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'Coach' will make connection with reader

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These days, there's a coach for everything. Search Google, and you'll find people to guide your career, investments, image, creativity and, incredibly, your entire life. The most successful of these have best-selling books full of snappy turnaround tips.

But what of the originals? The varsity basketball coach. The gym teacher. The youth-group soccer dad. These people have been sidelined. It's refreshing to pick up the essay collection Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference. Unlike books about coaching that talk at the reader, this one makes a true connection. Some of today's best writers share stories of how athletic coaches and athletes influenced them.

There are writers you might expect (John Irving/Bud Collins) others you might not (Francine Prose/Andrew Solomon). Each essay is its own burst of action. There is wrestling and track; baseball and golf; basketball, football and kung fu.

Jonathan Ames duels in a fencing match. Lauren Slater, in her lovely Tripp Lake, finds salvation from depression in horseback riding.

The stories are about sports but, at heart, they're about the relationship between the coach and the coached. They have a sweet and often funny vulnerability, revealing the part of the writer that is willing to be coached.

There's Charles McGrath's delightful essay about his Aunt Gert and sister Mary, both gifted golfers. He describes the diminutive Mary as "a Volkswagen Beetle with a nitro-breathing dragster engine under the hood. She'll smoke you."

George Plimpton goes to the Callaway's test center in Carlsbad, Calif., for a series of golf lessons. He fesses up to some "bedeviling mental quirks" and searches for an image that will perfect his swing.

The standout essay is John Edgar Wideman's Passing It On, reprinted from his book Hoop Roots. It's one of those magical pieces of writing where the rhythm of the essay matches the rhythm of its subject. Reading it, you picture Wideman running down the court with the ball, dodging opponents and springing for a lay-up.

His essay begins when he sees his old basketball coach at a funeral. "Ed Fleming, whom I'd last seen ... when ... where ... now here in Warden's in his charcoal gray, fashionable, gangster-shouldered suit in the midst of a crowd of mourners congregated just inside the entrance of Parlor A."

Turns out, this coach played with Wideman's father, and suffered his father's toughness. Coach Fleming transfers this to Wideman, the son.

"Ed Fleming's hoop war with my father was not over in one generation. He revisited it through me. Hard truths imprinted on Edgar Wideman's will and flesh by some anonymous bunch of old guys hoping, then imprinted by my father on Ed Fleming, coming home to roost in my bruised feelings and meat, the knobby-boned body I prayed daily would hurry up and get padded by muscle like Ed Fleming's."

Coach's only misfit is Frank Deford's The Depression Baby, about Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire. Previously published in Sports Illustrated, it's a profile, written from a considerable remove. Because the other essays are so personal, we wait patiently for Deford's to open up. It doesn't.

Otherwise, the collection has perfect "pitch." Writers pay tribute to coaches in the purest sense, showing their lasting influences.

Note: USA TODAY's Christine Brennan is one of the book's writers.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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