Feb. 6, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Coaches at all levels frequently use the phrase “the devil is in the detail,” to illustrate their stress of attention to detail. But angels can be in the detail as well.
This weekend NCAA Division I basketball coaches around the country will illustrate that by attaching a small, light blue, puzzle-piece-shaped pin to their jacket. The visibility of that pin on the lapel by coaches and assistant coaches and even on the shirts of participating officials is a small detail but speaks volumes.
Wearing the pin is the basketball community’s way of showing their support of Coaches Powering Forward For Autism, a cause optimistically started two summers ago by Georgia Tech Assistant Coach Tom Herrion and Towson University Head Coach Pat Skerry to draw attention to an affliction that strikes one in 68 male children.
“We have reached out to every Division I school in the country,” said Herrion, who, along with Head Coach Brian Gregory and the entire Georgia Tech staff will be among those wearing the pin on Saturday when the Yellow Jackets take on Wake Forest at McCamish Pavilion. “We’ve asked everyone to participate in this event and this year we’ve got the college basket officials to wear the pins that day.”
This is the second annual Coaches Powering Forward weekend. Year One was a tremendous and admittedly somewhat unexpected success for the grassroots cause started by Herrion and Skerry, who each have a son on the autism spectrum.
“It greatly exceeded our expectations. We were humbled by it,” said Herrion. “You talk about `Rock Star’ head coaches, Mike Krzyzewski, [Jim] Boeheim, [Tom] Izzo, Coach Pitino, and Coach Calipari, they’re all personally telling us on texts. `I’m on board. I’m in. Get us the pins.'”
“It was amazing. We were all just overwhelmed and so impressed with what two guys can do with modern technology and texting,” said Peter Morton, Vice President-Corporate Development for Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that has worked to spread awareness and raise money for research to fight autism since 2005. “To see the growth that we’ve been able to develop with the program through Tom and Pat’s hard work.”
Coaches Powering Forward began simply enough.
Both Herrion and Skerry are fathers to sons who are on the autism spectrum — Herrion’s son, Robert, is nine, Skerry’s son, Owen, is four. It’s only the latest bonding point for the coaches, whose relationship goes back a lot further. Skerry worked on Herrion’s staff at College of Charleston, they’ve worked camps together and logged the countless miles that college basketball coaches travel in recruiting and scouting.
One night, about two summers back, while on the road, Herrion, then head coach at Marshall, and Skerry, at Towson, sat down and brainstormed. They would draw up perhaps the most impactful game-changing play of their lives and, in turn, the lives of so many others.
Looking for a way to create awareness for autism, ideally taking advantage of television coverage of college basketball, they came up with the plan of wearing the blue puzzle-piece pin, the symbol of Autism Speaks. The duo looked for a day when both Herrion’s and Skerry’s teams, were home, and there was a maximum number of televised games. They settled on Feb. 1, with an 80-game televised slate.
As with all grassroots programs, this was a long shot, with them doing all the leg work.
“Anybody that knows Pat and I, we’re really close as friends, but we’re `Dumb and Dumber,'” Herrion said with a laugh. “We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants but we pulled it off.
“We, individually contacted each of the head coaches, basically 40 each, and asked them if they would be willing to wear the pin,” he added. That was our way, as simple as it sounds, to kind of start the project.”
In January, as event day drew closer, Herrion and Skerry got a boost from Autism Speaks, which helped in supplying and delivering pins, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches, which publicized the event.
Still, making sure all the pins arrived in time wasn’t necessarily as easy as it sounded.
“There were some coaches that were a little panic-stricken leading up to the game because they hadn’t received the pin to wear,” Herrion recalled. “They’re texting me the night before the game, `Where are our pins so we can have them for the game tomorrow?'”
Herrion recalled that Duke’s allotment of pins hadn’t arrived by Thursday of its game against Syracuse. One of Herrion’s staffers even volunteered to drive the nearly 350 miles from Huntington, West Virginia to Durham, N.C., to hand the pins off to Coach K. personally if necessary. Fortunately, it did not come to that, as the pins arrived in time.
Come game day, every coach who’d offered his support was donning a pin. The day was a triumph in the big picture, even though only one of the two coaches’ teams would emerge victorious (Skerry’s Tigers topping Drexel, 75-73, while Herrion’s Thundering Herd fell, 65-57 to Florida Atlantic).
Adding to the triumph was the fact that not only college staffs and officials wore the pins. Members of the media wore them as well, including ESPN’s College Game Day crew and, in NBA circles, former coach Jeff Van Gundy wore it the Friday night prior to the game on his broadcast
“A big reason we were able to attain success in our launch last year, was because of our personal relationships with some of the higher profile media people,” Herrion said. “We also are using our contacts with the media to help create even greater awareness.”
This year’s event promises to be even bigger as it’s more organized and with more hands pitching in.
