Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Full-Court Press: Interview with Jay Spoonhour, EIU Men's Basketball Head Coach

What first impressed me about Coach Spoonhour was his coolness. He wore a EIU track suit, and several times during the interview he leaned way back in his chair and placed his hands firmly behind his head. Athletes tend to have a way more comfortable relationship with physical objects than, say, English graduate students. Navigating the actual world is an anxiety-fraught activity for us. As I write this, I have noticed that one of my bookshelves leans forward at a dangerous angle. It could easily fall and crush me. Come to think of it, that's probably how I will die; I will be bludgeoned to death by books. Maybe that's why athletes strike me as being really cool; they're not subconsciously terrified of the objects that surround them.

Anyway, I was surprised to learn that Coach Spoonhour is both an athlete and one of us literary folk. Not only was he an English major before switching to Physical Education, but Coach Spoonhour is also working on a novel, which he hopes to finish someday, probably when he's not the head coach at a Division 1 basketball program.

Much of our discussion focused on reading. During his undergraduate days, Coach Spoonhour enjoyed Yeats and Shelley. He remains an avid reader, although the subject matter has changed over the years. He proved his point by removing a Bill O'Reilly book from his bag.

"If you read a lot, it helps with your writing," said Coach Spoonhour. "Each generation that comes along, they read a little bit less."

Coach Spoonhour made an interesting connection between sports and reading. Famous NBA coach Phil Jackson (Bulls and Lakers fans should be familiar with the name) used to give players books to read on long trips. According to Coach Spoonhour, Phil Jackson gave players books that he knew they would enjoy, as well as books from which they could learn.

"It never hurts to tell a guy reading can actually be fun," said Coach Spoonhour. In light of Phil Jackson's career, it might not be a bad idea for all coaches to provide their players with books (I'm looking at you, Saint Louis University. I want a Sweet Sixteen appearance this year).

Beyond reading, Coach Spoonhour and I also talked about the place of writing in contemporary culture. Like a lot of humans above the age of twenty, Coach Spoonhour has some reservations about the influence of social media on the literacy of today's youth: "I think the social media stuff is going to make it so that writing loses it's importance. Being able to write properly will be lost a little bit. Everything is abbreviated. It worries me that kids aren't going to know what proper writing is supposed to look like."

I pointed out that people back in the day had similar fears about television. TV was not only going to change writing and reading, it was going to replace them. Obviously, that didn't happen.

"Yeah, but people read less," said Coach Spoonhour. "Libraries used to be a place where people spent a lot of time, and now not so much."

Furthering this point, Coach Spoonhour mentioned that he does little writing in his own job. The team communicates with players either verbally or through text messages. The writing in scouting reports is sparse and generally in bullet-points. However, Coach Spoonhour believes writing remains an important skill.

"I could go an entire week and not write anything of substance," said Coach Spoonhour. "But it's like anything; if you can do it, it helps. The job is coaching, but it is also fundraising, dealing with boosters and fundraisers." Although I didn't ask, I wonder if Coach Spoonhour has ever quoted a little Yeats or Shelley in a room full of donors; talk about literature classes paying off.

When I asked Coach Spoonhour what he remembered about his own literacy formation, he immediately mentioned reading notes and thank you cards written by his father. Coach Spoonhour's father was also a college basketball coach. Charlie Spoonhour spent several years at my alma mater, Saint Louis University. "Spoonball" is still a term thrown around Saint Louis area sports bars.

"All of my dad's stuff was really funny," he said. "So, my whole idea about writing was to make people laugh. And, everything my dad wrote sounded like him speaking, which I recognized was the way you were supposed to write. Even if grammatically it didn't match, or the syntax wasn't perfect, as long as it read like you were speaking it, it would get its point across. That was how I started writing."

However, Coach Spoonhour has moved past copying speech in his writing. He noted that he enjoys using semicolons and dashes. "Not hyphens, but a dash, an actual dash," he said, his finger jabbing at the air for emphasis. It kind of felt like a pep talk. I immediately started thinking about how to incorporate more dashes into my writing. 


  1. Sean, I've seen Coach Spoonhour. Everything about him is: Coach. I totally see why you walked away making one of his goals yours. Some people are so awesome they motivate others to be awesome too. Good interview, sport!

  2. This is the first time Phil Jackson has been tagged in one of our posts. He is now tied with Pirates : )