Forrest Edward (Frosty) Westering, coach of the football team at Pacific Lutheran University, near Tacoma, Wash., is a winner by anybody's standards. His 229 victories are the most among active NAIA coaches, and his teams have finished among the top eight in the NAIA's Division II in 10 of the last 14 seasons. Westering's Lutes have played in the division's championship game six times since 1980 and have won three titles. Last year, after his team finished a 12-0-1 season by winning the title, Westering was named NAIA Division II Coach of the Year for the second time in a decade.
Yet for Westering, 66, these conventional measures of success are unimportant. Winning, he says with neither irony nor embarrassment, is "a by-product of learning to live decently." In fact Westering is less interested in football than he is in "shaping players' lives and influencing their hearts and minds."
A former Marine squad leader with a doctorate in education, an author (Make the Big Time Where You Are) and a motivational speaker, Westering is a font of pithy sayings about life and sports. It would be easy to dismiss him as a man puffed up with stale proverbs, except that he produces fine football players who are also fine young men.
Westering's players do not swear or tussle or trash-talk. They never dance in the end zone or raise fingers toward heaven to proclaim that they're No. 1. They help each other to their feet, but they also help up their opponents and compliment them on their performance. "Some teams think it's just a psych job," says assistant coach Scotty Kessler, an NAIA All-America defensive back for PLU in 1980. "But the guys are just being the kind of people Frosty has taught them to be."
October 31, 1994
Newcomers to Westering's football program sometimes feel, as one freshman put it, as if they have "landed on another planet." Having accepted the game's conventional ethos while playing for their high school coaches, they are astonished to find that the PLU season begins not with grueling two-a-day practices but with a three-day retreat to Gearhart, on the Oregon coast. There they do everything except play football. Like a troop of boys at summer camp, they splash in the Pacific, play tug-of-war and softball, perform late-night skits (half of which parody Westering affectionately) and engage in egg tosses and pie-eating contests. Westering, in shorts and a T-shirt, exhorts them with a bullhorn, continually offering aphorisms while limping about on the hip he injured hitting a practice sled 20 years ago, at the age of 46. At dinner he leads his players in song, and then, after promising not to sermonize, he launches into an extemporaneous sermon on self-esteem, fear of failure, goal-setting and the importance of commitment.
Westering does not recruit. He has no training rules. He never punishes or insults a player, and he has yet to kick anybody off his team. There are full-contact drills only twice before the season starts, and the exercises are friendly. Westering's practices include Popsicle breaks, interludes for watching the sunset and cheers for the snowy flanks of Mount Rainier, which looms large to the east. ("Hey, Mount Rainier! Go, Mount Rainier! Attaway! Attaway!") During the last practice before the 1993 championship contest, Lute linemen kicked field goals; quarterbacks ran wide receivers' patterns; and linebackers tried to throw deep.
Games are even more unorthodox. The Lutes didn't even put on their pads until minutes before the kickoff for the championship. During timeouts, when the situation permitted, instead of talking strategy, Westering played paper, rock, scissors with his squad. In huddles his players held hands, and on the sideline they sat together in a semicircle, like kids around a campfire. Afterward they gathered for two hours in the locker room, weeping, hugging and giving each other what they call bouquets. ("I just want to say, Mike, I love you so much. You played a great game today.")
If all of this sounds absolutely ridiculous, consider that the Lutes won the championship game by a score of 50-20.
Westering met Donna Belle Jones, his wife of 43 years, at their grade school in Missouri Valley, Iowa. His father ran a drugstore and soda fountain (the nickname Frosty stems from the younger Westering's generosity in providing frosted malts to friends), and though Frosty's parents urged him to be a pharmacist, he joined the Marines in 1945. After a two-year stint in China and Guam, he played offensive end for the El Toro Marines near Santa Ana, Calif., then for Northwestern University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The first of Frosty and Donna's five children was born in 1953 during Frosty's second year as a high school football coach in Elkader, Iowa. Except for the two years he spent working on his doctorate at Northern Colorado University and the two years—1960 and '61—he served as the athletic director at Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, he has coached ever since.
Westering is steeped in the principles of the human-potential movement and is a student of texts with lilies like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Greatest Secret in the World. He can talk at length about psychological mechanisms like visualization, projection and centering, spicing his discourse with down-home adages like "Character is our best piece of equipment" and "If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade." He takes much of his teaching from the Bible and quotes it with ease, particularly those passages that seem to him appropriate for sports. The Lute playbook is far less about X's and O's than it is about attitude, regret, fear, fulfillment, success and effort.
If Westering had critics, they would denounce him for operating the corniest kind of cult or perhaps an indoctrination center for impressionable Boy Scouts. But Westering apparently has no critics; he is loved by everybody who knows him.
"He's probably the guy that parents in America would most want their kid to play for," says Ross Hjelseth, the former president of the NAIA coaches' association. "Frosty's in a class by himself."
Former players stress the significance of the time they spent with Westering. "Frosty had a dramatic impact on my life," says Larry Green, an insurance-agency manager in Seattle who played for the Lutes in the mid-'70s. "He gave me a sense of purpose and direction. He made me realize how good I could be." Don Poier, a Lute defensive end in the early 1970s who now runs a television production company in Seattle, calls Westering "one in a million. There were some real roughnecks on our team, and Frosty turned them right around." Craig Fouhy, an offensive tackle for the Lutes from 1972 to '75 who is now a high school football coach in Everett, Wash., recalls that Westering "had a million clichès and lived every one of them. I came from a single-parent situation and had my share of problems. Frosty just took me by the hand. I hear his voice ringing in my head every day I live, in everything I do."
Westering's more recent players offer similar testimonials. Marc Weekly, PLU's 1993 NAIA All-America quarterback, says, "I went from being a cocky young freshman to learning to love other people as a senior—and I give Frosty all of the credit." Ted Riddall, PLU's All-America linebacker, was sinking under the weight of personal problems—he had recently been divorced, lost interest in playing football and quit school at the University of Montana—until he joined the Lutes in 1991. "Frosty," he says, "was a role model. He turned my life around and gave me guidance."
Westering has no hobbies and no plans lo retire. Professional teams have contacted him about taking assistant coaching positions, but Westering has always declined. "The real work is right there," he said, gesturing toward his players on a sunny August afternoon on the beach at Gearhart. He stooped to remove his shoes and socks, then limped out into the surf with his bullhorn and encouraged his players to follow him into the Pacific. They did. All of them. One hundred young men at the edge of the continent, following Frosty Westering. It was so corny and so moving—the endless expanse of water, the stout old man with his craggy brow, the crowd of boys with their hearts afire—that it made you happy-there are still such things in the world.
David Guterson's novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars," was published last month by Harcourt Brace.