Friday, April 5, 2013

An Abusive Coach Gets His Comeuppance

I have played and followed and coached sports pretty much my entire cognizant life, but sometimes things happen that I just don't understand. I've coached sports for a dozen years, and am aware that there are all sorts of motivational tactics one can use. I just can't fathom how Mike Rice got to be the head basketball coach at a major state university* by acting like a spoiled five-year-old who is finally told "no." I don't understand how lots of coaches get their jobs, but usually there's some sort of explanation. Perhaps they're not a great game coach, but they kill it on the recruiting trail and produce high draft picks. Maybe they're good at managing the program but need someone else to carry the actual coaching strategy load for them. Or maybe they're a brilliant student and observer of the sport who can't quite communicate that brilliance to their players.

*I say "major state university" perfectly aware that Rutgers is the most athletically under-performing flagship state school in the history of collegiate athletics. Seriously, New Jersey is eleventh in population, the most densely populated state in the country, and produces heaps of talented athletes in basketball, football, and baseball EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Yet Rutgers has been irrelevant in sports basically since they played Princeton in the first college football game in 1869.

There are myriad ways to motivate players. Some you have to take a gentle approach with. Others need to be pushed harder. A few legitimately enjoy being treated in a way that, in any other setting, would be called bullying. Athletes (and most people) crave structure and some level of discipline, and are potentially willing to accept more and more of it if the reward at the end is greater. This is why so many kids have signed on to play for Coach K (known for blistering paint with his language) and why so many used to for Bobby Knight (even more intimidating given his large size - 6'7" - and penchant for occasional physical abuse as well as verbal abuse). Both of those gentlemen have over 900 college basketball wins to their credit. Their approach worked, by and large.

But while their methods may be questionable, Rice's are on another level, more on par with Knight choking Neil Reed in practice than with using choice language to get a point across. That's not to say that I'm condoning verbal bullying while castigating physical bullying, but whatever you do or say to your players has to be constructive. There's absolutely nothing constructive about grabbing a player by the throat, or throwing a basketball at someone at point-blank range, or shoving players so hard that they fall to the ground. What is the point? To assert your power over them? These players already know that you wield the power of scholarships and playing time, so what's the use in hurling 50-mile-per-hour passes at them from ten feet away? There's no need to do that, and there's no need to call someone a f---ing f----t (and certainly no need to call 10-year-old kids that, which Rice reportedly did at his summer camp).

Look, I'm not trying to set myself up as John Wooden or Marv Dunphy here; I have raised my voice with players before, many times, when I felt it was necessary. Have I done it too much? Possibly. I've certainly seen it done too much by some other coaches, some of whom I have worked with or under. I have consciously imposed certain standards on myself. I make it a point to never curse at or in front of my players.** I will not call out an individual in front of his or her teammates unless I am sure that they can and will respond positively to such a thing (extremely rare with high school athletes). And I absolutely avoid any improper physical contact, the more so as I spent seven years coaching girls and am acutely aware of potential consequences should I cross that line. Even when I had to play in basketball practice, I made sure to avoid any overly physical play as much as possible, which is hard to do when your center is trying to post you up.

**I follow this rule so strictly in my coaching life that one of my volleyball teams visibly and audibly gasped when I let out a "damn" after a match. We were playing a solid but unspectacular team in the 2010 season that we should have swept in straight sets, but then found ourselves down 13-2 in the fifth and final set. Our two best players went on long serving runs to bring us back from the brink and tie it up at 14, and after several back-and-forths we wound up winning 22-20, having been on the wrong end of match point something like ten times. In the post-match talk, I slumped to the floor and said something along the lines of "You ladies damn near killed me." Cue fifteen open mouths and shocked gasps.

The point is, coaches are supposed to create a system of structure and discipline, and they also should discipline themselves. Just because they're at the top of the hierarchical food chain doesn't mean that they are free to abuse that trust. Too many do. There just happens to be concrete proof that Mike Rice is perhaps in the lowest percentile in that regard. Would he still have a job if the Scarlet Knights went 25-6 last year instead of 15-16? Quite possibly. Winning does that, right or wrong. Bear Bryant got lionized for practically killing his players in the Texas heat. Bobby Knight got a book and a movie written about him. It is very telling, though, that despite his initial success at Robert Morris, Rice could not get the open job at his alma mater, Fordham (or at Seton Hall). Yet Rutgers, ostensibly a bigger broker than either of those two, was apparently willing to hire Rice without digging a little deeper. And so now, for the third time in the past thirteen years, they've had to can their basketball coach for embarrassing reasons.

The worst part of it is, that because Rice did have success somewhere in the recent past, he will get another coaching job, and be free to exercise his tyranny on a different group of young men (although probably more out of the spotlight than at Rutgers, or perhaps even Robert Morris). So will Tim Pernetti, the asinine Rutgers athletic director who only gave Rice a three-game suspension after watching detailed footage of his antics, because he brokered a move to the Big Ten that ensures something like $25 million annually for the school in addition to further (and deeper) irrelevance in sports, at least in revenue-generating ones. School president Robert Barchi, who sat on the videos without watching them, should also resign.

Coaches are supposed to be leaders and role models. That it took as long as it did for the details of Mike Rice's "coaching" methods to surface speaks to how much the system has corrupted those in positions of power. Anything goes as long as you win, right? No, leaders should lead, and hold themselves to a higher standard. There is nothing commendable about Rice's behavior towards his players, and one can only hope that his quick dismissal and subsequent negative publicity will lead to fewer abusive coaches in the future.