Late in the Game

By Michael Marsh

Bob Goldberg is your typical high school coach. He calls practice, draws plays, presides over study hall, and frets about injuries. On a Saturday afternoon he’s pacing in the gymnasium of Josephinum High School, the Catholic girls’ school in Wicker Park where he coaches varsity basketball. With a three-page game plan sticking out from the back pocket of his tan slacks, he kneels on the floor and maps strategy on a white pad. Josephinum beats Mount Assisi handily, 83-69. Goldberg talks to his team, then chats with a reporter covering the game. He locks up the building and drives some of the players home.

He likes to win. Josephinum has emerged as one of the top Class A teams in the Chicago area. So far this season, the Cougars have clinched the Catholic Athletic Conference white division title, winning 18 of their first 25 games. Last season, Josephinum went 25-4 and claimed its first Illinois High School Association regional title. This week they head into a regional tournament, the first step toward the state championship.

Though Goldberg may seem typical, his path to coaching was not. Most high school coaches get their start in their early 20s, after playing ball or working as equipment managers in college. Goldberg, an affable, upbeat guy, waited until he was 49. Before that, he made his name as a successful stock and commodities trader, serving as chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade.

As far as he’s concerned, it’s better late than never. “How many people get to do what they really want to do?” He lives in Winnetka, but calls himself a city kid. He grew up near Touhy and California, the second son of a German Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother. Early on he learned how to deal with anti-Semitic remarks. “As a kid, you deal with it by getting in fights,” he says. “I was a terrible fighter. So I decided–after I lost every fight I was in by the time I was nine years old–that I ought to change my tactics, learn to use my mouth a little more and realize that most of the remarks were off-the-hip and did not have deep meaning.”

At only five foot seven, Goldberg played guard on the basketball team at Notre Dame High School in Niles, but, he jokes, he couldn’t shoot and could only go to his left. Consequently he concentrated on making plays. As a teenager, he worked for his father, a wholesale jeweler. Then his brother David got him a job as a runner for Continental Grain at the Chicago Board of Trade. In 1963, while in his junior year at Marquette University, he borrowed $8,500 from his brother to buy a membership in the exchange. He traded corn futures one day a week during the school year and full-time during the summer. Then Edward Keeley, Merrill Lynch’s head broker at the time, offered to train Goldberg and let him make trades for the company. “Obviously I was undeserving because who knew if I had any talent,” Goldberg says. “I hadn’t put my time in. Some people might wait 10, 15 years for that opportunity.” With Keeley’s training, Goldberg thrived. He and his brother started their own firm, the Goldberg Organization, which eventually became one of the largest clearing firms at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Board Options Exchange. He was elected chairman in 1985. “I am not a very good day-to-day manager,” admits Goldberg. “But chairman of the board is more of a policy job–public relations, marketing. I enjoyed it. It was a great honor to be elected by your fellow members as being the head dog.” Nevertheless he decided to bow out after only a year.

Goldberg and his brother sold their business in 1988. “It was time to cash in our chips,” he says. “We had built it up. It was salable. It was time to take the money we had made and put it away.”

He had promised his parents that he’d eventually finish college. Now he decided to do it. He attended night classes at DePaul while making trades during the day. He earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1991. “I was a much better student at 46 or 47 than I was at 17 or 18,” he says. “I enjoyed the classes. I saw lots of people who were working all day and going to school at night to get their bachelor’s degree, who were doing it to get ahead in their jobs and raising families. I saw a lot of people I had great admiration for.”

Basketball was next on his list. He told someone at a cocktail party that he really wanted to be a coach. He was surprised to hear himself say it, but he knew it was true. Soon after getting his degree, he called Doug Bruno at DePaul. Bruno was the women’s basketball coach, and Goldberg was on the university’s board of trustees. The two discussed coaching over lunch. Bruno told him to study books and tapes on basketball, seek advice from other high school coaches, and start off by working at the elementary school level. Goldberg soon amassed a collection of more than 50 tapes and two dozen books, and after a year of study he volunteered to coach eighth-grade boys at Saint Ignatius elementary school, where Bruno’s son played. He also went to basketball camps, attended coaching clinics, and sat in on some of Bruno’s practices.

After a year at Ignatius, Goldberg sent resumes to some Chicago-area Catholic schools and received six job offers. He chose Josephinum–which he calls an “educational oasis”–because of his Chicago roots and his experience raising four daughters. The school is small, with a student body of 250, most of whom are Latino and African-American; many are from single-parent homes.

Bruno was impressed by Goldberg’s tenacity: “He has attacked this position as any 21-year-old out of college would have attacked it.” But Bruno was also struck by his dedication to players, not just the sport. “He’ll do anything to help his players with challenges beyond basketball.”

When Goldberg took over the team, he found that graduation had taken a toll. He had only three seasoned players. As a result, the Jospehinum Cougars were 8 of 18 during both of his first two seasons. But with the help of assistants Jill Redmond and Jerome Farrell, he began to mold a strong team.

To get results he learned to soften his approach. Goldberg admits he previously yelled at the “wrong time”–out of anger rather than a desire to motivate. “I found that my arm around their shoulder was better than me screaming in their ears,” he says. He also used this new approach to pursue a key goal: steering his players toward college. “I used to say ‘I want you to go to college because'”–he pounds his fist once on his desk–“‘that’s the way it’s supposed to be.’ Now I say, ‘Don’t you want to go to college to get away from me?'”

Josephinum senior guard Kamely Rivera agrees that Goldberg has become a stronger coach over time. “He learned patience,” she says. “He has become wiser with the game and with us.” Rivera says she didn’t think about college before she met him, but now she plans on it. Not only does she rank in the top third of her class, she recently earned an 18 on the ACT–one point above the minimum score needed to qualify for an athletic scholarship. She credits the help of a tutor Goldberg got for her. “He’s like everybody’s dad,” Rivera says. “We want to win for him as well as for us.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bob Goldberg photo.