Tribute to Coach Tony Vigna

October 28, 2017

Dear Coach Vigna,

In 1972 you changed a young man’s life forever. It was mine.

I remember the first fall practice of the 1972-3 San Marcos junior varsity basketball team. It was brutal. I was out of shape, along with virtually all of my teammates, and for the first week we ran “the ramp” outside the gym. I’m not sure if I puked, but I sure remember it felt like I should have. When we moved into the gym, you had us dribble with our right hands, then our left. You showed us the proper defense stance, which we copied, and then you had us sliding left, sliding right, back and forth. You talked about the fundamentals of the game. Practice was serious, inspiring. To end it, we ran lines, shot free throws, and ran more lines. And when it was over, I remember crawling to showers, drenched in sweat, and united with you and my teammates in the exhaustion and promise that high school basketball offers on a brisk autumn day.

That day was the start of one of the most memorable, rewarding and enjoyable years of my life. I loved playing basketball for you. I mean, I really loved it – the kind of experience you go to bed and wake up dreaming about, and attend classes anticipating it all day. I loved learning the game, improving my fundamentals, and working as a team each day. I loved playing point guard—high shuffle, low shuffle, 16. I loved the discipline, the pattern of drills and direction you provided each day. I loved the competition with my teammates, the time outside the gym with them, our team pickup games at UCSB on Friday nights when we would routinely beat college students. And I loved you as a coach, the attention you gave to each of us, how you helped us grow and improve, how you demanded effort and rewarded success. I remember the pride of accomplishment when you would offer enthusiastic congratulations after a good play and crystal clear coaching when a play went wrong. At the end of our 17 win, 6 loss season — by far the most successful record of any team I had played on— I felt like I had won an NBA championship.

My affection for you as a coach extended into the history classroom as well. I smile now when I reflect on your enthusiasm for teaching, the patterns in world history, and the lessons history offered for contemporary times. You were as supportive of me in the classroom as in the gym.

And then there was the weekend that everything in my life changed.

I think it was during my junior year, maybe that spring. You encouraged me to visit Stanford, and you met my father and me on campus, showed us around, talked about your own experience at the school, and counseled me to apply. It was the only college counseling I received at San Marcos. The fall of my senior year, with your encouragement, I applied to Stanford, two Ivy League schools, and UCSB where I was already enrolled. The Ivys turned me down, but by the grace of Coach Vigna and the strength of your recommendation letter, Stanford let me in and the run began.

And what a run it was. I finished my Bachelor of Science degree in biology, stayed on for my Master’s degree at Hopkins Marine Station, and then returned four years later to obtain a master of business administration and certificate in public management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Those seven years at Stanford led to countless friends, professional experiences, world travels, and opportunities that are in retrospect breathtaking. And to think it all started with you on a basketball court at San Marcos!

You will never know how grateful I am that we met and that I was able to play basketball for you, study history, and grow outside the classroom. Brad Henry said, “A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.” You did that, and more. You showed me the elegance and promise of discipline and hard work. You guided me to Stanford, and helped me get in. You changed my life, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Tony Vigna Flyer – Oct. 28, 2017