If Nashvillians are rightly proud of the big-time sports milieu they’ve suddenly constructed for themselves, they had to look on last weekend with a certain fond sadness, like the owners of a remodeled home who finally allow themselves to part with a favorite, perfectly good old sofa that just doesn’t fit with the designer’s spiffy new decor.
With the abrupt resignation of Don Meyer as Lipscomb’s basketball coach, and what was likely the last hole for the Sara Lee Classic, two of the city’s once prized sports possessions appeared to be headed up or out.
The LPGA’s Sara Lee, whose sponsor is bugging out with no successor in sight, was one of Nashville’s first marquee sporting events. In its dozen years, despite occasionally horrendous weather, the tournament had become celebrated for good golf and good vibes. The players seemed to love the event, not only because the Hermitage course was conducive to low scores but also because Nashvillians especially embraced Heather Farr, a young golfer who bravely battled breast cancer until she died.
In the past several years, however, observers thought they detected the first signs of mustiness on the Sara Lee. Not coincidentally, those perceptions began not long after the arrival of another kid on the blockthe BellSouth men’s Senior PGA tournament.
Unfortunately for the women, a past-his-prime male golfer like Lee Trevino or Hale Irwin draws more recognition than even the top pro on the LPGA Tour. And, ironically for Nashville, the Sara Lee may be a casualty of the city’s own growing sports success.
Meyer, too, seems to have been passed bynot by the game, in which his teaching skills are renowned, but by the logic of events.
In Lipscomb’s internal debate over whether to enter the NCAA big leagues, Meyer’s voice was always clear. He believed the move would create added pressures and damage the intimate, students-first character of the institution.
“It’s a business when you go to Division I,” Meyer said Monday. “I’ve looked at this from every angle. I don’t see us being a Division I school.”
Lipscomb officials see things otherwise. “We’re going forth with what’s going to be best for the university,” says Athletic Director Jonathan Seamon. “It doesn’t just hinge on basketball.”
Meyer, who anticipated that Lipscomb’s transition to Division I would be gradual, had planned for his exit to be gradual, too. “Had they phased it in, I would have helped them get the thing going,” he says.
But, for a variety of reasons, school officials believed that the time to move decisively was now. Meyer’s resignation also came suddenly last weekend, when he dropped his letter to president Steve Flatt in the campus mail.
In 24 seasons, Meyer has become so synonymous with Lipscomb basketball that it’s difficult to imagine things there without him. It’s even more difficult to imagine how, in the near term, the school will compete successfully at basketball’s next level with a different coach.
Lipscomb would have done practically anything to keep Meyeranything but halt their move to the big time. The coach is like venerable Fenway Park: grand as ever, inseparable from the identity of its team, but an impediment to bigger crowds, bigger revenues, bigger plans. So he and Lipscomb, unthinkably yet inevitably, will part.
As the ironic old saying goes, “That’s progress for you.”
You remember this story.
Early last November 15th, before the sun came up, Jason Watts and two of his best friends took off on a lark. For Watts, the starting center on the University of Kentucky’s football team, it had been a night to remember. He and his friends, Artie Steinmetz and Scott Brock, had been drinking beer, celebrating Kentucky’s 55-17 defeat of Vanderbilt that afternoon.
They laughed and talked all night. Then one of them kidded Watts, who enjoyed hunting, that he couldn’t hit a deer to save his life. So they piled into Watts’ truck and embarked on a drunken, pre-dawn deer hunt.
On a two-lane road southeast of Lexington, Watts lost control. The truck went off the road. None of the three football players were wearing seat belts, so they flew through the windshield. Steinmetz and Brock died where they landed.
The story made all the papers. But it went almost unnoticed the other day when Jason Watts learned that the short trip he began so merrily and carelessly last fall will extend perhaps another 10 years. That’s the term to which he was sentenced after pleading guilty to reckless homicide.
The tragedythe added tragedyis that by all accounts Watts is a great guy, an All-American guy. He is not a remorseless criminal, nor a multiple DUI offender. In the months after the accident, before his plea and sentencing, he spoke many times to high schoolers, warning them not to repeat his mistake.
The cost of that mistake, of course, is measured not just in two lost lives, but in many others damaged: his parents, the families of his friends, and, especially, Watts. “I had ruined my life and killed two of my best buddies,” he said, “all because of doing something so stupid, something that could have been so easily avoided.”
Most of us know drunk-driving stories that could have ended badly, and we make jokes about them. Like that of the guy who was pulled over on an interstate and told the officer that he was sure he hadn’t been speedingonly to learn he’d been clocked at 5 m.p.h. Or the guy who, in a stupor, drove up the steps of Legislative Plaza. (He only began drinking, he told the judge, to calm himself after he realized he’d taken a wrong turn.)
With any luck, Jason and his friends today might be laughing about the time they idiotically went deer hunting in the middle of the night. But chance is everything.
I’ve thought a lot about chance in recent months. The October before last, my wife’s parents were hit by a drunk driver. They were on their way to our house, to celebrate a granddaughter’s fifth birthday, when a car swerved into their lane and hit them head on. They had no chance.
My wife’s mother died late that night. Our girls had gone to bed, comforted by the doctor’s assurance that their grandmother was out of danger. What haunts me most is the memory of the dread we felt on top of the grief throughout that sleepless night, knowing the news we would have to tell the girls when they awokeand hearing their reaction all over again.
The wreck killed my father-in-law, too, but it took him three brain surgeries and nine wretched months to die. He passed away the week before the trial began.
The man who hit him, barely 21, received the second-longest sentence ever pronounced here for vehicular homicide. He will likely be 30 before he leaves prison. That’s a long time to wait to start a life.
It’s hard to be sanctimonious about drunk drivers. Most of us could confess, with George W. Bush, that when we were young and foolish, we were young and foolish.
I did not fully, not personally, appreciate the cost of a mistake like Jason Watts’ until it was all measured out over a span of months and years. I now know, like he knows, that if you could calculate all the potential damage, you would never drive after having too much to drink, or ever let yourself believe that you hadn’t had too much to drink. You’d ask yourself if you felt lucky that day, and you’d say no.