"Guilt," his father said.
And he never saw him again.
I'll show you. That became the motif of Dale Brown's life. Whom was he showing? The hypocrites at church, his father, his town, himself—he was never quite able to put a finger or a name on it. A poor, fatherless boy from the middle of nowhere could become a big-time basketball coach. He would show them. Sure, part of him always wanted to do something more important than coaching—to be an FBI agent or a lawyer. He loved to read history and philosophy. But somehow, at least for a little while, being entrusted with the lives of a dozen teenagers seemed to make the fatherless, powerless little boy in him go away.
I'll help you. That became the subtheme of his life. While he and his wife were flipping coins over which bills to pay, once borrowing $500 from a loan shark for Christmas presents, he was buying gifts for his poorest players and having one of them live in his house. His memories of his own hurts remained so extraordinarily raw, it made his sympathy for weakness spontaneous. "I wanted to gag him sometimes," says his wife, Vonnie.
I'll show you was not as far from I'll help you as it seemed. One flared when his fragile sense of power was slapped, the other when it was stroked. "If you poke me in the chest I go for your jugular," he says. "If you put your arm around me I become a pussycat."
The day he married Vonnie, he awoke praying snow would make the roads impassable. Eventually he began to trust her, to let one other person in on his secret crusade. Perhaps it was because her need for independence was nearly as powerful as his. Years later, when they could finally afford vacations, they would often take them separately. Her schedule as a folk-dance teacher and his as a basketball coach were so different they once spent seven days in their house without seeing each other.
He quit his first high school coaching job in Columbus, N. Dak. because Vonnie, then an elementary school teacher in the same district, received only a $50 yearly raise compared with $100 for the high school teachers. In his second job, he discovered that another coach was making more than he. That wasn't fair—he would show them, too.
Virtually broke, Dale and Vonnie packed their baby in a car and headed west to California, where the only coaching position he could find was at a junior high in Berkeley. He remembers one rainy day, driving his 14-and 15-year-olds to an away game in a school bus, when the flap of the windshield wipers became a repetitive chant: "Dale Brown, you're a failure, Dale Brown, you're a failure...."
He found a high school job in Palm Springs and began sending out resumes, "nice win" notes and Christmas cards to college coaches. Utah State coach Ladell Andersen (now at BYU), his curiosity piqued by this stranger's persistence, telephoned Palm Springs High from a nearby gas station on his way to recruit a player.
"Wait right there," said Brown breathlessly.