The greatest coach you’ve never heard of

Written by Andrea Tuzio

Week 40

Coach Fletcher Arritt has lived his entire life according to one fundamental principle: perseverance.
For 42 years, Fletcher Arritt chose to train rural Virginia’s Fork Union Military Academy Basketball Squad. The academy was founded in 1898, and for more then one hundred years it has taken care of educating and disciplining thousands of boys.

Image © Fork Union

The term “train” has never been so reductive, particularly in this case, where Aritt’s personal record is 888 victories and 280 losses. Many of the most influential names in American basketball, like Bob Knight, who has accomplished remarkable things in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and other leagues, such as winning 902 games in Division 1 and a gold medal during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, considers Aritt a legend. But this man shrugs off flattery from the famous. “All it means”, he says “if you do something for a long time, at least you know a lot of people” – lyrical words from a man who is clearly in it for the love of the Game.
His satisfaction derives from instructing young boys, who are often troubled with their own personal and behavioural problems, and turning them into real players, and more importantly, a team. The secret is the five P’s: “No press, no parents, no posse, no phones — and no perfume.” That, and: “Keep it simple. And pass the ball. Always find the open man.
For those who live this game, it seems to correlate with “play the right way” by Larry Brown; NCAA champion in 1988 (Kansas) and NBA coach of the year in 2001, when he brought the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA finals (and unfortunately lost to Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers), yet subsequently won the NBA championship in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.
Arritt trained and taught biology, just like his father. I use the past tense because of his illness (it’s not necessary to specify it). The fact remains that at 70 years of age it’s a heavy blow regardless.

He fell in love with his wife Betty Jean Hauser in 1964; when she visited the Virginia University (where Aritt was a student), during a semester break. It was love at first sight, when Betty asked him to open her Samsonite luggage after she forgot the key. He did so… after dashing to Sears discreetly to find the right ones.
They were dating for a couple of years, when Aritt was offered a teaching job at Fork Union, a challenging place to stay for a single man, mentioned Miller, his old coach.
And so Aritt, exuding his typical romanticism, turned to the girl who was going to be his wife and said “I’m going to get married Betty Jean”. They had three children, two boys and one girl, and all of them have successful careers.
His daughter married Brooks Berry, and if you are wandering who the hell he is, he was a player, trained by Arritt, his right-hand man, who coached his team when Arritt was unable to do so.
There is an anecdote related to the story, and Aritt himself recounts it:
I remember one time at Bucknell we were up 25 with three minutes left, and Brooks dives for a loose ball,” Arritt says. “And I thought to myself: That’s the kind of guy you want to marry your daughter.” And that is exactly what happened.
He received hundreds of offers from higher leagues, but he denied them every time. He wanted to train the boys who arrived at Fork Union. He wanted them to build trust and to become real men by playing basketball and living their lives “in the right way”.
Inside the brochure that they send you, in case you decide to go to Fork Union, there is a sentence by William Makepeace Thackeray, 19th century author of Vanity Fair – “Successful people aren’t born that way. They become successful by establishing the habit of doing things unsuccessful people don’t like to do. The successful people don’t always like these things themselves; they just get on and do them.” This is the spirit of Fork Union and this is the spirit of Aritt.
When he announced to the team that he was ill, and that he would have to leave because of chemotherapy, many players experienced the whole world come crashing down around them. This father-like figure to many, had to step aside, defeated for the first time in his life.
Betty Jean claims that in reality Aritt will never really retire. “He’ll still be over there, going to practice, maybe take some of the trips,” she says. But ultimately there comes a time where you have to call it quits. “You got to quit some time,” says Aritt. “I mean, I’m doing the same at 70 as I was at 25. Who does that?
Now they live in a house overlooking the James River, where their neighbours are dozens of deer and one black bear.
This is the story of Fletcher Arritt, a true story.

Born in Naples, Andrea Tuzio lives and works in Milan. Radio speaker, he loves basketball, the nuances, the books, the long legs of a woman, gin and burgers.