Dear Coach Lep:
First off, let us apologize. We hope you can forgive us for posting an article about your astonishing accomplishments as track coach at Verona High. We know you shrink from the limelight like a cat from water. We haven’t failed to notice that, in your past 22 years at the helm of the Girls’ Varsity Winter and Spring Track Teams, as you’ve racked up title after title (a stunning 33 conference and state championships at last count) and easily become the winningest coach in Verona history, there’s been precious little written about you. As cross-country star Dave Oster went on a record-smashing spree this season (did we mention that you coach cross-country too?), you still managed to stay in the background, leaving your young stars to bask in the light of their accomplishments.
It’s true that we’re going to cast a little light on that figure in the shadows—but we only have the best intentions. Sure, it’s our mission to bring attention to new, quirky or overlooked aspects of Verona. But the real impetus for spreading the word about you is that we think your coaching style is one that other coaches, teachers and parents could learn from. Not because you win, but because of how you win.
You do it, first and foremost, by being a teacher. Until recently, you were a chemistry teacher at Bloomfield High, and you will always be a teacher who coaches, not a coach who teaches. According to Sebastian Powell, the Verona Boys Varsity coach, you don’t fall into the trap of some who take a “do it my way or the highway’’ approach with kids. “Coach Lep takes the time to explain to the kids why they have to do it a certain way,’’ he says, be it approach the hurdles or push off from the sprinter’s box, and, because it makes sense, the kids do it. And they do it right. Powell knows of what he speaks: A ’92 graduate of VHS, he was coached by you as a student, and returned to his alma mater after college to coach alongside you. “I started mimicking what Coach Lep does and then I started winning too,’’ he says. Powell now has dozens of Verona Boys championships under his belt, too.
Another winning Coach Lep characteristic is that you treat the kids on the team as individuals. We’ve all heard there’s no `I’ in team. And of course it’s important to instill a sense of unity. But it’s equally true that there’s no cohesion on a team if kids don’t feel that they’re important to the team’s success. Somehow you manage to make each and every one of the nearly 100 boys and girls who participate in Verona’s track program feel that they really make a difference. At the end-of-year banquet, you manage the mind-boggling feat of saying something positive and personal about every single track team member. Now that’s teamwork that works.
You recognize that track athletes have interests outside of track. “Some of the runners also play in the band, and Coach Lep will let them leave a little early if they have a concert at night, so they can get some dinner before performing,’’ says Powell You would never suggest that an athlete quit another sport to devote more time to track. In fact, if a kid says he’s thinking about quitting another sport, “Coach Lep would be the first one to question them,’’ says Powell. You want kids to be well rounded because you genuinely care about them as people. But you must have noticed that kids who are allowed the time for other interests are less likely to burn out.
That doesn’t mean that you are a pushover. Your dedication is legendary and you expect the same from your kids. One former student recalls, “Before practice Lep always prepared our workouts down to the minutest details. He even planned the length of the breaks you could take in between sprints. If you took too much time to rest, he would get mad, because your workout would be compromised.”
Finally, and most importantly, you have fun with your team. The track coaches and athletes have a term for your quirky ways: Lepisms. One example is the time Verona hosted a meet on April first. Before the meet, you informed the squad they that were going to practice for seven hours instead of going to the meet because someone on the team had apparently pinched a Blackberry from an opposing team at the prior day’s match. You savored everyone’s dumbfounded expressions for a while before you smiled and said, “April Fool’s.’’ Sometimes when you make up the program for a race, you’ll include the names of imaginary girls, just for laughs. Says the former student, “We’d all be asking each other, `Who’s `Veronica’?’’
We understand why you stay in the background: It’s all about the kids. All your focus and attention is on them, and you want everyone to do the same. We hope you understand that we are working toward the same end: We’re spreading the word because we’re sure that, if more people caught on to the Gene Leporati school of coaching, it would be a winning thing for all our kids.