On the visitors' bench tonight in Akron, Ball State men's basketball coach James Whitford will wear the “4 Pete's Sake” pin he's sported for the last two games. He'll try to keep his composure.
That might not be possible.
“I've worn the sneakers for cancer awareness (the annual Coaches vs. Cancer week) for the last 17 years and I've put them on and probably have not thought a lot about it,” Whitford said. “Wearing the '4 Pete's Sake' pin hits home.”
Dan “Pete” Peters is the director of basketball operations for the men's basketball team at Akron. He has pancreatic cancer and is undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatment. He says he's been told he has a five percent chance of survival.
Akron will stage a “Purple Out” at their home game at 7 tonight against Ball State – purple being the color associated with pancreatic cancer awareness – to support Peters. There will be shirts that say “4 Pete's Sake” as the school honors and supports their friend while he fights for his life.
Coaches tend to be a close-knit bunch, fiercely competitive when they're in the arena and friends outside of it. In his 30-plus year career at a few different locales, Peters has made a lot of coaching friends.
“I would go so far as to say you'd never find anyone in our business with a bad word to say about Dan,” Whitford said. “He's deeply respected, both for his career as a basketball coach and the person he is.”
Whitford's connection is unique, but typical of how the coaching community weaves through each other's lives.
Ohio State women's basketball coach Kevin McGuff is one of Whitford's best friends and the godfather of Whitford's 6-year-old son, Liam. McGuff played for Peters when Peters coached Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer and remained close with his coach. Whitford had met Peters before then, when both were assistants at Ohio colleges, but the McGuff connection brought them closer.
Then, when Whitford was coaching at the University of Arizona, he worked with Peters' son Danny.
There's that coaching family again, extending across the country.
“I talk to Danny probably three times a week,” Whitford said. “I tried to hire Danny at Ball State. So I really feel their pain. I know how close Danny is with Dan. My heart goes out to them.”
Dan Peters' plight is heartbreaking. He's 59 and had been planning for the next phase of his coaching life. He wanted to retire from Akron and spend more time watching his son coach at Arizona. Peters and his wife, Nancy, have two sons, Danny and Michael.
When Peters' cancer was discovered, doctors set up surgery in December intended to remove the tumor in his pancreas. The surgery proved unsuccessful, Peters told the Akron Beacon Journal, because too many arteries and veins were attached to the tumor. He began aggressive chemotherapy last week.
Whitford said he expects the game tonight to be especially emotional and difficult. It's been a rough season for Whitford in terms of wins and losses. But this is something beyond the court. This is someone in the coaching family going through a crisis. This is real life.
Whitford spoke with Peters on the phone recently.
“You could sense the life is fragile in him,” Whitford said. “He told me, 'Put your arms around those guys and lead them.' He talked to me about never underestimating your role as a leader.”
Like Peters, Whitford has two sons.
He says one of the areas he most respects Peters is in his role as a father. Coaching is a profession. Family goes much deeper.
“I'd known him as a good coach and a good person, but at Arizona I learned what a great father he is,” Whitford said, his voice halting with emotion. “He and his son are so close. I really grew to respect that relationship. He pulled me aside once and thanked me for helping to mentor his son. He and his son are just good people.”
Whitford said he expects tonight to be a challenging game to coach because of the emotions of knowing what Peters is going through.
“Dan and Danny and their family are wonderful people,” Whitford said. “You don't want anyone to go through this, but it really hits you when it's someone close to you.”