There’s an old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
People who live by those words probably never liked Jim Patrick. The long-time coach died at age 81 last week, leaving behind a very complicated legacy that goes well beyond a first, second or even 100th impression.
Following the news of Patrick’s death, social media and email inboxes were full of comments about the coach. Most were loving and respectful accounts of how the coach touched the lives of his players.
One, though, wasn’t so nice: “Jim Patrick was a (bad word).”
Clearly, that guy never got past the first impression of a coach known for screaming and yelling at his players. I suspect there are many in this guy’s camp. Actually, I was one of them for a long time.
I was first exposed to Patrick back in 1988. My underage job at the time was to open the concession stand at the Stodden Park softball complex.
I would get popcorn, coffee and hot dogs started and wait on customers until the volunteer from the Montana Amateur Speed Skating Association took over.
Right up until the adult softball league games started at 6 p.m., Patrick held practice for a team of girls who were all about my age on Field 3 at Stodden.
I would sit back in amazement and watch the antics of the white-haired coach who looked like he was 80 when he was in his mid 50s. He would go on super-long tirades at the top of his lungs if his first baseman didn’t put her foot on the base just right.
“That guy,” I thought, “will never coach one of my kids.” If he talked to me or one of my kids like that, I figured, I would punch him out.
I watched the coach yell at those girls day after day for months. At first I got mad that he was talking to girls like that. Then I started to laugh at him.
It truly was an unbelievable sight.
The first time I actually talked to Patrick face to face was in the parking lot at Scown Field during the summer of 1997. His team just won a state championship, and I was working part time at the paper’s sports desk during the summer.
I couldn’t believe how nice of a man the coach actually was. Even though he yelled for much of the game, he was amazingly soft spoken and gentle after it.
I got to know Patrick a little better when he was an assistant on the Butte Central softball team and Butte High volleyball teams. By the time he was the head coach of the BC team, I considered him a friend.
I got to know Patrick best after tough BC losses. After hearing him yell “Crying out loud” much of the game — particularly after one of his batters swung at a high pitch — I would often hear the quiet Patrick on the phone later that night.
I figure I was No. 4 or No. 5 on the list people he called to lament about those difficult defeats. If Dale Burgman, John Ries or a couple of his assistants didn’t answer, he would ring my number at the paper.
I answered because we didn’t have caller ID at the paper.
It never took long for the conversation to turn to his garden, where Coach Patrick was always at peace. Often times I would let the phone balance on my shoulder as I typed a story or designed a page on the computer as Patrick went on and on and on.
The calls would literally go on for hours if you let them, which is why I suspect Burgman and Ries let them slip down to me every once in a while.
Sometimes he would think of a reason to call in the offseason because he didn’t have anybody else to talk to. He would go on about the upcoming softball season and, of course, his garden.
It kind of felt like I was talking to my grandfather.
On the softball field, Patrick always got the best out of his players, even if the players didn’t realize that at the time. When it became apparent that he was slipping toward the end, Patrick still got his teams to overachieve.
In 2009, Patrick’s Butte Central softball team had 10 players. Somehow, the Maroons placed second at the Class A State tournament that year, an accomplishment that even made the hard-to-please coach very proud.
“That was a hell of a year,” Patrick told me in the moments after losing to a loaded Frenchtown team in the championship game.
Patrick’s last season at BC was in 2012. He coached Butte High volleyball team until the end, and he never lost his ability to yell. And yell.
That drove some girls away from playing for him. It also made some moms want to cry, and made many dads want to punch out the old coach.
After all, Patrick was a throw-back coach, coaching in the age of the soccer mom and the traveling-coach dad.
As is obvious by the outpouring of love for the coach, however, the vast majority of the players he coached over his many years saw through the tough exterior. They realized Patrick yelled so much because he cared so much.
They realized the man who never had a family of his own dedicate his entire life to other people’s children.
They realized there is a whole lot more to life than a first impression.