What I’ve Learned
Listen in: What I've Learned with Dick Trachok
’49 (secondary education), ’54M.A.
I was born in a house in Jerome, Pa. There weren’t too many births to my knowledge at that time in the hospital. There were seven of us and I was the youngest. I have a sister that’s still living, and she is the oldest. Next month shall be 96 [Ann Stankan died May 13, 2007]. She still follows the Yankees, and she lives in New Jersey. Five of us are still living, a brother and a sister passed away. My older brother gave the orders. I remember he said, “If I ever catch you smoking, I’m going to knock your head off.”
His name was Albert. It was typical back then because everyone had a big family. The older brothers and the older sisters always took care of the younger ones, as the parents were always very, very busy.
My dad was a coal miner. That was a very, very hard job. There was a mine in Jerome. He was going to work at five o’clock, 5:30 in the morning. Then he went down to what we call the shaft. They would drop way down and get on some little cars that they had there. They would go quite aways out to where they were digging coal that particular day. They’d load the cars and then they had a little check they would put on the car. So when the car was loaded back up the shaft again, someone up there would take the check out, and there was a number on it. It would be like the number 312, and he knew who that was. He put down “312” and they would get credit for loading a car of coal. If they didn’t load any coal, they wouldn’t get any money.
At that particular time, being so young, you didn’t have much idea what was going on. You were just living.
I became aware of how hard a job that was shoveling coal on their knees and then fighting the coal dust. A lot of them got black lung, and that’s what killed my dad. That was quite prevalent then.
My older brother said, “You better study in high school or else you’re going to end up in the coal mine.” That was quite an incentive to study.
My mother was a housewife. She took care of all seven kids. Every Monday was wash day, washing all the clothes, putting them out on the lines. I remember the clothes hung up on the lines in the wintertime and the sheets would be frozen. They would just stand straight up. Then Tuesday was ironing day.
The store there we called the company store. You remember the line in the Tennessee Ernie Ford song. I owe my soul to the company store. It was very true, very true. I always get a kick out of it. Most of the people who worked in the coal mines, they shopped at the company store. They would get credit and the miners were paid every two weeks. They would then take their check or their salary, and they would take out the money that they charged for food. For some reason, I guess it was one of the regulations, they couldn’t take out all the money. They would leave a dollar in there. And the workers would get a dollar out of whatever their paycheck was and the rest would go to the company store. The song is very, very apt.
Everybody knew everybody in a little town and it was very common for people to help others. A large number of people were first-generation. My mom and dad came from Lithuania and a bunch of the neighbors came from Poland and Italy. There was no such thing as English as a second language at that time. When they came over I don’t think they any of them could speak English. So they just learned in a hurry. I remember some of the kids, when I started school, they couldn’t speak English, but they learned in a hurry.
Most of the people I knew were in the same boat, and we just thought that’s the way life was. You worked real hard and that was it. All the entertainment was self-generated. In every town back then, they all had baseball teams and they’d get nice crowds to watch the games. High school sports were very popular.
Tom Kalmanir [a teammate of Trachok’s in the 1946-’48 Nevada backfield and NFL player with the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Colts] and I grew up together. We met in catechism, then went to grade school, high school and the University of Pittsburgh. We went into the service for a couple of years. And we came out here to go to school. He was the best man at my wedding. My wife and I are godparents to one of his two children. We’ve been friends forever. I can remember knowing him since he was six years old or so. He was very friendly and he was a very good athlete. Whenever you’re around people for a long time, and you think they’re good people, you become friends. We’ve been friends up until he died [in October 2004].
We played football together our sophomore year in high school at Connemaugh Township in Davidsville, Pa [in 1940]. We had a very good team. They had a senior tailback there who was one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. His name was Ed Maslanka and he was a super athlete. Then World War II came about, and that interrupted a lot of people’s plans.
I went to the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1943 with Tom. I was 17. We had practiced a good part of the summer, and you were allowed to do that at that particular time. We played the ’43 season and then we went into the service with the United States Army Air Corps. People would be lined up to enlist. I tried to get into the Navy at first, but I flunked the colorblind test. How I passed into the Air Force and Air Corps, I don’t know.
