Hall of Fame: A Look Back

This weekend’s Opening Ceremony will feature speeches from two new OSDA Coaches Hall of Fame inductees (Jodi West and John Weaver).  In preparation for these upcoming speeches, here is a look back at one of last year’s inductees, Jason Habig-for-webHabig of Hathaway Brown School (Cleveland).

May it inspire you and your fellow coaches.


Thank you so very much.  Because of the high regard I have for the great coaches on this stage, in this audience, and coaching Policy Debate in another part of the building—it is truly an honor to be inducted into the Ohio Speech and Debate Association Hall of Fame.

The accomplishments I have achieved during my coaching career have only been possible because of the support of so many people around me.  Thank you to my awesome assistant coach Carrie Cofer, who picks up my slack and makes the program at HB better.

Thank you to Joe Buzzelli, not only for his gracious induction speech, but (most importantly) for getting me involved in this activity.  It is amazing how chance interactions can change our lives forever, and Buzz’s gentle invitation to try debate in 1994, when I was a freshman in his Oral Interp. class, has been one of the most formative events of my life.

To the coaches of the Cleveland District, thank you for the collegial atmosphere and professional development that you have created.  19-year-old me did not think highly of my district, and thought that the national circuit was the place to be; boy, was I wrong.  The coaches of Cleveland truly care for their students and are motivated to do the work necessary to help each child succeed.  It is truly an honor to call you my friends and colleagues.

“Jason is a class act and a role model as a coach, in so many ways.  His focus on the success of all is commendable, and he seldom loses his cool, win or lose.  He inspires me to want to be both a better coach and human being.  Simply put, Jason is a great coach, man, colleague, and friend.” 
— Devon Snook, Vermilion

To Alan and Dolores, it is a gift to share this stage with you today; your service to the OSDA and your careers are a blueprint for the next generation of coaches, as to what excellence looks like.

To my Head of School, Dr. Fran Bisselle, and my Division Director Sharon Baker—who made the trip here today from Cleveland to support me and our team—my heartfelt thank you for your unfailing support and the autonomy you give me as an educator; it is truly a rare privilege to work in an environment where the only question ever asked of me about speech and debate is “How can I help?”

To the men of [St.] Ignatius and the women of Hathaway Brown, who I have had the good fortune to coach, thank you for the time we have spent learning together; I have been continually awed by your many talents and your willingness to share them with the world around you.  You have made every moment of my years coaching a true pleasure.

The hard reality of coaching speech and debate is that the time I spend at tournaments comes at the expense of time with my family.  For 18 of my years coaching, my wife Virginia has often borne the brunt of weekends alone, and extra chores endured, while covering for me.  As someone who strives to be a feminist, I am troubled by the sacrifices she has had to make for me to advance my career, and also I am profoundly grateful for her unwavering support.

Although she has never seen a round of speech and debate, this honor is as much a recognition of her sacrifices as it is of mine.  Taking time away from Ginny to be with my team has always been hard, but it has been doubly challenging in the last six years with my two sons Calvin and Nate as part of our lives.  Nate and Cal, I hope that, someday, you both find mentors who are willing to make sacrifices to help you in the way that I have tried to do for my students.  Being your dad will always be the proudest title that I can ever hold.

“Despite being one of the humblest human beings alive, Jason deserves as much (or more) praise as anyone for his innovation and selflessness.  From the single-day, State-Qualifying Tournament debate model (now affectionately referred to as “The Habig Plan”) to his modified flighting system that renders room limitations a relic of eras past—he continues to devote his interests to making tournaments more efficient, educational, and ethical. He embodies class, and I admire few people more.”
— Ryan Peoples, Berea-Midpark

The hardest thing about not being home on Saturdays during the debate season is missing out on time reading with my sons.  In my house, getting to choose the books we read is quite a competition, and one at which I usually lose.  While Nate prefers a more modern classic (like something by Greg Pizzoli) and Calvin often chooses something from The Berenstain Bears or Mo Willems, when it is my turn to pick the book, I always come back to the same title…so much so that the whole family often groans when I suggest it.

Most of you are probably familiar with Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, but my storybook of choice is one of his less-famous titles called Pierre.  Initially I couldn’t place why I was so drawn to this book, a story of a stubborn young boy who only will answer “I Don’t Care” to every question.  Spoiler alert: after being left alone by his frustrated parents, Pierre is eaten by a visiting lion, only to be saved by a doctor who hits the lion with a folding chair.  This near-death experience helps Pierre to learn the error of his ways, and the story ends with the simple statement: The Moral of Pierre is Care.

In life there are workhorses and show-horses.  I try every day to be a workhorse, and to make caring for students the moral center of my job.  While I work hardest for my own students at Hathaway Brown, coaching in this community means caring about the wellbeing of all of you.  My upbringing played a huge role in helping to shape this worldview, with two parents who were public-school teachers, and who gave freely of their time to the benefit of their district’s students.

My alma matter St. Ignatius continues to be guided by the motto “men for others,” which oriented me during my formative years toward a life of service.  One of the factors that attracted me to start a debate program at HB was the school’s motto “We learn not for school, but for life.”  To me, learning for school is self-focused learning, seeking the most efficient way to move onto the next subject or level of education; on the other hand, learning for life is learning the skills necessary to transform the world into what you want it to be.  In short, I’m drawn to be around people who care more about others than they care about themselves, and I have been blessed to find these opportunities through speech and debate.

