A Most Unusual Man

Sept. 04, 1989
Sept. 04, 1989

Table of Contents
Sept. 4, 1989

Little League World Series
College Football Preview '89
Oh Magnífica!
Point After

A Most Unusual Man


By Douglas S. Looney

Roland Ortmayer squints against the Southern California sun and describes who he is: "I'm a teacher, a kayaker and a rafter, a fly-fisherman and a mountain climber, not to mention being a husband, father and grandfather." No, he's more than that, says University of La Verne president Stephen Morgan: "He may be a type of Socrates." No, more than that, says one of his students: "He's God-like." No, more than that, says a former student: "All he will do is change your life entirely."

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1989 issue

Notice how no one, including Ortmayer, mentions that he is also a football coach. Indeed, to say Ortmayer is a coach diminishes the man—it's like praising Picasso for knowing the primary colors—though it elevates the profession. Roland Ortmayer, 72, from Roundup, Mont., and in his 42nd year as head coach at Division III La Verne, is the most unusual football coach in the U.S. He is far out of the mainstream of coaching thought. But is he the best coach? You judge.

"We field a football team at La Verne because a certain percentage of young men at this age like to play," says Ortmayer. "That's the only reason. If you try to get me to say it's to build character or healthy bodies or establish a reputation for La Verne, that would not be essentially true. It seems to me that winning football somehow speaks for many universities, and I would think some of them would be embarrassed to allow their football programs to speak for them. Football to me is like climbing a mountain. The climbing is where it's at. When you finally reach the top of the mountain, all it is, is cold and windy."

The point for Ort—that is how he is known by all—is that the value is in the playing, not the winning. Ort believes that every football team should win about half the time. That's what Ort has done at La Verne, a liberal arts school of 1,000 students whose campus is 30 miles east of Los Angeles. His record is 172-185-6, a winning percentage of .482, which would have gotten him fired years ago at almost any other school.

Each year Ort schedules three games he expects to win, three that are toss-ups, three that he figures he'll lose. "Sometimes I have the feeling that justice will not have prevailed if we win." he says. The Leopards have never won the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship outright, but twice they have tied for it. "That's good," he says. "We have never clearly been the best team." Ort prefers that the better team win, which very often means his team's opponents. After a 19-13 loss to Occidental last season, a reporter asked Ort if La Verne could have done anything to stop Oxy.

"Yeah, tackle 'em," he replied.

"You didn't do very well running the ball, did you?" the reporter persisted.

"No. We're no good on the ground because you have to block and our guys are not into blocking."

And that is significant. If his guys are not into blocking—and they decidedly were not against Occidental—that's fine with Ort. After all, the players are the ones who said they wanted to play football, not Ort. In fact, before that game Ort had mused. "I think I'll give them a stirring speech: "O.K., we scheduled the game, so let's play it.' That will be enough." Rockne he is not.

But how far, truly, is Ort—athletic director, football coach, track coach, kayaker, rafter, fly-fisherman, mountain climber, husband, father, grandfather and teacher of 10 phys ed courses a year—out of the mainstream?

•Ort enthusiastically downplays winning. "It doesn't take long in this competitive game to think another's failure is our success," he says. Now don't get him wrong. He likes to win and thinks it a worthy goal, he just doesn't get crazy over it. Steve Ortmayer, Ort's nephew and the director of football operations for the San Diego Chargers, says. "Ort knows we're all going to win and lose, so we have to deal effectively with each. If either is too important, then it's out of perspective." Losing hurts La Verne players as much as it hurts USC players, but winning is never allowed to become all-important to the Leopards.

Thurman Belcher, who played for Ort during the '50s and is now in real estate, says, "Just being on Ort's team is a winning situation." Noel Gilbert, a lineman in the mid-'50s and a speech instructor today, was "so excited to play for Ort that I didn't realize we lost as much as we did."

Ort says that winning should never occur at the expense of having fun. That's why, for example, football practice at La Verne can suddenly be interrupted by a race in which the players carry watermelons. The race ends when a melon is dropped, then everyone sits around on the field, laughing, eating watermelon and spitting seeds. "The reason I do this." explains Ort, "is that if something isn't fun, I have to make it fun or I have to abandon it. Some people say we don't take winning seriously enough, so a lot of high school coaches don't want their players to come here. But I noticed that fathers want their sons to come."

The Leopards' best player last season, senior noseguard Mike McKernan, says of Ort, "He doesn't think of football first. He always thinks of his players first. And most of all he doesn't take the fun away."

•Ort places no emphasis on attendance at practice. Typically, from six to 15 players are absent from La Verne football drills. "I think there is something wrong with a player if he practices every day," says the Leopard coach. "Some days your car won't run or your girlfriend requires more attention than football. Maybe it's just a nice day to go to the beach. Heck, I've missed practices, like when I wanted to visit my daughter. They practice better without me, anyway."