You had to go through basic training and the war was winding down a little bit. So I was sent to aerial gunnery school, training on B-24s. They were called flying boxcars. I went to gunnery school and I think they were graduating I don’t know how many hundreds a week. And I thought I was little older and smarter than some of the kids. So I figured out in my mind why there were graduating 4 or 5 hundred a week, and they must been losing some. I’m not crazy about flying, but at that time nothing bothered you. They kept you so busy, you didn’t have time to worry about anything. Besides gunnery school I went to finance school, and then I went to physical training instructors’ school.
When I finished finance school, a major was interviewing me. He asked me, “What would you like to do?” And I said, “The last thing I’d like to do after finishing finance school is to become a bookkeeper.” I said, “I’m interested in athletics, and I’d like to do something like that. So he got on the phone and he called somebody. He didn’t know me from Adam. He said, “Captain, I’ve got a friend here who would be very interested in going to physical training instructors’ school.” And he got me out of the office.
In high school yearbooks, they always ask you what you would like to do. I said I wanted to “coach and teach math in high school,” and I did.
The depression was winding down and things started changing of course in ’41 when the war started. All the industries and things started booming, but prior to that the teachers looked like they had a very, very good living. Working nine months out of the year and they had the three months off. It looked like something that was very good.
I was discharged in 1946. I wasn’t interested in staying in. The idea was now we can go back to college. We got out and went home, and we worked a little bit, and then we checked on going to schools, Kalmanir and I.
We didn’t want to go back to Pitt. We wanted something that had a campus. Pittsburgh had the Cathedral of Learning and it’s 42 stories high. They have a lot of classes in there.
So we went to our coach, Clark Shaughnessy. He gets credit for starting the T-formation. We looked at a school in West Virginia, and then we went to Maryland, because I think Shaughnessy, after he left Pitt, ended up at Maryland.
And then coach [Jim] Aiken from Nevada went back to Pittsburgh and rented a room at a hotel not too far from campus. He put the word out he was looking for players and talked to Tom about coming to Nevada.
What he did was have a trainer come out, and Aiken would get him to go out and get some players. Then he would have him bring the players down to the hotel so he could talk to them. He never had a car, so he had the trainer take a taxi and Aiken would give him five bucks to get a taxi and bring the kids back to the hotel. He could do that for about $2 and the trainer was smart enough that he only brought one at a time. So he had to make more trips and and he was making more money.
After we looked at several schools, Tommy said, “Should we consider Nevada?” I said, “I’ve not talked to anybody.” So he got on the phone and he called coach Aiken and said, “I’ve got another player here that would like to come out.” Aiken never asked, “What’s his name? What position does he play? How big is he? How are his grades? He said, “Just bring him.”
And that was knowing that if things didn’t pan out, he’d say, “You’re gone.” Aiken had three teams... one that was coming in, one that was practicing and one that was leaving. At that time, there were no letters of intent. If you weren’t doing well, they’d threaten to turn over your plate, which meant they’d stop feeding you at the training table.
We lived in a building they called The Fieldhouse, right across from the old stadium [now Hilliard Plaza, just south of Reynolds School of Journalism]. We had people living in the basement and up on the right side there were some rooms. We lived for a little while in Bourbon Hall in Army barracks west of Valley Road. Then we lived in Lincoln Hall on campus until we graduated.
It was great for us because none of us had cars. We could walk across the lot and we were at the football field. They’d ring the bell at Lincoln Hall about 10 minutes before the first class started and people would get up, splash their faces with water and run down to the classroom.
My mom thought I was out of my mind for wanting to come to a place called Nevada. People back East thought the place was still filled with hostile Indians.
Everything for me was so enjoyable that I really didn’t consider anything a real challenge. I played football, was on the track team and, in the so-called offseason, I played city-league basketball. I had no trouble with the classes. There have got to be people enjoying college just as much today.
