On March 29, I received an e-mail from Dr. Herb Appenzeller who was Athletic Director when I attended Guilford College, informing me that Coach Jack Jensen had died. The Guilford College press release started by stating, “Jack Jensen, who taught and coached at Guilford for 45 years, died suddenly March 28 after returning from a collegiate golf tournament. He was 71.” While I had the good fortune of playing golf for Coach Jensen, the greatest value came from knowing that he never stopped being coach to me or any of the other athletes he coached during his 45 year career.
When I was deciding on where to go to college in 1979, I knew that I wanted to play golf. There were no Division I scholarship offers, but Guilford provided a schedule which included tournaments with a lot of ACC schools. Because Coach Jensen held open tryouts, Guilford became an easy choice for me to pursue quality higher education and my childhood dream of being a professional golfer.
Coach Jensen came to Guilford to coach basketball. Benefiting from three talented players who went on to play in the NBA - ML Carr(Boston Celtics), World B. Free (Philadelphia 76ers), and Greg Jackson (Phoenix Suns) - Coach Jensen’s team won the 1973 NAIA National Championship. In 1977 Coach Jensen added golf to his coaching responsibilities. His golf teams captured the 1989 NAIA national title along with the 2002 and 2005 NCAA Division III championships. He retired from his basketball position in 1999 but continued coaching golf until his death.
In reflecting on my experience with Coach Jensen, he impressed me by always having time for players from either team at any time. Two stories in particular, illustrate and honor his character while reinforcing the powerful impact that so many coaches and administrators have on athletes every day.
In the fall of 1980, we were playing at Olde Mill golf club in Laurel Fork, Virginia, in a tournament hosted by James Madison University. Final round play started in arguably the worst tournament conditions in which I ever played. Blue Ridge Mountain temperatures hovered around freezing, and dark skies provided a steady, piercing, rain that by the third hole had saturated all my equipment and rain gear. I would have preferred snow.
As always, coach was out following the team. When he caught up with me on what was my 16th hole, a 511 yard par 5, all I could do was shake my head to indicate that I wasn’t playing any better than when he saw me earlier. I proceeded to snap hook my tee shot about 180 yards down the left hand side of the fairway into the rough. Coach reacted with his wry, encouraging smile. I slashed my way through heavy wet rough seven more times before reaching the green. Two putts later I pulled my ball from the hole for a 10, all under the watchful eye of Coach Jensen who had plodded along in his uncovered gas golf cart starting and stopping with every shot. He could have easily departed in disgust of my poor play, in pursuit of better results from another player or for the comfort of the warm clubhouse. But he didn’t. He shared the experience with me. He taught me the real value of a coach who tells his players to never give up and in turn never gives up on his players. When I reached the 17th tee, the horn sounded. We both just laughed. Play was suspended and the final round, washed out. Because of Coach Jensen, it remains one of the most memorable rounds of my life.
When I failed to qualify for the team in the fall of 1981, Coach Jensen left his door open, and while I never again tried to qualify for the team, he remained thoughtful, caring, and supportive. I reconnected with Coach in 1996, 13 years after graduating, when I became Director of Golf for Special Olympics. We talked periodically over the years, typically around this time of year as Guilford made its annual run to the national tournament.
Two years ago when my oldest son was trying to figure out where to go to college and what to do with the next phase of his life, Coach Jensen welcomed me, my wife, and Tyler into his office late on a Friday afternoon. He talked to my son for 60 minutes - asking questions, sharing wisdom - all focused on helping a 17-year-old kid figure out what he wanted to do with his future. As the summer sun set, he took us on a personal campus tour and then out to the home of Guilford golf, Cardinal Golf and Country Club. By the time we were done Coach Jensen had taken 3 hours of his time to help Tyler. In the 30-plus years since I met Coach Jensen, his door was always open and he always made time for me.
True to his thoughtful and caring ways in response to my last communication with him this past fall by e-mail, he asked about Tyler, who did not go to Guilford. When I told Coach that Tyler had transferred to South Carolina he had a simple response: the Gamecocks are in trouble this week and next.
I loved Coach Jensen because he cared and never stopped being Coach. His “people first” philosophy inspires me to think of others first. I share this as a way of paying tribute to Coach for what he meant to me and thousands of others whom he touched. I also hope that this reminds athletic administrators and coaches at all levels of the tremendous impact they have on athletes they touch through their daily efforts. Coaches who dedicate themselves to helping young people develop as good citizens through sport, like Coach Jensen, influence lives for a lifetime.
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