James E. Protin, Jr. may be a business strategist, but he’s really a teacher at heart. Just ask the 200 kids he’s coached in high school basketball, the elementary classes he recently spoke to, or his colleagues at the engineering firm where he works in Pittsburgh.
“My dad planted that seed. He was a teacher and he coached every sport there was. When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s in Charleroi, PA, the teachers were the coaches. Everyone I looked up to was an educator, so that’s all I ever wanted to be,” he said.
When it was time to go to college, there was no doubt he would major in education. But mid-way through college those plans were halted. Jim learned he and his wife were expecting a baby. He would need to support a child instead.
He commented, “I was 20 years old. I went to work in the construction industry and made good money, but there were lay-offs. Sometimes, you have to play the cards you’re dealt, appreciate what you have and be grateful.
Jim was able to land a drafting position with Westmoreland Engineering – a move that would develop him both personally and professionally. Thanks to Bob Quinn, who became his boss and mentor, he learned every job there was at the firm, eventually becoming a project manager.
Paying it forward
Nine years ago, when his former high school basketball coach, Phil Stewart, invited him to serve as a volunteer coach at Belle Vernon Area High School, Jim gladly accepted the opportunity to assist in the development of young people. He was later named head coach, following the retirement of his former coach and mentor.
Jim commented, “Sports are a microcosm of life. Kids are learning life lessons without even knowing it. That’s why I always enjoyed practice better than the games. There you can be talking about fundamentals and next thing you know, you’re answering math and science questions and talking about girlfriends.
Developing character on the court
We stressed grades and we had rules. The players didn’t walk out on the court without their shirt tucked in. They learned teamwork. Their grades were above the minimum GPA needed to play. I can’t tell you how many games we won. I can tell you who went into medicine, engineering and nursing.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to coach some very impressive young men during my career. We were blessed with many talented student athletes who were also just really great kids – the kind of kids you not only looked forward coaching, but to just being around.”
One winning attitude can lift a whole team
He added, “But just like having that once-in-a-career kid whose talent lifts him above the crowd – there is that once-in-a-career kid whose heart, desire, perseverance and genuine love of the game rise above his level of physical ability.
There was a young man who had been in the program for three years as part of a very talented team. Although he was not getting a lot of playing time, he never once gave up on his teammates. He was there every day at practice working hard without ever a complaint about not playing enough.
He loved the game of basketball and his teammates and that was more important than any personal satisfaction of seeing his name in the local paper. In fact he took great pride in being part of that team.
Our last home game of his senior year was Senior Night. Near the end of a lopsided game, he went out in front of a packed gym and scored the only two points of his career. That moment, those two points and the excitement of his teammates are something I will never forget.”
Coaching from the basketball court to the conference room
While Jim isn’t coaching basketball these days, teachable moments follow him everywhere, including the conference room at Chester Engineers, where he serves as Oil and Gas Industry Practice Leader.
“No matter what field you’re in, the principles of coaching remain the same. In business as in sports, winning is largely determined by the seamless functioning of a team. One person alone cannot design a bridge or build a building or win a large contract. All of these things require a team effort.
You need a playbook, an offensive and defensive game plan. You must know the strengths and weaknesses of your team and your competition as well as the tendencies of your client. In my firm I am tasked with leading our business strategy and work with our management team to develop the best approach for pursuing and winning projects,” he said.
Our future is now in elementary school
Jim’s role with the company and its membership with the Marcellus Shale Coalition recently took him into classrooms to be part of a Science Olympiad at Fort Cherry Elementary Center. He spoke about the importance of protecting water and the environment.
“I could have stayed there all day. Kids at this age are very aware. They’re honest and they have such a sense of wonder about the world,” he said.
The world may be theirs to discover, but Jim had discovered something big in talking with them too.
“Our future is now in elementary school. They are the ones we’ll depend on in the future. That’s why 4th grade teachers, to me, are the most important people in the United States.
It is teachers who are shaping our future,” he commented.
Teachers, like Jim Protin.
“People who Inspire” is a new series to shine a spotlight on people who have done extraordinary things. If you have experienced a great adventure, survived a life-threatening illness or trauma, overcome obstacles in achieving a goal, or have made an impact on someone’s life, I’d love to hear from you to share your story. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can inspire others to be unstoppable in the pursuit of their goals.