?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: