Bill Bunetta: After school with the ‘professor’

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

By Thomas Madrecki

(for the full, original version of this article in .pdf format, click here)

ONE DAY ALMOST FIFTY YEARS AGO,  two of the greatest and most vivacious bowlers ever – Dick Weber and Carmen Salvino – were honing their pin-smashing skills. Weber, normally considered one of the sport’s premier strikers, was having some difficulty on the lanes. His right shoulder and elbow were too far in front of his body, causing him to “chase” the ball and frequently miss his mark. Alas, Weber was unable to see what he was doing wrong; all he could do was feel it.

So, bowling’s most recognizable figure walked off the lanes and strolled over to a black-haired man with an aquiline profile and thick glasses – a Mr. William S. Bunetta – who was sitting nearby. “Bill, I feel like I’m chasing the ball,” Weber said, asking his friend and fellow AMF staffer to watch his form and proffer advice.

Bunetta, always willing to help, walked to where Weber and Salvino were rolling. After only a few frames, Bunetta, whom many would one day come to regard as the game’s “professor,” made it known that he had reached a conclusion. “Dick, I think I know why you feel like you’re chasing the ball,” he sagely said. “It’s because you are chasing the ball.”

It goes without saying that the conversation between the two did not stop there. Bunetta explained and rectified the problem, and off Weber went, his striking propensity restored. Sadly, Mr. Weber is no longer with us. But fortunately, Mr. Bunetta, now 88 years old, is.

Forced to retire from the sport and his lifelong passion – coaching – in 1995 due to a host of ailments, Bunetta resides in Fresno, Calif., with his wife Pat. He now suffers from congestive heart failure. Retirement, old age, frailty and disease, however, have not proven terrible enough to prevent the ever-jovial Bunetta from continuing to love the sport, or from remembering the days long since passed.

“Bowling… that’s enough for me,” Bunetta, one of the first to study the game and to systematically analyze all aspects of it, says. One wonders if such an utterance even needs mentioning; after all, Bunetta’s devotion to bowling becomes pretty obvious when you consider he traveled to 21 countries with the AMF Staff of Champions and as the Chief Professional Clinician for the National Bowling Council, giving lectures about ball motion, bowler development, spare systems and even ball drilling. Competition wise, Bunetta held his own, too, winning a PBA Tour title (the 1960 Fairless Hills Open) and five ABC Tournament eagles.

“Not only do I want to be remembered for my coaching, I want to be known for my bowling,” Bunetta says, although he readily admits some folks may not recognize all his bowling achievements.

“My theory was a little different than the Don Carters,” he notes. “I bowled the pot games; I did alright.”

Bunetta quickly recalls his exploits.

“The bowlers from Detroit [Lee Jouglard, Buzz Fazio, Ebber “Sarge” Easter and others] would leave for Tulsa, Oklahoma, then go to Amarillo, then on to Burbank, then we’d bowl the Fourth of July Classic in San Francisco. Everywhere we went, we’d go out… look for the local bowlers… and we’d bowl doubles and singles [on the locals’ pet lanes] till 5 a.m.”

Before he went out West for good, Bunetta also saw success as a member of some of the best teams of his era, including E&B, the Pfeiffers and the Falstaffs.

“I had a chance to bowl in Chicago,” Bunetta says. “Buddy Bomar asked me if I’d like to bowl for Falstaff. He said, ‘Bill, we have a $100,000 sponsor,’ and I liked to have money to bowl tournaments, and I had just gotten married, so I looked at my wife and said, ‘Let’s go!’

“Let me tell you,” Bunetta laughs. “I tore that town apart.”

Bowling well and coaching well are two different things, however, and Bunetta’s success in one area was predicated upon sacrificing the other. He tried to split his time, but the increasing demand for his teaching talents caused him to bowl less and less, and to travel more and more. A natural curiosity only made matters worse, driving Bunetta to continuously experiment, refine and study – all things that improved his understanding of the game, but likely made him worse off in regard to his professional bowling career.

“I had a talk with Don Carter once,” Bunetta says. “He said, ‘Bill Bunetta, you are a good bowler. But if you had kept to only one style, you woulda been great.

“I asked him, ‘But which one?’” Bunetta says, noting that even if he had been performing well, he would inevitably try something new. “If I saw someone having success holding the ball to the right, like Ray Bluth, and I held the ball in the center of my body, I’d try [holding it to the right].”

Bunetta notes that his love of coaching and bowling also contributed to a possibly poor business decision. He says he turned down an offer to become the commissioner of the PBA.

“It hit me the wrong way,” Bunetta says. “Like [Eddie Elias] was telling me where I could live, like he knew what I could afford. I told him I was still ambitious; I still wanted to teach and bowl. But I talked with him years later, when he was paralyzed, and he said, ‘If you would have come with me, you would have been a millionaire. All I could do was make money.’”

Bunetta does not regret his coaching experiments, though, even if they impacted his bowling career and his monetary situation. Rather, he appreciates them for what they taught him, saying, “I’m glad I stuck to it.”

The passage of time also has afforded Bunetta the opportunity to examine what makes a good coach.

“It’s about helping bowlers at all skills levels,” he says. “And you should never talk over [your students’] heads, never talk at them. Talk to them and look them in the eyes.

“Some said people wouldn’t get that scientific stuff, but they will. The kids and the seniors really benefit from it.”

Additionally, coaching requires a certain amount of character.

“I tried to put life into what I’m talking about,” Bunetta says. “I think some coaches these days could use a little bit more humor… But the truly gratifying part of coaching was that I really helped.”

Bunetta recalls the time he gave a lecture about bowling to mental patients in Waco, Texas.

“After talking to them for an hour, I could tell they were interested,” he says. “So I said, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t come to hear me speak. Get your shoes, get your ball.’ And I remember there was this woman in white, who sat there throughout my lecture and didn’t say a word. I got close to her and said, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ Well, she got up and bowled three frames, then said, ‘Could I quit?’ And I said, ‘You can do whatever you want!’”

Only later, after the lecture was over, did Bunetta learn just how much he (and the woman) had accomplished.

“They told me she hadn’t spoken one word in 25 years,” Bunetta says.

Bunetta’s methods, no doubt, must have helped write countless other stories, too. From 1960 to 1995, he tutored upwards of 10,000 students in his AMF and NBC classes. Appearances on the television show “Championship Bowling,” as both bowler and announcer, didn’t hurt, either. In the words of Bunetta’s most famous student – his self-termed protégé, Dick Ritger – Bunetta became “the forerunner” and “the pioneer.”

“He took teaching to another level,” Ritger fondly says of his mentor. “He analyzed the game, pulled at it, stretched it, looked at it, held it upside down and held it right-side up.”

Bunetta’s remarkable success, though, did not prevent him from questioning whether people appreciated, or even noticed, his efforts on behalf of bowling.

“I used to sit and wonder, with all the people I taught, would somebody ever write to find out how Bill Bunetta was doing?” he says, admitting that many in the industry have forgotten about him – or died already. There are exceptions, of course – Bunetta says Fred Borden and a few others have expressed their thanks – but few young coaches remember the man who developed the spare systems they now teach to beginning players, or the “perfect strike” concept they now show to students on dry-erase boards. With that in mind, it only seems fair to ask the question Bunetta has been longing to hear:

“Mr. Bunetta... how are you doing?”

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