I never looked at football as a job. It wasn’t like, “God, I’ve got to go to work today.” It was more of an opportunity. I played with the greatest people in the country. We were a very, very close-knit group and I felt very fortunate to have them as teammates.
The memories are of the people who I played with because we sort of kept in touch, even now. I found that part exceptionally rewarding. We had a lot of reunions, but of course a lot of them have passed away. That’s very, very sad whenever that happens. I’ve called people and they would call me all the time. Kalmanir, for one, because every week we would talk about how the Pack was doing.
When he passed away, he lived in Fresno. He was on the first Oakland Raiders coaching staff they ever had. I never had any desire to do any pro coaching. I never gave it any thought.
You appreciate the friendships. You get very, very close and it creates a void anytime you lose a friend. It’s part of your life. It sort of disappears and you hate to see it. I hesitate to read the obituaries because not a day goes by that I don’t know somebody who’s listed.
Our coffee group [several of Trachok’s Reno-area friends who meet regularly at the Gold-N-Silver Inn], we’re all about the same age, and they mention the same thing. The sadness is that you can’t communicate with them anymore. The good feeling is that you can remember the great times that you had.
The one game that we won that everybody still talks about was the Oregon game when we went up there in 1947. Kalmanir was hurt and never made the trip. We won 13-7 and Duke Lindeman, who later was head of the Parks and Recreation department in Reno, intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown.
The other touchdown came when our quarterback, Mike Mirabelli, threw a pass to one of our ends, Carl Robinson. Quarterback Stan Heath [a 1948 United Press All-American] played in that game and it was right then that he started playing all the time. So everybody today thinks that Stan Heath threw the touchdown pass and it was Mirabelli, who had a music store here for many years and was a state treasurer for years and years.
Norm Van Brocklin [a future Pro Football Hall of Famer and Kalmanir’s teammate on the 1951 NFL champion Los Angeles Rams] was the Ducks quarterback and I intercepted one of his passes as a defensive back.
Aiken [who had headed to Eugene to coach Oregon beginning that season and knew he’d be facing Nevada] was very, very competitive and I think we were ahead at halftime, 7-6. So as we were lined up for the second-half kickoff, Aiken walked across the field to get to his sideline. One of our players, Ken Sinofsky, said, “Hey, Jim. How do you like it now?” And Jim turned to one of his players and told him to get Sinofsky in the second half [Sinofsky was a guard-defensive lineman who played for Aiken’s Wolf Pack teams in 1944 and 1946].
Sinofsky had kind of got on Aiken’s list in practice. I remember when Aiken told Sinofsky, “Go down there and practice with the freshmen.” So he’d go down there and tell the freshman coach, “Aiken told me to come down here and play quarterback.” At times that coach would have Sinofsky shagging the extra-point tries, and then Ken would throw the ball back and try to hit Aiken. He was a real character.
I coached Bishop Manogue’s first basketball team in 1948-49 when I was still a student at the University, then got a job in the spring of 1949 as the track coach at Reno High School. They knew I ran track [at Nevada] and the principal asked if I’d be the coach. That was R. Guild Gray [’35 (education) ’48M.Ed.]. He asked me if I’d be interested in being the football coach at Reno. I said, “Yes.”
Later, I was walking up North Virginia and my Nevada teammate Jim Wilson pulled his car over and yelled, “Congratulations.” I said, “What for?” He said, “I heard you’re the new football coach at Reno High.” That’s how I found out. He read it in the paper. It was the biggest high school in the state.
When I coached high school football or basketball, I was the head coach. I wasn’t the assistant. When I came into college coaching, I was the head coach. I was never the assistant.
Being an assistant has a lot of merit. It would have helped. I knew nothing about recruiting. When I started coaching football here [in 1959], we didn’t have any scholarships so that made it a little harder. I talked to [former Nevada head basketball and football coach and athletic director] Jake Lawlor and said, “Hey, how do you this? How do you do that?” So I got a lot of help.
I remember in 1949, my first year, first game with Reno High, we went up to Lassen High School in Susanville, Calif. They were punting and we blocked the punt into the end zone and we fell on it. The referee called it a safety and I said, “It’s a touchdown.” We argued back and forth and I explained some things to him. Finally he said, “I know it’s a touchdown, but if I call it a touchdown the people are going to get mad.” I said, “If you don’t call it a touchdown, I’ll be mad also.” So finally he said, “It’s a touchdown.”
The following year we went up there to play them again and it’s the same referee. He said, “Coach, are there any new rules this year?” And I thought, “My God, what are we getting into here?”
The first game coaching at Nevada, you’re sort of scared because no matter who you play you don’t want to get blown out. We played Western State College of Colorado at home and we lost, 14-13. We felt that we played well. We were pleased with the way the season went because they were having all kinds of trouble before [the University dropped football in 1951].
I was worried about getting enough players. It was difficult because the Far Western Conference didn’t allow scholarships and we were competing with schools in California. The advantage they had was that they didn’t have far to go to school. If you’re in San Francisco, you can recruit right there. People would come by a streetcar and go to school. I learned it was a lot of work. We could offer a tuition waiver, but in California they had that anyhow.
We had one assistant coach who was the track coach and an assistant who was the baseball coach. I had to do most of the recruiting and we never had a recruiting budget. You just have to try harder.
A lot of things were always brand new to me. You can play all you want to, but when you go into coaching it’s a little different. Nowadays, they film everything and everything is so clear and on a huge screen. The coaches can see more and they have more people looking at them, grading the players. They get the players in and say, “Here, see, this, this is where you were going. You should have been going here.”
A lot of times for road games we didn’t even get films, sometimes because of the facilities they had and the cost involved. The 16-millimeter film would break and we all knew how to paste them back together.
Coach [Chris] Ault gets here about 5:30 in the morning. When I was athletic director and he was coaching, I said, “Take it easy a little bit.” He said, “What do you mean? We get here at 7 and we do this and then have practice, the team meets and we have training table, and then we have a meeting after and at 9 o’clock we’re home.” I said, “Chris, that’s 14 hours.” But it didn’t bother him at all. That was a normal day and I’m sure he still does it.
I’ve gone over and watched our coaches sometimes and thought, “My God, I don’t know if I could do that stuff they’re doing.” But you’ve got to think of it like the little kids working on computers. Who would’ve ever thought they’d be able to do it? But when you grow up with that, you’d be able to do it. You do whatever you need to do to compete.
Lou Gehrig said, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world” and I sort of feel that way, too. The type of life I’ve had. High school was a ball, college I thoroughly enjoyed, and the college coaching...a family with three kids who are doing very well, and grandkids. I could make the same quote that Gehrig did.
I’m like a lot of people who get a little older, the ones who can remember something from 40 years ago and don’t remember where they parked their car today. So I’m getting in that category a little bit.
I kid people in Athletics and tell them, “We need somebody here to tell the new people where the bathrooms are.” You have to have somebody around, when the so-called “old-timers” come back, that they can relate to.
If somebody feels that I’ve done a good job and helped out, I think that’s great. I’d like to think that I’m a role model to our kids [Rick Trachok, a Reno lawyer and champion Ironman athlete ’74 (plant science); Margo Trachok Bertelson, a former Reno intensive care pediatrics nurse ’78 (nursing); and Cathy, a commissioned artist in Napa, Calif. ’81 (art)].
I’ve been married for 58 years. My wife, Fran [Sumner Trachok ’47 (international affairs)], taught speed reading including up at the National Judicial College [on the University campus]. She’s very good in history and geography. It would be nothing for her to read a large novel in a day, and it would take me six weeks.
I haven’t been doing things much different now than I did way back. I always appreciated other people’s opinions. I may thoroughly disagree with them, but I try to see their thoughts. Trying to pick out the good in people because if you do that, you won’t have time to pick out the bad.
I don’t fear death. I’m hoping that I don’t have time to think about those things. But you have to be smart enough to know that nobody lives forever. The time comes for everybody.
Download What I’ve Learned (PDF) from the Summer 2007 issue of Nevada Silver & Blue
Photos courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections