Mehr Finishing 35th Year at Amherst|
AMHERST, MA - Tracy Mehr's 73-year old eyes have seen a lot of football. He played it as a standout guard and linebacker at Holy Cross University in the late 1940's and coached it everywhere from elementary school to Boston College, moving around every four years or so, living the typical nomadic existence of a career football coach. His philosophy was stay five years and go - don't wear out your welcome.
When he arrived at Amherst College in the fall of 1966 he had a simple plan - teach, coach and do the best you can, and stick with the philosophy. Today, he's still teaching and coaching at Amherst, and somewhere along the way, Mehr's five-year plan turned into a 35-year educational odyssey.
"One of my greatest memories is my first Amherst-Williams game in 1966," he said, filing through a mental Rolodex of games and seasons as thick as the Manhattan phone book. "I had been in games at the Orange Bowl, the University of Tennessee and Air Force. But here, both teams banged each other for 60 minutes, and when it was over, the stands emptied from both sides. Families, parents and kids were all on the field. It was like a big picnic, and I thought to myself, this is the way it should be."
Who knew that Amherst would be the last and best stop for this complicated man who grew up following the sporting sun, as he says, in blue collar 1930's Milwaukee.
The son of an avid golfer, Mehr caddied his way through Marquette High School, where he was a four-sport star athlete. If he wasn't playing basketball, baseball or football, he was on the golf course putting or chipping balls on the practice green while his father played cards in the clubhouse. Sometimes his father even let him play, and he would copy the old man's swing until he was good enough to beat the players he caddied for, winning the Wisconsin State Amateur Championship as a prep prodigy.
Above all else he loved sports and was ready to take on the world, choosing a football scholarship at Holy Cross over similar offers from Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Marquette.
"I was one of those aspirants who came there with great dreams and then the reality of the level of competition set in," he said. "I had a good experience but we didn't have a very good team."
Mehr graduated from Holy Cross in 1950 and wound up coaching youth football at Blessed Sacrament Elementary while working on a fellowship at the Wharton School. Duty called later that year and he was off to fight in the Korean War as part of the United States Marine Corps.
After the war, Mehr wasn't sure what life had in store for him, until a fateful meeting with a priest on a Washington D.C golf course in 1952.
"My career is one of happenstance and chance," Mehr reflected. "I was playing golf next to Georgetown Prep School, where the ninth hole runs by the school's practice football field. I stopped to watch practice and a priest I knew came over and struck up a conversation. He took me over and introduced me to the head football coach who asked me if I'd like to work as his assistant. I said yes, I didn't have anything better to do, and so began a career in coaching."
A month later Mehr hired on as an English teacher and by the end of the year, he was the school's new head football coach. After crafting Georgetown Prep into a perennial power, he took a job at nearby Loyola High School in Baltimore, where his coaching career skyrocketed.
Mehr went undefeated and won consecutive State Championships in his third and fourth seasons at Loyola, but grew restless, fearing that he had done all he could do in Baltimore. Then, in 1962, fate struck again.
"I saw in the newspaper that Jim Miller from the University of Detroit was hired as the new head coach at Boston College," said Mehr. "I wrote a long-hand note on a piece of paper saying that I would be interested in an assistant's job. Three days later I got a call, interviewed, and was hired."
Taking the job at B.C. meant a $1,000 pay cut, as Mehr worked in real estate in addition to teaching and coaching at Loyola. By this time, he also had a wife, Carol, and two children. But Mehr was a coach in search of a challenge, so with his family's blessing, he went to Boston College and worked with the offensive line and coordinated the offense.
"Prior to leaving Baltimore, I became close with a number of Baltimore Colts including legendary coach Weeb Eubank," said Mehr. "I called him just after he won the Super Bowl and asked him about taking the job at B.C. We sat and talked in his basement and he said: Tracy, my advice is that you have a great reputation in Baltimore and you shouldn't go. But being a football coach, I know you're going to. Don't stay too long. By the end of five years, people get to know you and become critical even if you're successful. You're only hired to be fired."
"I knew it was a tenuous situation."
So after four seasons at Boston College with Eubank's advice ringing in his head, Mehr was ready for yet another challenge. Again, fate hit him from the newspaper.
"I read that Donnie Miller was leaving Amherst and going to Trinity. I scribbled a handwritten note to Jim Ostendarp, Amherst's head coach at the time who I had known through football clinics and other functions, and told him that I was leaving B.C. and would be interested in replacing Donnie."
"I came and interviewed and they asked Carol to come with me. At the time the highways were all Route Nine and you'd wind your way through forest, trees and stone fences into Happy Valley, which was quite an introduction to the place. They offered me the job and I took it."
And the rest, as they say, is history. 35 years later (and counting), Mehr has worked with three head football coaches, graduated thousands of student-athletes and mentored countless assistant coaches. He's branched out into other sports as well, coaching seven different sports at one time or another, including men's and women's golf, lacrosse, skiing, and junior varsity baseball and basketball.
Through it all, he's managed to stay fresh. He has no trouble relating to players who grew up on video games and MTV and insists that kids haven't changed a bit. He is an icon at Amherst, someone to whom every football player to come through the program in the last three decades can relate. He is the tie that binds different teams from different eras together, the one constant among hundreds of football alumni.
"A lot of the people I deal with played for him at some point and time," said Amherst Head Coach E.J. Mills. "This place thrives on continuity and connection. Guys who played in the late '60s still have that connection to this program because he's still around. Every kid who's gone through the program respects him unbelievably.
Mehr is by no means just a symbol of past glory - the old man under the goal post who watches approvingly while the younger coaches take the brunt of the responsibility. He is a hands-on teacher who draws from nearly 50 years in coaching. His techniques and enthusiasm are still as viable today as they were 48 years ago at Georgetown Prep.
"Coach Mehr is pretty tough," said junior running back Okey Ugwonali, the Jeffs' leading rusher this season. "If you're doing something wrong, he'll definitely let you know. At the same time, he's hip to the game. I was very surprised. He's up to date on what's going on, football-wise and in life. One minute he'll talk to you about girls and school. The next, he's got you running drills and making you into a better football player."
No one knows better than the Amherst coaching staff that Mehr's contributions go far beyond X's and O's.
"He's been great for me because he's not necessarily judgmental, but then again, he doesn't coach with a knot in his gut," said Mills. "He's done it all in football and he's a student of the game. If he thinks something's wrong, he'll come in and tell me. He's blunt. He'll tell you what he likes and doesn't like. He constantly gives us scenarios that might arise because he's seen just about everything that could happen in football. Coach Mehr is our what-if guy."
Mehr could be forgiven for asking himself "What if?" every once in a while. What if he left Amherst? What would he do with his life? What has his lifetime in coaching meant to the countless players who have emerged from his tutelage?
"I have difficulty answering those questions," he says. "I don't know what I've accomplished. I have hopes, but I learned a long time ago that you can't really explain the value of football or athletics. I could use a lot of words to impress people, but athletics does something in the growth process that defies description."
"I hope that in some small way I have touched people's lives forever, as with my own children. My career has had a lot of highlights, but certainly none of them can be found in the won-loss column. I'm only interested in what I learned from the last game and how I can use it to prepare for the next week."
With all of those lessons, life after football sounds like something Mehr's been preparing for all his life.