“Jason Habig puts his heart and soul into Speech and Debate.  Yet even with his passion, he has amazing patience in dealing with the problems before, during, and after a major tournament such as the National Qualifier.  He treats everyone with kindness and respect.  These are some of the reasons he carries so much respect in our district and throughout the state.”
— Mark McCandless, Brecksville-Broadview Heights

In my mind, this activity is the most impressive pedagogical technique for helping students learn to listen, to take notes, to research, and to think critically.  Today, as our nation recognizes National Speech and Debate Education Day, we should celebrate the amazing talents that a training in speech and debate can harness.  My friend and colleague Amy Roediger from Mentor High School often uses the phrase “skills, not scores” to help Ohio’s coaches stay focused on what really matters.  But I’m here to tell you today that—without caring about others, without empathy, and without a desire to make change—all of the skills you master in this activity will fail to reach their full potential.

I know that there are students who participate in speech and debate as a way to build a resume, who use speech and debate as a means to an end, whether that end is college admission or a prestigious career.  And don’t get me wrong, attending a top university and having a successful profession that earns you a comfortable living are great things, but if that is the only factor motivating your participation in speech and debate, you are doing it wrong.

In the last two weeks, our nation has been captivated by the students from Stoneman Douglas High School, the scene of a horrific school shooting.  These students have mesmerized the media, with many pundits asking how can it be that the students are so articulate, so quick on their feet, and so well versed in complex issues of policy.  I would humbly suggest that [these media personalities] should stop by our tournaments each weekend, for if they did, they’d see a generation of students ready to take the world by force.

If they had been at Stoneman Douglas just four days before that school was turned into a crime scene, the media would have seen many of these same students now famous from TV competing in that area’s NSDA national-qualifying tournament; and if reporters are still around in June, they will see these students (and thousands more like them) competing at our national tournament in Ft. Lauderdale.  Robert Runcie, the superintendent of the Broward County schools (where Stoneman Douglas is located), credits the district’s speech and debate program, which is one of the largest in the nation, as a key factor in preparing the students to take on their high-profile advocacy roles.

Whether you agree or not with the change they hope to make, these Stoneman Douglas students illustrate the power that each and every one of you possesses when you combine your speech and debate talents with caring deeply about your world.  It is essential that you hear early and often that this activity can help you move mountains, but only if you care enough to employ your skills in that moving.  Every single one of the adults who helps run this activity in Ohio—from the most accomplished coach to the most inexperienced novice judge—comes to tournaments on Saturday because they believe in your power to make the future better; please use that power to choose to care about the wider world.

“Jason is not only an amazing coach, but also an amazing teacher.  I can rely on Jason to always be willing to help the district with debate issues and questions.  His calm demeanor has often diffused even the most irate of coaches.  He offered me the opportunity to coach at HB and trusts the speech team to me.  I always will be grateful for his friendship and trust.”
— Carrie Cofer, HB & Rhodes

One of the most important new testament parables commands us not to put our lamp under a bushel, but instead to let it shine before all; similarly, don’t hog your many talents and use them just to benefit yourself; instead care enough about others to put them to good use fighting to make a better and more inclusive society for all of those that come after you.

As you prepare for competition this weekend, in what is for many of you a capstone to a successful season, or maybe even a successful career of competition, please consider prioritizing gratitude for the wellbeing of this activity at least as much as you care about your own personal success.  I’d like to think that our league starts this tournament with this opening ceremony to help ground us about what really matters—and not just to subject you to lengthy speeches by people most of you have never met.

What really matters this weekend is the long-term success of each and every one of you, not just those who end the weekend victorious and who grace this stage tomorrow night.  Winning can be fun, but in a world where we are often too focused on ourselves, winning can lead to the mentality that Pierre has in the Sendak book: a mentality that makes life centered around your own accomplishments and allows you to say “I don’t care” to everything else.

This weekend, care for each other and treat your opponents with the respect that they deserve.  Avoid saying, “I don’t care,” when confronted with the reality that even after 90 years in Ohio, our event still has a significant gender-bias problem, as a quick glance at last year’s circle of champions (in Cleveland)—and of the @HBSpeechDebate twitter feed—would demonstrate.

You can’t say “I don’t care” when acknowledging that, in the Cleveland District (and likely yours, as well), we can easily fill buses of students each Saturday from private schools like mine, or wealthy outer-ring suburbs—yet we can’t get schools in the urban core to compete at even a fraction of that level.

We can’t say “I don’t care” when recognizing that the entire southeastern quadrant of Ohio lacks even one speech and debate program, for the students in those high schools who would so greatly benefit from it.

Others before you have cared enough about our community that they have worked tirelessly to make it the space you enjoy today; give of your time and your talents to help it thrive in the future.  For it is only through the hard work of all of you that our association will be able to celebrate 90 more years of educating the best and brightest Ohio has to offer.

“Jason Habig is a wonderful coach, and even better, a great administrator for the North Coast District.  I have yet to see him stressed, though I’m sure there are times when he is.  I feel confident that his students are well prepared and that every decision he makes is the right and ethical decision.  Thanks for being one of our leaders, Jason.”
— Fred Snook, Kenston

Whether you finish last this weekend or win the whole damn thing, we are proud of what all of you have built this season, together.  Now more than ever our state and our democracy need you to care enough about your world to put your speech and debate talents to use for those who haven’t had the privilege of the educational opportunities that we sometimes take for granted.  If you commit to caring about others and to using your voice to advocate for the world you want to see, your generation will succeed where those before you have failed.

In the end, someday, when you reflect on a life well lived, the moments that really matter to you will be the ones that you share in reflection with the people who love you.  I hope that, someday, in a quiet moment like that—when, hopefully, you have the pleasure to share a book with a child of your own—you will look back on your time in forensics and think about how this community helped to shape you into the competent and compassionate person you have become.

For only in that moment can the speech and debate coaches of Ohio consider our work a success.

Thank you.