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Tom Gouttierre known as legendary basketball coach in Kabul

By Marie Dunn-Harris ‘95

Bowling Green State University spirit encompasses not only students but also alumni after they leave BGSU and head into the world. One alumnus took that BG pride, joined the newly formed Peace Corps in 1965 and traveled across the globe to Afghanistan where he transformed a high school basketball team into a national dream team. Tom Gouttierre’s ’62 and ’01 story is one of triumph, spirit and inspiration that is still recognized to this day.

Gouttierre’s story went national when sports writer Chris Ballard published an article in the July issue of Sports Illustrated. “The Wizard of Kabul” highlights how Gouttierre, who was a teacher in the Peace Corps, became a legendary basketball coach in Afghanistan. Ballard learned of Gouttierre after covering a series of games in the Persian Gulf, where the team, made up of Afghan-Americans, did very well. Ballard asked them how they learned basketball, and they told him “Mr. Tom” taught their fathers and uncles, referring to Gouttierre. Ballard then contacted the former coach, but it took them five years to finally meet.

“I didn’t really embrace the whole concept because one never knows where the media will take it. It sounded pretty good, my relationship with him was positive and he asked the right kind of questions,” Gouttierre said.

Before he signed up for the Peace Corps, Gouttierre first had to get through college. He grew up in Maumee, Ohio, where he was a master pastry baker at his father’s bakery. He worked from 4 a.m. until noon and then commuted to BGSU in the afternoons. He knew that someday he would leave northwest Ohio to do work in other countries. It wasn’t until President Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps that Gouttierre knew where he belonged.

“It changed me from being a master pastry chef to a career in international education,” he said.

Gouttierre studied history and foreign languages at BGSU, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1962. “I developed such a loyalty and a passion for BGSU because it was the right kind of institution for my capacity to digest, both in terms of education and in terms of my future,” he said.

Gouttierre said his inspiration came from his professors, who guided him throughout his education. “Even though I was commuting, I found these wonderful faculty members who saw something in me and gave me their time. They weren’t only advisers, they were mentors,” he said.

One of his favorites was his history professor, who had a major impact on him.

“The structural organization for every class I teach is based on the organization of Robert W. Twyman,” he said. “I wanted to take everything he taught, which got me off on a very positive path in terms of the whole college experience.”

Gouttierre also recalls three others: historians Drs. Stewart Givens and William Rock and foreign language faculty Dr. Dzidra Shllaku, who taught him to speak Russian. “I always joke with her that she seduced me! She seduced me through her wonderful instruction to follow my dream of studying abroad and wanting to learn about the rest of the world,” he said.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Gouttierre started graduate school and taught Latin at Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon, Ohio. He married his wife, Marylu, in 1964, and afterwards they applied together for the Peace Corps.

“I just knew that when we got married we didn’t want to take on a mortgage and a bunch of kids. We wanted to do something different. And I think Bowling Green gave me the confidence to pursue that dream,” he said.

Gouttierre and his wife headed to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. The country back then was nothing like it is today. “We go to this country. It’s just starting a democratic era, no security issues, it was the perfect place to be a Peace Corps volunteer,” he said.

While in Kabul, Gouttierre was assigned to teach English at Lycée Habeebia high school, and was hoping he’d be able to coach basketball. “I coached CYO and filled in coaching the freshman team at Cardinal Stritch, but I’d never been an official basketball coach,” he said.

Gouttierre agreed to coach the boys after the captain of the team asked if he would. Not only did they learn from him, he was excited to learn about them and their culture. “I learned all kinds of stuff. I learned, more than anything else, the spontaneity of the youth of Afghans, clever cultural sayings, especially the dirty words!” he said jokingly.

The first practice was challenging, but Gouttierre was able to see just how much help they needed. He implemented plays that some players didn’t like. And after losing their first game, a couple of his players quit. But the team got better, and those players later returned after seeing how well they were doing. Word began to spread of how good his team was, and in 1966, Gouttierre was contacted by the Afghan Olympic Committee. They wanted him to organize a national team to play India and Pakistan.