“It has just exploded into an amazing weekend,” said Morton, who estimated some 3,000 people around the nation will be wearing the pin. “As a small organization, we’re trying to think of everything so that we can maximize the exposure and the awareness that will be created from it. It’s great. Tom and Pat are so committed. We’re very lucky as an organization to have two advocates and champions like Tom and Pat.
“Last year when they were reaching out, as busy as they were, they found time in their personal lives to reach out,” Morton continued. “I think they were surprised by the response. They both realized that the program was such a success that they would need some help to grow it.”
To that end, there is an advisory committee, chaired by Herrion and Skerry, which includes more `Rock Star Coaches,’ former coaches and broadcasters, including former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose grandson is on the autism spectrum, former coach Seth Greenberg and Jay Bilas, both current ESPN analysts, and current coaches Shaka Smart (VCU), Anthony Grant (Alabama), and Dave Rice (UNLV).
The expansion of Coaches Powering Forward also includes a fundraising website that allows fans and alumni to donate on behalf of their school and coach. The goal is $6,800 per campus.
“So far we’ve done okay with the fundraising,” said Morton. “We set a target at $6,800 per campus, which, in hindsight, was aggressive. There is significance in $6,800, as, unfortunately, autism has increased to 1 in 68 children. So we wanted to keep it relevant and easy to remember.”
Herrion has a daily reminder of the effects of autism in his son. Robert, who turned nine just after Christmas and is powering his way through third grade, where he is 90 percent mainstreamed (in his regular classes 90 percent of the time), and is 100 percent dedicated to his Boston Red Sox and, Georgia Tech Basketball and all things sports. His son fuels his daily commitment to Coaches Powering Forward.
“Robert loves sports,” Herrion said. “He’s very analytical. He knows scores, numbers, maps. He studies our media guide. He can tell you what Marcus [Georges-Hunt]’s shooting percentage was his freshman, sophomore and junior years. In the mornings he’ll grab my phone and go to one of the apps to find all of the college basketball scores from the night before. He sees them once and he pretty much remembers them. He’s a terrific kid. Unbelievable heart and he’s very bright. He just has some inhibitions, some things that he’s deficient at that we need to work at to help him grow.”
While Herrion and his wife, Leslie (“She’s the head coach. She does an incredible job day in and day out,” said Tom of Leslie) work on Robert’s biggest deficiencies, peer interaction, he hopes that another large obstacle that needs clearing, public perception of autism, can be hurdled. He’s seen it at Robert’s youth basketball league games.
“Sometimes he’ll get very hyperactive,” Herrion said. “He’ll be jumping around or flapping his arms a little bit because he’s so excited and some kids and you know what they’re thinking, `What’s wrong with him?’ That’s where, as a parent, any kid that has a child that has some sort of disability, you’re trying to help educate folks that they’re just different. You just want them to be treated fairly. You live with certain fears day in and day out as a parent when your child is `different.'”
Hope is that with greater awareness that difference can be clarified and eliminated. That’s the biggest message Morton hopes can come out of the weekend.
“The occurrence of autism is continuing to grow,” said Morton, who offered his gratitude to to the NABC, which has thrown so much support behind Coaches vs. Cancer. “Everybody in this country likely knows someone, personally, who is affected by autism. The only way we’re going to help those families who are challenged with autism every day is to continue to raise awareness about it, acceptance about it, and funds to allow organizations like Autism Speaks to do the work that we are doing on behalf of the autism community.”
Herrion is seeing progress and is grateful for the work of his peers in participating in Coaches Powering Forward and for Autism Speaks.
“It just shows you the fraternity of coaches,” he said. “When you have a cause — and there are many other causes, we’re not the only cause, we recognize that — the support that you have from your peers in the profession, is greatly appreciated and we were really humbled by the overwhelming response we got last year.”
“Since last year’s unbelievable response, we’ve gotten even greater support from Autism Speaks, a greater commitment from NABC, which we are so appreciative of,” he added. “It’s grown way bigger than we even dreamed. We’re proud of it. We’re passionate about it because of the impact it has directly on our families yet we obviously recognize that there are a lot of people that just don’t what autism is really all about. It’s the fastest growing behavioral disorder in our society. We deal with it day in and day out because of our children being impacted by it and our families being impacted by it.”
Also humbling and satisfying is the ripple effect. D-I men’s basketball coaches aren’t the only ones powering forward for autism.
“The number of random correspondence that we will get via email, a note from a high school coach in Alabama that has a child with autism, thanking us for shedding light and awareness to the situation. That’s the refreshing part,” Herrion said. “I spoke at the Autism Speaks national volunteer group in the summer. They had 300, 400 people from across the country that are volunteers. Them all having an awareness of us having a small impact on raising the awareness, how appreciative those people were. I should be thanking them. So there’s a lot of reward. I think the growth of it and the potential to continue to grow is what motivates us. The momentum and the support allows us to feel good about where it’s headed.”
For more information about Autism Speaks and to donate to Coaches Powering Forward For Autism, visit www.autismspeaks.org.