Coach never shies away from a challenge

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sean Gillam isn’t one to shy away from a good challenge; he faces one every fall when his Detroit Lions take the football field.

Gillam grew up in Michigan as a Lions fan, and now teaches English at Albert Lea High School. English was the one course Gillam didn’t find immediate success in. He admits it was probably his worst subject in school.

“The only course I ever had anything but A’s in were always English courses,” Gillam said.

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He didn’t exactly struggle in the subject, either. Gillam still received A-minuses in English courses, but he was naturally gifted in mathematics, yet decided to take on the on subject he did not naturally excel in.

Gillam has approached many things in his life in much the same manner.

He is the boys’ and girls’ tennis coach at Albert Lea and did not start playing the game until he was in his 20s while he served in the Air Force.

“I’ve always been pushed by the things I don’t do well in as much as what I do do well in,” Gillam said. “The first time I stepped on a tennis court competitively in the Air Force I probably had one of the worst matches that you could possibly have.”

Gillam experienced an incredible amount of success very early on in his tennis coaching career. Gillam helped take the girls’ team to an 11-5 record and a 7-2 Big Nine record in 2003. The Tigers had a No. 3 seed at the section tournament, one of their highest ever. The program had just 12 varsity players in 2000.

“I’ll be honest, I was spoiled by that,” he said. “You have to find a group of kids that are willing to work together at the same grade level and who love it; who are not out here because of glory, who are not out here because of something that is superficial and about them. But rather because they love to play the sport. I think that love of the sport can carry a team even when they are in tough times.”

While Gillam was relatively new in the Albert Lea community, he was able to reach out to find people to help run the tennis program with him. That resourcefulness has guided Gillam as he begins to tackle projects.

Dennis Dieser was one of those people from whom Gillam sought help in tennis. The two first became acquainted on the basketball court as Gillam and Dieser were both coaches under Matt Addington.

“He’ll readily admit he doesn’t always have the answers, but he’ll have the resources around him,” Dieser said.

Gillam needed to build the program up and increase the numbers of athletes. When he arrived there were just 12 girls on the team. This past season there were 23 in one class alone.

“I think the true testament is the number of kids that come out,” Dieser said. “He puts in many, many hours into it.”

Gillam became the girls’ head basketball coach this summer when Karol Hansen resigned at the end of the school year.

For a person who cites Franz Kafka as one his favorite writers, Gillam’s life reflects an affinity for the complex.

Gillam has installed a completely new offense for the team this season that relies on a player’s ability to read defenses and react. It is a complex offense that requires each player to learn a specific response for a given situation.

“I like complexity and as you can see even when you think about what we’re going to do offensively,” Gillam said. “There is some complexity in it. As simple as it looks there’s a knowledge that goes above and beyond it.”

Gillam’s career path could have taken many different routes, but he opted for teaching because of the variation from day to day.

After high school, Gillam enlisted in the Air Force and became an avionics electrician. He served three years of active duty in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and used the GI Bill to earn a college degree from the University of Minnesota. He received his master’s degree from Minnesota as well, but passed up the opportunity to attend law school at Notre Dame to become a teacher.

Gillam says he has a terrific memory which has its benefits as a coach and its hindrances.

“That helps me when I’m out there coaching for what I can see,” Gillam said. “It also hurts me sometimes because I’ll become very introspective and I won’t be thinking about the fact that we’re dealing with athletes.”

Gillam said his experience as tennis coach has allowed him to back away from the game, because in tennis there’s little he can change while a match is going. But that hasn’t stopped him from changing his lineup in tennis for the most advantageous situation. Gillam has been known to change his lineup from match to match, depending on the opponent.

“I think I can say coaching tennis has taught me how that works a lot better,” Gillam said. “In tennis everything you do is practice. There is very little that you can actually change in a match. You can find some specific things to change but you’re more of a sideline coach, similar to a cross country coach, where you have to let your kids go and let them run. I think I have to find a good balance in basketball, where I have a little bit of both. Control only works so far.”

The parallels in teaching and coaching work well together and Gillam has learned that through the course of doing both.

“A good coach has to be a good teacher and a good teacher has to be a good coach,” Gillam said. “A lot of what you do in the classroom is motivate; a lot of what you do on the court is teach.”

Gillam teaches English 9 and English 10 along with a media studies course at the high school.

Perhaps being a Lions fan has conditioned Gillam to expect more from himself.