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Naples resident Norm Kaye has hobnobbed with a few sports legends in his day, never once acknowledging he’s done some pretty legendary things of his own.

The 88-year-old was the longtime athletic director, baseball and basketball coach – among other things – at Saint Leo College (now Saint Leo University). During his tenure at Saint Leo, he rubbed elbows with basketball luminaries at coaching clinics. At these events, he traded ideas with UCLA’s John Wooden, Indiana’s Bobby Knight and Arizona’s Lute Olsen.

Kaye recalled a specific conversation he had over lunch with Wooden in the 1970s.

“I had told him that I admired him as a coach and had read his book, and with him being from Indiana and me being from Illinois, we’d get along just fine,” Kaye recalled. “He laughed and then we started to talk a little basketball. I told him that I believed a player should never jump to pass, you jump to shoot. He told me he had never really thought about it like that but it made a lot of sense.”

A couple months later, Kaye was watching television and an NBA game was on TV. Former UCLA star Bill Walton was in his early days as an NBA player when an interviewer asked him about his relationship with his college coach.

“Walton was talking about how to that very day, coach Wooden was still teaching him things about the game of basketball,” Kaye said. “He told the interviewer ‘Just the other day, he taught me something new. That you should never jump to pass, only jump to shoot.’ I thought that was so great. He remembered our conversation and used it as a teaching moment.”

He also recalled a memorable group lunch and a particular question fielded by Knight.

“The guy who led the clinic knew I was a big proponent of looking to shoot first, which mainly meant when you get the ball you should always be ready to shoot because the defense closes fast if you hesitate,” he said. “Well, Bobby Knight always preached passing the ball first. Well, this guy asked Bobby what he thought, knowing my philosophy was different than his. He paused for 10 to 15 seconds and then said “My players know exactly what I mean” with that stern demeanor you’d expect.

As serious as he could be, he was also a great guy to talk to at those clinics. He obviously loved the game of basketball.”

Kaye was a fine coach in his own right, leading both the basketball and baseball programs at Saint Leo during the 1970s. As the baseball coach, he instructed future big-league players like Bob Tewksbury, Brian Dayett and Jim Corsi. As the athletic director, he hired former National League Cy Young award winner Mike Marshall to lead the program in the mid 1980s.

His finest achievement at Saint Leo came as the school’s athletic director, where he founded the Sunshine State Conference in 1975. The league has gone on to become one of the best NCAA Division II conferences in the country, featuring schools like Rollins, Eckerd and Florida Southern. One of the league’s charter members was Florida Technological University – which would become the University of Central Florida, now a Division I mainstay.

“We had teams that were good enough to advance to the postseason, but we didn’t have anyone on the selection committee to get them there,” he recalled. “Most postseason tournaments offer automatic bids to conference winners so we needed a conference. I asked around to other leagues and actually learned more from the leagues that failed than ones that succeeded. There was one league in particular that folded because it was run by the athletic directors. You get one AD that doesn’t agree and the whole thing sinks. So we decided our league would be run by the school presidents, and it proved to be a successful model.”

Kaye retired from Saint Leo in the early 90s and relocated to Naples. But he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s never really retired, as he’s always remained active. He became a dedicated workout enthusiast and eventually helped train local high school athletes. When his grandson Cameron was born, he served as the little boy’s nanny. For nearly 15 years, he’s worked as a gate guard at Bonita Bay.

His role as grandfather is clearly his favorite, and his two grandsons Cameron and Griffin have become strong athletes in their own right, both starting at Gulf Coast High School. Next year, the brothers will be reunited as long snappers on Division I Troy University’s football team. Cameron is a redshirt sophomore and has played a vital role on one of the best special teams units in the country. Griffin is expected to be Cameron’s heir apparent, so he’ll likely redshirt next year and learn from his older brother.

Cameron says he likely wouldn’t have made it this far without the guidance from his grandfather.

“There aren’t really words to describe what kind of a role he’s played in my life, both in sports and in life in general,” Cameron said. “He was my nanny, he’s basically mentored me since I was born. I haven’t gone through anything in life without him.”

Cameron says he corresponds with his grandfather every day, either by text or phone call. Throughout the boys’ lives, he’s been known to leave inspirational quotes and phrases around the house as reminders to always do their best.

One of Cameron’s favorites is a quote attributed to former President Calvin Coolidge, which happens to be one of Norm’s personal favorites.

That quote is “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not, unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not, the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are ominipotent.”

Cameron loves the quote so much, he had “Press on” tattooed on his bicep a few years ago.

“Another quote I love that he told me is ‘Prepare for each day, execute each day to your best in class and on the grass’” Cameron said. “And that one is related to another quote he always says, talking about the five P’s. ‘Proper planning prevents poor procedure.’ It’s kind of cliché but time management is so important. You have to set reminders and make plans for what you’re going to get done that day and make the best use of your time.”

Norm says he’s always urged the boys to be the best at whatever they pursued.

For a time, Griffin was into acting and he starred in several plays locally before getting back into sports in high school.

“He definitely could have pursued acting if he wanted, he was that good,” Norm beamed. “His instructors agreed. But I’ve always thought it was important that the boys found their own way. They both have asked me if it ever bothered me that they never played basketball. And I said ‘of course not.’ I’ve never been one to want the kids to do something just because I enjoyed it or was good at it. Just be passionate about whatever it is you’re doing and always give it your best, which they have.”

He also told the boys that if they made a commitment, they should honor that commitment.

“I remember there was a day when Cameron was younger and he told me ‘Poppy, I don’t want to go to football practice today’,” Norm recalled. “He was a kid, he wanted to do something else. So I basically told him that maybe he ought to quit the team. He told me he didn’t want to quit. And I told him that you can’t always do things when you like to do it or when it’s convenient for you. Whatever job you have, there are times that you’ve got to show up whether you want to or not. He then said ‘Poppy, let’s go to practice.’ He never again said he didn’t want to go, he understood what I was telling him.”

Kaye said the biggest kick he ever got from coaching was teaching his players fundamentals. He also said that long practices aren’t always the way to go.

“I’ve found that time expended does not equal results obtained,” he said. “Some coaches want to spend hours working on something and what happens? The players get tired and sloppy and the message might not get across. I’ve often found that spending 45 good minutes on something can get the point across just as well or better.”

Kaye also said that coaches shouldn’t make early judgements about their players.

“I think a mistake some coaches make is they see what they have and immediately label certain players as the best they’ve got,” he said. “And while that’s probably true at that moment, you could be neglecting other kids who really want to learn. Those kids who are good now, are they going to be good in the future or is this as good as they’re going to get? Give me some kids who want to learn, who are going to put in the time it takes to get better, the kids you truly can coach, over a bunch of talented kids who aren’t going to listen or put in the work.”

 

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