletic coaches, so I felt the need to say thanks for all of us. This article is my attempt to continue thanking Coach Banna and all the athletic coaches who impact their players positively far beyond whatever athletic field is involved. My experience is probably typical. My years playing varsity football at Comeaux High School produced no championships, but what developed from the wins and losses carried my teammates and I through many winning years of life. For a coach, the game continues as long as he or she has players applying
Our stories were as similar as they were different—the commonalty being the profound and lifelong impact coaches had on the lives of their players. Banna and Blanco, the Birmingham boys who lived and breathed football during their youth, were profoundly influenced by their own high school football coach at John Carroll High School, Fagan Canzoneri, in addition to legends Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi, coaches so inspirational that their magic reached non-players. Coach Blanco brought this love of the game and ferocious intensity to Louisiana in 1959 when he agreed to become head coach at Catholic High of New Iberia. He left a highly successful program in Galveston, Texas to take over a struggling one at Catholic High, drawn magically to South Louisiana. Recognizing he would need help, Coach Blanco called his childhood friend and equal lover of the game, Bobby Banna, to work as an assistant. To say these two changed the way football was practiced and played in Louisiana at the time, first in New Iberia and then in ever expanding circles, is a colossal understatement—just ask Chester Gosnell who played for both men at Catholic High before either coach had mellowed. Chester Gosnel was the first All-American player to come out of Catholic High and attributes his success to these coaches. In Coach Blanco’s last two years as head coach Catholic High never lost a game—talk about ending on a high note!
The commonality I shared with Judge Haik and Coach Gosnell was that we all played football for Coach Banna. However, listening to their stories I soon realized that as hard as Coach Banna was on us, the younger he was, the harder he was. My older brother Mike had also played for Coach Banna, eight years before I did, and I can still recall him telling me Coach Banna had “mellowed.” I begged to differ, but the stories told by Coach Gosnell and Judge Haik about Coach Banna and Blanco corroborated my brother: Coach Banna in his early twenties was much harder (some say meaner) than my Coach Banna in his mid 40s. To demonstrate the point that he had it the worst, Coach Gosnell relayed a story of Coach Banna being so upset with a 14 point shut-out victory that he made them practice for hours after the game under the lights—for not winning by a larger margin. Judge Haik says with a smirk to Coaches Banna and Blanco, “y’all were crazy,” but keeps telling stories about the great lessons he learned from these experiences, experiences responsible for him being voted All-District and All-State fullback, and his love for these men. Thank God I wasn’t older; I barely survived the middle aged Banna. Coach Banna said his coach, Fagan Canzoneri, was crazy—that is a terrifying thought.
Coach Banna reminded me that there is a thin line between fear and respect while Judge Haik described Banna walking that tight rope daily, varying between praising and chastising players. This push and pull motivation forged life-long bonds between Coach Banna and his players. A significant addition to the few former players discussed herein is Ron Guidry, one of those Pete’s Legends gone pro on Pete’s walls. Coach Banna was an amazing baseball coach too, having been himself an All-State baseball player himself two years in high school. Coach Banna’s typical selfless philosophy resulted in him encouraging Ron Guidry to turn pro when Banna’s baseball team at USL would have been much better off had Guidry stayed. When Guidry won the Cy Young award in 1978, Coach Banna was among those he credited with his success. I learned about Coach Banna’s connection to Ron Guidry during high school when Ron Guidry came to visit Coach Banna one day at Comeaux’s gym. Judge Haik also reported that while Coach Banna was coaching football at USL, younger up and coming coaches would come to watch and learn, including soon to be state championship coaches Lewis Cook (Notre Dame Pioneers) and Carroll Delahoussaye (St. Martinville Tigers). From simply talking to this humble man one would never know the profound impact he has had on his world.
In 1967, Coach Banna needed an additional coach at Catholic High but the school lacked substantial funds to pay for one. Coach Banna made the fateful decision to call his former player Chester Gosnell, now a student at UL, and ask him to fill the job. Chester said yes “because Coach Banna asked me.” In addition to teaching and coaching at Catholic High, Chester continued his college work to secure a second degree in physical education so that he could coach as a career—an additional 80 hours of college work that he completed. Chester, now Coach Gosnell needed no further reason to jump into the sacrificial and often thankless life of a coach. I asked the group how much they were paid per hour they worked; they all got a hardy laugh from the question and settled on less than a nickel as the answer. When I suggested that their jobs were thankless, Coach Blanco politely corrected me: “thankless if material things matter, not thankless if dealings with human beings matter.” Coaches clearly do it for the love of their sport, as an extension of their playing career, and the reward created by mentoring young people, not the money, at least in the vast majority of cases. These coaches obviously did not coach for the recognition either, as Coaches Blanco and Banna each declined Coach Of The Year Awards during seasons they believed more of their players deserved recognition with such honors and declined the award in protest.
To say Coaches Banna and Blanco pushed their players hard is another huge understatement. Three yards and a cloud of dust was the offensive philosophy for football when they started coaching, and this style was implemented with force, ferocity and discipline difficult to endure. Judge Haik went so far to say that basic training was nothing compared to practices with these guys. But it was the difficulty that made that experience worthwhile: a fact that can only be seen clearly in hindsight, long after the pain of the experience fades. Coaches make their players work hard not for some sadistic pleasure, but because the fruit of the labor is so abundant. Coaches mold character, that undefinable quality that we know when we see in inspiring leaders. Former players continue to apply these lessons long after scoreboards go dark. Wins and losses matter far less than the quality and depth of lessons imparted by coaches even if scoreboards are how coaches judge themselves. As Coach Jack Lengyel realized when he rebuilt Marshall’s storied football program, winning is everything, except when it is not. The profound impact he had on his players, on the families of the players, on the entire town of Marshall, Texas is legendary. These lessons are especially important today because parents, myself included, fight the constant urge to make our children’s lives easier—so that our children need not suffer whatever traumas we did—and in the process rob our children of the experiences needed to develop character. The wide world of sports, however, is the one arena parents seem willing to let their children suffer pain and adversity, the very building blocks of character.
Judge Haik has had a long and distinguished career as a jurist, a success that he fully attributes to the lessons taught him by Coach Banna. Anyone who practiced before Judge Haik knows that he has a strong sense of fairness, or a strong desire to always do the right thing. He attributes this philosophy to an incident in 1966 when his beloved Catholic High of New Iberia was losing a playoff game to Hahnville that would be the first loss and end their season. Judge Haik was blinded with fury over the losing effort and in an act of undisciplined revenge he speared an opposing player. The reaction from Coach Banna, a former running back and linebacker himself, was delivered with equal measures of speed and fury. Before the flag hit the ground Coach Banna was on the field grabbing Judge Haik’s facemask and screaming that such cheap shots were intolerable, that we “win like Christian gentlemen and lose like Christian gentlemen,” all without a single curse word. Judge Haik gets teary eyed when he relays the story of this transformative experience that he will never forget, then he adds: “scared the hell out of me.” Coach Banna, on the other hand, probably never knew how significant that thirty second period of his life was on such an influential citizen.
Judge Haik has an equally strong aversion to blunt rules designed to apply a one size fits all approach to problems requiring more nuanced handling, another philosophy he attributes to his time playing football for Coach Banna. Two former New Iberia Catholic High linebackers, now USL students, were about to be expelled due to the University’s zero tolerance policy to off campus fights. Ed Pratt, himself a member of the storied 1962 undefeated Louisiana State Championship team at Catholic High, was directing the expulsion process. The players’ parents contacted Judge Haik, pleading for an exception because all their boys did was come to the rescue of two girls who were being verbally and physically accosted by four young men. Judge Haik confirmed these facts through his investigation and then convinced Ed Pratt that the policy should be tweaked because of the facts. Dean Pratt reportedly reached this decision because of his time playing at Catholic High teaching him to always do the right thing, which is all these former Catholic High linebackers were doing when they defended these girls.
I asked Judge Haik when he first realized the profound impact Coach Banna had on his life. I could relate to both stories he told. The first was when Judge Haik was playing football at USL, and was thinking about quitting because he felt he was not getting enough playing time. Coach Banna told Judge Haik the words I read multiple times a day on a plaque walking in and out of the locker room at Comeaux High School: “winners never quit and quitters never win.” Coach Banna counseled him to stick with it, that when he did not feel good about it to just keep working and he would eventually feel better. Then, after his first semester in law school, Judge Haik called Coach Banna and reported that law school was really hard and he did not know if it was worth the effort. Coach Banna gave the same advice, reportedly a lot more forcefully, with a reminder that Coach Banna had not taught Judge Haik to be a quitter. Obviously, Judge Haik took Coach Banna’s advice, but Judge Haik also points out that there are numerous others who played with him that feel the same about Coach Banna. Judge Haik points out that he made this call to Coach Banna, instead of his father with whom he was very close. He and I are just a few among the many former players who consider Coach Banna to be like a second father. For many players less fortunate than Judge Haik and I, who are very close to our fathers, Coach Banna was their only father.
These men have all been heavily involved in our regional efforts to heal our human society from the wounds caused by bigotry in its various forms. Coaches Blanco and Banna were part of a terrorized minority of Catholics in Alabama during their formative years. In the spring of 1921, Ku Klux Klansmen assaulted a Catholic pharmacist, stripped him, and knocked out his teeth. The same year a Catholic priest was shot dead by a man angered by the priest performing a wedding for his daughter and a Puerto Rican. Outrageously, the killer was acquitted so when racial integration was being ordered in Louisiana they embraced the need for change. Coach Banna was not deterred when other schools would not come to Catholic High to play basketball because they had a black player, Harold Julien, on their team. Judge Haik heaped praise on this brave, humble and wonderful human being as a result of his involvement in the process. At USL Judge Haik observed exceptionally prejudiced football teammates become colorblind because of the work, dedication and skill of their black counterparts. In the battle for racial equality, black athletes have repeatedly forced the scales off the eyes of the nonbelievers to reveal that judging a person by the color of their skin is about as reliable as judging a book by its cover. Coaches Banna and Blanco noted that Bear Bryant saw the light after Alabama was trounced by a USC team featuring black players. Today, no single race holds the license to chant “Roll Tide” because athletics have the ability to colorblind people. Coach Gosnell took these lessons and applied them when he integrated St. Martinville High School, enduring serious criticism when he started a black quarterback, Raymond Fontenot. My brother Mike Kreamer also coached at, and is now principal of, St. Martinville High School following his time playing for Coach Banna and applies these lessons daily. In the end, Judge Haik would preside over the entire desegregation process in our region as a federal judge—who knew.
At the end of my interview I asked these football statesmen to comment on the state of the game today. Judge Haik, Coach Gosnell and I teased Coach Banna and Blanco about how their water break policies when we played for them (tough guys don’t need water breaks, or if they do, suck the water from a towel and swallow a few salt tablets) would get them sued today. They laughed and acknowledged that the times have changed, for the better in their opinion. The equipment is better, the facilities are better, the coaches are smarter. The concussion related changes are a good thing. Coaches Banna and Blanco simply coached what they learned in high school and college, which was fundamentally based on toughness and precision execution, and had no exposure beyond that to instructions on the game, motivation and related topics. Today there is vastly more information and training available to the coaches so it is only natural they will be smarter. These men love the game and its ability to teach life lessons so they support these changes and abhor the idea that any player would ever be coached to intentionally injure an opponent through spearing—Judge Haik can confirm this first hand. The negatives of the game are vastly outweighed by its positives.
Great coaches, through their respective sports, mold players into leaders at home, in the workplace and in our society. Responsibility, commitment and team work are taught through athletics, but the lessons transcend the field of competition and make us all better off. Coaches are grossly underpaid for their work, but keep working as hard as they demand from their players. Thus, from all of us who have benefitted beyond our ability to measure, please accept this as our profound thanks; and thank God for great coaches!