After forming the team, Gouttiere was able to get his hands on UCLA’s famous zone press after requesting it from head basketball coach John Wooden. But the games never happened. They were called off because the opportunity to play never materialized from the Olympic Committee. By that time, Gouttierre and his wife had to leave Afghanistan because their time in the Peace Corps was up. However, they got to return in 1969 after Gouttierre earned a Fulbright fellowship for two years.

Much to his surprise, the next captain of the basketball team heard about Gouttierre returning and met him at the airport to ask if he’d coach again. “He said, ‘We have practice tomorrow,’ and I said, ‘I’ll be there,’” Gouttierre recalled.

In 1970, Gouttierre was contacted again by the Afghan Olympic Committee, this time to play against a Chinese team. He got his national team together and only had three weeks to prepare. He scheduled an exhibition game the day before the event to prepare his his players to go up against a foreign team. The exhibition team was made up of international players who resided in Kabul.

“The Chinese arrived in town and watched that game. My team beat the exhibition team. I was lifted above the shoulders of my players. They were cheering, yelling, ‘Mr. Tom!’ It was an exciting moment,” he said.

The next morning, the day of the game, the president of the Olympic committee informed Gouttierre that the Chinese team didn’t want to play in Kabul after witnessing the Afghans’ big win. Instead, they wanted to play in Charikar, an hour away, where they had built a regulation outdoor court at a workers’ camp, giving them home court advantage at a place where they practiced often.

“I said, ‘We’ll be there,’ and we found a way to get ourselves there. There was a long string of cars heading that way, and it was jam packed,” Gouttierre said.

Compared to the Chinese team, Goutierre’s team was much shorter, but they played with more speed and enthusiasm. They also had the UCLA zone press. Gouttierre’s players wove in an out of the Chinese players and stepped up their defense. At halftime, his team was winning, 38-19.

But that’s when the cultural affairs officer of the Chinese Embassy stepped in, proclaiming that they weren’t going to play anymore because they came to play Afghans, not Americans. Gouttierre’s players said they wouldn’t play without him. So, left with no other choice, Gouttierre put one of his players in charge and headed up into the stands, where he gave advice and hand signals during the rest of the game. Gouttierre’s team worked together and after an exciting turn of events, they ended up with a huge victory, 58-39, over the Chinese.

Gouttierre and his wife eventually left Afghanistan in 1974 when he accepted a job as dean of the first center for Afghanistan studies in the U.S. at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where he remains today.

Every now and then, Gouttierre is reminded of his days in Kabul. In 1980, he organized a major tour of China for the University of Nebraska. While in Beijing, he was asked to meet with the members of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While shaking hands with everyone there, someone approached him and said hello in Persian.

“I said, ‘You know Persian?’ He said,‘You don’t remember me? I was the cultural affairs officer who went to the table who said we aren’t going to play Americans!’ He laughed and said, ‘My, how times have changed.’ It just goes to show you how Afghanistan, the Peace Corps and basketball have come together to make my life all the richer,” said Gouttierre.

Aside from his role as dean, Gouttierre’s resume is filled with extensive work he has done throughout his distinguished career. Under his direction, the Center for Afghanistan Studies has become internationally acclaimed for its outreach and vast collection of works on Afghanistan. He is an internationally known consultant and speaker on Afghanistan issues and culture and the author of numerous books. He’s also among a handful of key political advisers that helped the U.S. formulate its Afghanistan policy after the coup in 1978, and he is often called upon for his expertise after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. These are just a handful of the many reasons why Gouttierre is among the 100 most prominent BGSU alumni.

As for his players, Gouttierre has kept in touch with some of them over the years. Most of them immigrated to the United States during the years of the Soviet occupation. “Many have become close friends for life. I remember those key players,” he said.

Gouttierre has had a busy career, but he always makes time to talk about basketball and the 10 years he spent in Afghanistan.

“Just being there transformed my personal and professional life, and it was just a wonderful and fabulous experience,” he said.

He also is quick to mention how Bowling Green played a part in helping move him in the right direction. “BGSU has been an important element in my life,” he said. “The mentoring of the faculty and staff provided me with the knowledge and confidence to do things I didn’t think I could do. It was everything I could’ve hoped for in a college experience.”

(Posted December 9, 2013 )