Tackling the ‘Taboo’

Courtney prepares to release ‘Against the Grain’

By Don Wade

Bill Courtney is adamant – which, if you know him, is a redundancy – that he has not written a political book.

Bill Courtney, president and CEO of Classic American Hardwoods, has written “Against the Grain,” a book that will be released May 13. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But even the title – “Against the Grain” – could invite that interpretation.

Of course, it also plays off Courtney’s fame as a volunteer football coach at Manassas High School, a leap out of his comfort zone and eventually the subject of “Undefeated,” an Academy Award-winning documentary that, as much as is possible, turned a “lumber guy” into a rock star.

“Against the Grain: A Coach’s Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family, and Love” will be released Tuesday, May 13. Courtney, president and CEO of Classic American Hardwoods, a $40 million lumber company in North Memphis, wrote the book with Michael Arkush.

Courtney’s first signing will be May 31 at 2 p.m. at The Booksellers at Laurelwood. That’s not by accident. Courtney turned down signings elsewhere, or postponed them, so the first signing could be in Memphis. It’s all in keeping with the 14 core tenets that form the framework of the book. Everything from character, civility and commitment to dignity, hard work and leadership, to service, courage, responsibility and grace.

Or at least that’s one way to look at “Against the Grain.”

When Courtney sat down for this interview, he had just finished an interview with a local television reporter. This is what he said she told him: “Bill, the taboo subjects are politics, religion and entitlements. And your whole book is on politics, religion and entitlements.”

Courtney, 45, is passionate about the notion that discussions about politics, religion and entitlements don’t have to turn into a game of societal football with people banging their heads against one another with no noble purpose, only the selfish motivation of moving an agenda downfield.

He believes it is possible to have discussions about these “taboo” subjects in a respectful way.

“The problem,” he said, “is so many times when those things are discussed, respect and civility are lost. … We gotta drop that crap so we can have this conversation about who we are and where we’re going and how we go about getting there without abandoning (core principles).”

A lot of different people walk through “Against the Grain,” and often they are people who would not, as the saying goes, attend the same dinner parties.

Courtney writes about FedEx owner Fred Smith, who cherishes family, proudly served in the U.S. Marines and plunged ahead with a radical business concept despite skeptics who said it couldn’t work.

Courtney also writes about a man known only as Vic, who served time for manslaughter and now works in shipping and receiving at the lumber plant. Vic spent 14 years in prison only to come out and commit a carjacking in which he was shot and nearly died.

“In no way would I ever attempt to glorify Vic,” Courtney writes, saying later in a chapter titled The Dignity of Hard Work, “Whenever (Vic) runs into any former buddies who still feel entitled to take whatever they can from the government instead of working, as he used to feel, he isn’t ashamed of who he’s become and isn’t afraid to let them know it. … Vic won’t tolerate excuses from those who claim they’re victims.”

Also in the hard work chapter: the story of Courtney’s four children – Maggie, Molly, Will and Max Courtney – working at the mill in the summer. And working real jobs, not soft, children-of-the-boss jobs.

The girls spent three hours sweeping dust off an 800-yard asphalt road in 100-degree weather. Will was assigned the task of working inside a 120-degree boiler, “chiseling away material that looks like lava,” and Max “serviced the bearings, fan motors and belts inside one of the equally hot kilns.”

Want to get a rise out of Courtney? Bring up entitlements in a one-way context.

“I’m the luckiest human being in the world. My story got told. But if my story got told, then I’ve got a platform and I’ve got to use that right. If I don’t, everything else is fraudulent.”

–Bill Courtney
Author of “Against the Grain”

“I’m probably more sickened by the rich kids getting cars and not having to work and feeling they’re like they’re entitled to all the trimmings of life while their parents sit and bitch about the guy down here getting $30 in food stamps,” Courtney said. “What is that? I mean, they are equally repulsive in my opinion.”

And have opinion, will travel. “Undefeated” spawned a high demand for Bill Courtney as a speaker. But everywhere he went, he kept getting the same question: Where’s the book?

So a book he has written, and, of course, there are many more speaking engagements on his calendar: interviews on dozens of radio stations, on TV with “Fox & Friends” and “The 700 Club,” and a live webcast May 14 with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.

A television pilot has been shot and other projects are in the works. However, he says he won’t consider anything that strays from his message: returning to our core principles.

“I’m the luckiest human being in the world,” he said. “My story got told. But if my story got told, then I’ve got a platform and I’ve got to use that right. If I don’t, everything else is fraudulent.”

As for politics …

“Nobody has any idea what my political affiliation is. Nobody knows,” he said. “And I want it that way. And yes, I’ve been approached by both parties.”

He added: “I try to be as real as I can be, have as much humility as possible, so when I say this, take it in that vein, please: I think I can do a lot better job than a lot of folks are doing right now. But I’m not sure I want to go through the process of earning the job because the process has become so tainted.

“I’m not a politician,” Courtney continued. “That’s part of the problem. If you ask me a question, I’ll try to answer it honestly, and that probably makes me unelectable.”

Politics or no, he does plan on his voice being heard.

“I’m this white business guy, who, with a bunch of other white, big-hearted business guys, coached an African-American, inner-city football team,” he said.

“So there’s this movie out there that says you can’t paint me into the typical corner. Which gives me some validity when I speak about some fairly sensitive societal things. And I recognize that. It’s a blessing. But it’s also a responsibility that you have to be very, very careful with. And that’s what I intend to do.”

To preorder “Against the Grain” or get more information about events, visit coachbillcourtney.com.