Last weekend I lost a mentor and friend, and the world lost someone who made it a better place. Among other things, Connie Thorngren was my basketball coach at Boise State. Even though her basketball record has been unparalleled until recently, it was the other things that made her so special.
She embodied what I loved about being an athlete, by using the best of sports as a grand training ground for everything else. Playing sports was fun, and winning was even more fun. But sports — and Connie — also taught me how to be a better person. She was a teacher, role model, friend when you needed it, a disciplinarian when called for. Some days it was the psychologist’s couch you needed, and others it was just knowing that someone cared.
Being a woman athlete in the 1970s wasn’t always easy. You played because you loved it. There were no scholarships. Uniforms? We made our own for field hockey. Equipment? Whatever Connie could beg, borrow or talk the school into. She started four women’s sports at BSU and the first year her budget was less than $100.
Athletes drove themselves to games, until one player drove a family car into the Little Salmon River near Riggins. No one was hurt badly. But Connie demanded that the university provide vehicles after that. She got her wish — but the drivers of those university vans were Connie and her assistant.
One travel day was spent mostly waiting by the side of the road while Connie and the assistant changed blown tires on first one, then the second van. Then another blown tire left us with no spare and a long wait. The program always survived and got better. We always had an advocate ready to march into Lyle Smith’s office and make demands.
One memorable basketball trip was to Pullman, Wash, over bad, slow roads. We arrived just 20 minutes before game time; our pregame meal had been orange juice and donuts. But we beat Washington State University for the first time in our history — and on their home court to boot. That win paved the way for a team that so believed in itself and worked so well together that we were one of 16 teams to earn a national tournament berth.
The real genius was how Mrs. T took a talented but ragtag group of Idaho women and helped them grow into successful adults while teaching them how to win. We didn’t only learn how to win games, it’s no accident that all of us have figured out a way to win at life as well. And she did it with a modesty and humility that, try as I might, I have a hard time living up to.
The lessons are many: Try your hardest, give your best, be on time, don’t let your teammates down by not being prepared. Look around the court or field (or the room in the rest of life) and figure out who the players are. Find out their strengths, learn what makes them tick, understand what you need to succeed together and then use the best of everyone’s strengths to work toward that goal. Never sell yourself short. Never sell anyone else short — you and others have a way of living up (or down) to your expectations.
Adversity is part of life and just another hurdle to be jumped, so don’t let it stop you; on your best days, it shouldn’t even slow you down. When things aren’t working, innovate. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts when you take these lessons to heart.
As I look at the world today, I know that it would be a better place if all of us could live the way that Connie taught me and my teammates. I know I’ll keep trying.
Elaine Clegg was elected to the Boise City Council in 2003.