Gripped by a fierce quality, a kind of wildness, Coach Wolf at 75 remains a slim raptor of a man who seems in motion even when seated.
Fifty years ago, as a freshman, he was my homeroom teacher. From the beginning, he had the gaze down — the ‘1000 yard clear as a cuff on the side of the head don’t screw with me look’. We did not. No one did.
From the beginning, a Cleveland boy, he had a city swagger about him, and the suburban kids who played for him lost their softness and grew sharp.
Understand that basketball for many of us was the second faith, the temporal cross, a pure expression of beauty and passion and camaraderie, the liberation of our enormous energies into disciplined forms — the team, the drive, the layup, the rebound, and the blessed release of the jump shot, that perfect, ecstatic expression of athleticism and style and youth, and grace I think, grace especially.
We watched him from behind the bench in packed-to-the-beams, screaming gyms — the fans chanting, swirls of color, a brutal winter cold outside, but in here so much heat. He knelt in front of the five and swept his index finger back and forth, exhorting first, prodding, stoking the furious competitive need to block out, dive for the loose ball, keep to your man. Then he paused, his volume dropped, and he gave simple, direct instructions in a controlled voice about what would happen when the game resumed. Then those 5 rose, stepped back onto the court and won, again and again and again — 626 times over 37 years. In our year, 1970, his fourth year as a coach, his team won the State Championship.
Coach Wolf went out November by November by generation and built 12 young men into a group who played hard, body-thump, man to man defense and who passed the ball along lines of passage so crisp you could draw them in the air with your finger. He read to us the scripture of this second faith — keep pushing, stay committed, be exact, do not give up.
Recently Coach Wolf said he had lived the perfect life. His wife, children, grandchildren and friends had made it so. And his school. He did not mention his accomplishments.
At our 45th Reunion, he asked to speak to those who had come. Note that: he asked. He assumed nothing. For several years illness had knocked him back, but his voice had a bright, loud, clear timbre to it. He did not need a microphone. He still carried the heat.
He told us that when he arrived at Holy Name as a young man he knew immediately that this was where he was meant to be. He knew. He did not have to guess. The match was right. His intuition, his gut, the clean, modest lines of the building, the light filled gym, the Mass, all of those somehow came together in one hour on one morning.
He told us the story of our graduating class. In a sense he articulated to us our myth — the transformative power of its young men and women and their part in reshaping the school. But what mattered here, in this moment when he was standing among us, was not that audience of 60-somethings’ or their legacy, what mattered was his intensity in again illustrating the living reminder of what passion, and commitment to one path or to kids or to a specific way of life actually mean. It was there in his voice and in his ferocious appreciation of the school that had shaped him and his audience in incalculable ways.
The strength of Coach Wolf’s voice was all important. This moment itself, alone, was all important. Everything was contained within it, everything that he taught us, what he still teaches us even now — about devotion to a place, and how to not be bowed by sickness or broken by bad luck but to go on, passionately, profanely, laughing, loyal, to go on, and if some blow strikes you down, the hell with it, to get up, to stand up again and to go on as if you were pitching fire into the air around you, as Coach Wolf did in his classroom, in that damn near mystical, howling gym, and as he continues to do, unyielding and radiant with life.