By Reeves Wiedeman
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Nov. 28, 2008
SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Coach Joe Lesesne stood watching the Wofford College football team run through a series of plays during a chilly practice earlier this month. With dusk settling, he removed his oversize sunglasses and scrutinized the list of plays he held in his hand.
“They’re running a formation I don’t recognize,” he said, looking up as the offense ran another play.
And Mr. Lesesne, the 71-year old director of football operations and former president of the college, has seen plenty of formations. As he hovered on the sidelines in khakis, a plaid shirt buttoned to the top, and a fitted, white Wofford baseball cap, he talked about the intricacies of Wofford’s Wing Bone offense, the starting quarterback’s recruiting story – anything but his 45 years as a history professor, dean, and college president.
“I used to coach back in the ancient ages,” said Mr. Lesesne, who is also a former chairman of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “By the time I got back over here, I was so far outdated, it was like talking a foreign language.”
Welcome to the Wofford College football team: Please include your AARP card with your application. As 79-year old Bobby Bowden and 81-year old Joe Paterno face questions about whether they should continue to lead big-money, high-profile college football programs at Florida State and Pennsylvania State Universities, the third-smallest college in Division I football keeps hiring staff, like Mr. Lesesne, who make the team’s 60-year-old head coach seem like an up-and-comer.
From Normandy to Wofford
Even Mr. Lesesne is young compared with the team’s kicking and punting coach, Lee Hanning, whose résumé reads like an American-history textbook.
Mr. Hanning, 85, celebrated his sixth birthday three days before Black Tuesday sent the world spiraling into the Great Depression, jumped out of an airplane over Normandy with the 101st Airborne, and worked in procurement for General Dynamics, Ryan Aeronautical, and others as companies scrambled for government contracts to help send the first man to the moon. His career as a minor-league baseball umpire in Texas was cut short by a foul ball to his Adam’s apple, and a tryout with the Cleveland Indians was derailed by a wartime knee injury.
“Lee’s just a guy who can’t sit around,” said Richard Johnson, the athletic director. “I understand why he jumped out of that airplane: He was getting bored.”
So Mr. Hanning had plenty of experience when he approached Mike Ayers, the head coach, in 1989 about helping out with the team – it’s just that none of that experience had anything to do with football.
When this “elderly guy who looks like he just got off the golf course” asked Mr. Ayers if there was anything he could do for the team, the coach sent Mr. Hanning to make calls in the fund-raising office. The then-65-year-old came back a few months later and asked, again, “Coach, you need any help with the team?” That landed him in the locker room, where he spent several years waiting for the team’s bus to arrive from games, often after midnight, so he could load grass-stained uniforms into barrels full of soapy water as the team’s equipment manager. But Mr. Hanning wasn’t finished.
“Coach, your kickers don’t get a whole lot of attention in practice,” he told Mr. Ayers. “Would you mind if I helped with the kickers?”
“Do you know anything about kicking?” the head coach asked.
“No,” said Mr. Hanning. “But I’ll learn.”
And learn he did. He talked shop with players from the NFL’s Carolina Panthers when the team began holding its training camp at Wofford. He devoured books and tapes, and he found tips anywhere he could. Nineteen years later, he has sent two punters to the NFL.
One day, “the punter made a mistake and Coach Hanning was kind of getting into him,” said Ben Widmyer, the team’s starting quarterback. “It’s kind of funny to see an 85-year-old guy getting fired up.”
An Intangible Effect
Neither Mr. Hanning nor Mr. Lesesne would claim an expertise in the X’s and O’s of football. After retiring as president in 2000 and joining the team as an assistant tight-ends coach, Mr. Lesesne marveled at the team’s playbook. “It looked like they were doing quadratic equations,” he says.
But both players and coaches say the team’s senior citizens bring something intangible to the team, which is 8-2 this season and one win away from a likely playoff berth.
“For the kids, it’s more than just athletics when you’re down there,” says Mr. Johnson, the athletic director. “You’re being taught by a guy who participated in major historical events. You’re being taught by a guy who was a giant in higher education.”
Mr. Ayers keeps a framed picture in his office of Mr. Hanning and the 101st Airborne, and the team was with Mr. Hanning the first time he saw Saving Private Ryan. Mr. Lesesne’s enthusiasm for the sport matches his enthusiasm for Southern history (he still writes academic papers in his free time). Even as president, he would often stop by the football office on late-night campus walks to watch film with the coaches and was in the locker room to celebrate or commiserate after nearly every game.
Getting to work with kids 50 and 60 years their junior brings the retirees to the field every day (they receive no pay). Coach Hanning, who can rattle off not only the names of former players, but also their current occupations, works off to the side with his group of five punters and kickers, while Coach Lesesne hangs around the sideline checking in on players and making sure everything is running smoothly. (He insists that despite his title, “I’m directing nothing and I’m operating nothing.”)
“Hey, Doc,” yelled one player walking off the field at a recent practice.
“Hey, Kyle,” Mr. Lesesne responded. “How’s school?”
The coach bent over to tie his shoes, but the football talk kept coming. He described last year’s starting safety for rival Appalachian State University – “darn good” – and explained that each of the sideline observers at this practice was a high-school coach hoping to learn how to run Wofford’s offense. “As a teacher, I felt the responsibility for my 80 or so students, but I didn’t feel the same responsibility for their outside lives,” said Mr. Lesesne. “But coaches do have that feeling. When they were licking their wounds, you were down there with them.”
Back inside the athletics office, he leaned dangerously far back in his office chair with a posture no better than a typical college student. When the athletic director walked in, Mr. Lesesne stopped midsentence, pushed off with his 71-year-old legs, and slid his rolling chair across the room to announce with only a hint of a smile that his one mistake as president was not firing the 6-foot-6 man standing in the door.
Welcome to pseudoretirement.
“If somebody asks me about a play call, I’ll say, ‘Hey, I didn’t call that play, I agree with you. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,’” said Mr. Lesesne. “The buck doesn’t stop here. Oh, yeah, I’m having a good time.”