One day last season, junior tight end John Kusleika walked up to Ort on the practice field and said proudly, "I haven't missed a practice all year." Replied Ort, "Then you should be a lot further along." Later, he told players during a passing drill that if they threw eight incompletions in a row, they simply wouldn't practice passing anymore. When someone asked if that did not demonstrate a need for more practice, Ort shook his head and said, "The problem is, all you are practicing are incompletions."

Leopard practices are informal affairs in which the players offer suggestions on how things could be done. Ort encourages this give-and-take: "If the players would rather run something out of the I formation than out of splitbacks, that's O.K. with me. I teach that it's all right to use your brains. All I insist on is that they come up with something I can understand so I can stay in the program."

•Ort doesn't swear. When he is furious, he says, "Oh, crum." The first two Leopard punts in a game last season were blocked. "Oh, crum," said Ort. He doesn't believe in rough language. "Maybe." he says with a laugh, "it's because I played basketball for the Baptists, coach for the Church of the Brethren [with which La Verne is affiliated], am Methodist by membership [his father was a Methodist minister] and am a Quaker at heart." Is this not a man for all seasons?

•Ort doesn't recruit. When one high school athlete stopped by the campus unannounced to say that he was considering coming to La Verne, Ort listened a while, then said. "I must tell you in all honesty that you are a lot better than we are." Ort won't recruit because he wants people to come to La Verne for an education and to play football as an educational adjunct. Says Ort, "I prefer not to have met a player until he shows up at La Verne, otherwise I get a biased point of view."

As quaint as that notion is, it does keep the emphasis on matters more important than football—which, to Ort's way of thinking, are many. Once, a university professor complained to the coach, "One of your football players is failing history." Said Ort, "Don't look at him as a football player failing history but as a history student failing history. Then you might get somewhere with him."

•Ort doesn't believe in weight training. He believes there is so much physical work that needs to be done in this world that to waste energy in an artificial endeavor is absurd. "I don't care if you can bench-press the world," he says. "I want you to be the best person you can be."

•Ort does not have a playbook. Everything the Leopards do is worked out on the field, often with a player saying, "Ort, remember that play we did last year?" The thinking here is that if all the plays are put in a playbook, some players might come to believe that all possible answers are in the book. That would mean the abandonment of creativity. During games, players come up to Ort with their suggestions; he listens. A playbook is not fun, so to hell with it.

•Ort does not have meetings for coaches or players. The coaches meet, if necessary, which it seldom is, on the practice field. The players practice every weekday between 3:45 and 5:30 p.m., and that's it. Ort wants them to be involved in ordinary campus life.

•Ort has little use for game films. Naturally, the players don't either. He gives cursory attention on Sunday to the previous day's film. That's it. He wouldn't think of looking at an opponent's film. He believes in doing what his players want to do, and that has nothing to do with what La Verne's opponents do.

•Ort has no ego. "We would win at least 25 percent more games if Rex [Huigens] were the coach," says Ort of his defensive coordinator. "I call a few plays during the game. It's just that the players don't choose to use them. That's O.K. I feel like I should try to make some sort of contribution." One of his kayaking students, Kay Rupel, describes Ort's philosophy as, You take the wheel and I'll be the passenger. Ort doesn't scream, but what he thinks seems to scream and yell to those who are attentive. During kayaking class, Rupel calls to Ort, "Which boat shall I use?" Says Ort, "I guess you're in charge of that."

Later, Rupel says of the Leopards' dismal 1988 season (3-6 after an 0-4 start), "You could blame the coach because you think he's in charge, but he's not." Actually, he is. Former Leopard linebacker Steve Stepanian, who graduated in 1987, says, "He has an uncanny way of being so loud without saying a word." Ort regularly places the blame for his team's poor performance on himself. Several years ago, after a lopsided loss to Occidental, he admitted, "When I went to scout Oxy, all I did was eat popcorn and talk to the people in the stands. Really, if we're not going to be better than me, we're not going to be very good."

•Ort refuses to put coaches in the press box where they would have a better view and could call down the plays. "If you do this, the coaches are just moving pawns and a few knights and castles." says Ort. "I want the game played by the people the game is for. We have 55 brains on the field. Think how foolish it would be not to use them all."

•Ort has no curfews or training rules. "What I believe in is going to bed at 9 p.m. and running two miles every morning. I don't think the players want to do that." For himself, Ort definitely has rules. He always walks on the sidewalk and will not cut across the campus lawn, thus creating an unsightly path: "I think life on the Planet Earth is great and good, so why be a part of something that makes things ugly rather than better?"

•Ort has never kicked a player off the team. And if someone quits, he is welcome back. No matter what. "I figure," says Ort, "that if a player does something that would warrant punishment of some kind, then he is the one who needs to be here the most, the one who needs direction the most. If you have to punish a player by having him turn in his uniform, then you haven't accomplished a bloomin' thing. Relationships without punishment are most likely to gain in the long run."

•Ort has never produced a successful professional player. Only three Leopards have even been drafted by the pros. None succeeded. Ort gives the impression he would be horrified if any did make it in the pros: "Professional sports are to amateur sports what prostitution is to love. Once you can get bought, it's mostly the money from then on. What I am really interested in is seeing a lot of people play. Gosh, even if they don't play well doesn't mean they don't want to play."

•Ort lines the field before home games and washes all the towels, jocks, socks, and practice and game uniforms himself. And his wife, Corni, sews up the tears. Ort says, "The coach should participate in all things, from getting ready to cleaning up the mess. The problem is, our messes too often are too big for us to clean up by ourselves. Every person, once in a lifetime, should have to clean a public restroom. No matter what, every person should be a part of the preparation, a part of the event, and a part of the cleanup. Other coaches say we can't operate this way. Yes, we can."

Besides, says Ort, handling all the dirty equipment and, the best part of all, laying out the clean game uniforms "makes me feel closer to my guys. I think of each one." After each game, on Saturday night and Sunday, Ort scrubs away at the pants, getting the grass stains out.

Ort may be far out of the mainstream, but the philosophy that guides him is dead-ahead correct. On reading: "If everyone who knows how to read taught one person who doesn't, and that one person taught one more, there wouldn't be illiteracy in the world." On football: "When a quarterback throws an interception. I really believe he should have to stay in there and make a few tackles."

What makes Ort a giant is the adversity he has survived. Shortly after he enrolled at Intermountain Union College in Helena, Mont., in 1935, the school was destroyed by an earthquake. Playing basketball against an AAU team later that year, he caught a knee at the base of his spine and nearly died of an infection, and his weight dropped from 182 to 123 pounds. Still, he got a scholarship to Northwestern as a 146-pound running back in 1937, whereupon he broke his collarbone, recovered, then tore up his left knee. He was even bitten once by an otter in a Montana river.

As World War II loomed, Ort became a conscientious objector. Not to avoid combat—nobody who knows Ort has ever detected an ounce of fear in him. Rather, he was against war. Period. Of that decision almost five decades ago, Ort says: "I feel all of life is fun and nothing should destroy life. War is the ultimate punishment. When you use a war to settle a situation, that means you didn't settle it."

After brief coaching stints in Illinois, Tennessee and Iowa, Ort came to La Verne in 1948, intending to stay "for a few years." And the legend took root. "The way I do things just turned out to be something that people here appreciate." he says. "I'm in an environment that at times tolerates me and at times embraces me." After a 3-7-1 season in 1957, players and admirers gave him a trailer to carry kayaks—and a station wagon to pull the trailer.

The Ortmayers have also known real tragedy. In 1953, Ort and Corni's son, David (they have two daughters, Susie and Corlan), drowned in Puddingstone Reservoir, a half-mile from the campus. He was six years old. Standing by the reservoir, Ort recalls that earlier that day David had asked him to play. But Ort said he had to groom the baseball diamond, drag the track and clean the gym. Says Ort, "What I learned is that a gym or a baseball diamond is not nearly as important as people." Ort's blue eyes glisten.

Ort is out in the wilds of Montana. Every summer for the past 17 years, Ort and Corni have been teaching a for-credit class, called When Lewis and Clark Met the Mountains. Last summer, they took eight students on the four-week adventure. The days are filled with kayaking and rafting and canoeing; at night the students cook by campfire and sleep in tents. First one up in the morning is Ort, last one to bed is Ort.

Along the Salmon River one night, Ort tells the students. "I hope you will feel that though you finish this course you are not through with it."

One evening, after the students cook steaks on flat rocks heated by the campfire, one of them, a La Verne linebacker, senior Jerry Anderson, tells the group that he has written a poem about how the river turned his kayak upside down six times in one day. He reads it:

Your figure and curves intrigue me
Your power astonishes me
My lack of respect concerns me
Now I've changed since you burned me.

"You are all going to get A's," Ort tells the students. "So if you're working hard to get an A, forget it. You've got it." He just wants them to learn. They do. Preparing to move toward the Yellowstone River, Anderson finishes tying the kayaks on the top of the van. Ort watches but says nothing. Anderson knows it's not quite right. "It isn't great, but I guess it will be O.K.," he says.

Ort: "Try to be great."

Anderson reties the knots. A lesson.

Back at La Verne, Ort jumps onto a retaining wall, balances himself and walks along it—as boys have done since time immemorial. "I do it because I'd feel terrible if the moment came when I was afraid to do it," he says. He promised himself at 15 that he would not get old—which meant he would not get bald, wear glasses or grow fat. Two out of three isn't bad. His weight is down to 230 now, heading, Ort promises, for 200.

The sun is setting on the day and, relentlessly, on Ort's career. "I'm having a miserable football season but a great archery class," he says with a big pumpkin smile, and while the glory of Ort is all the lives he has touched, the sadness is all the lives he won't touch. "Life is a series of steps," he says. "No one of them is all that important. The more ways I can touch people and the more people who can touch me, the greater life is. But nothing I do is finished." Then, Ort says lightly:

"Some day in May, I'll just walk away."