What happened at Rutgers, the whole world saw
This week's firing of Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice for physically and verbally abusing his players speaks to a number of issues. How you feel about them may depend on your age, your gender or just your general outlook on life.
Obviously, Rice crossed the line on some things, one of which is not being smart enough in this digital age to know that someone, somewhere, is likely to have a video camera or cellphone trained on you. Frankly, the old adage, 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' just doesn't apply to anything anymore, so next time you go to Vegas, watch out.
Physically throwing basketballs at players' heads and calling them politically incorrect vulgarities doesn't fly these days either, in any situation.
But, in typical 21st century American style, Rice's pound of flesh isn't enough. It's not enough that Rice is fired, but the pitchfork crowd wants the scalps of the athletic director and the president of the university, too. In America these days, an issue's not important unless we overreact to it.
For those of a certain age, Rice's coaching methods aren't all that foreign. Most of us who played sports before, say, 1990, probably ran into a similar coach somewhere along the way, either for us or agin' us. In fact, some of the best coaches and people I've experienced in this profession over the years were known to "abuse" a player or two. Most of the players were able to shrug it off and move ahead without the rest of their lives being ruined.
I won't use names of anyone out there still living, but I feel free to talk about those departed. Longtime Northwest High School basketball coach Eddie Gayeski won 742 games, two state championships and numerous league
and district titles. During games, Gayeski was as fierce a competitor as you could ever see. I can't imagine what some of his players had to put up with in practice, and if someone not associated with his team showed up at one of his practices with a video camera, that person might not have made it out alive.
But off the court, Gayeski was a quiet, grandfatherly, gentlemanly fellow. When he died in 1985, just a year after Northwest won its second straight state title, his players, present and past, were genuinely grieved.
A few years back, a wrestling coach who built one of this area's top programs (not a high school coach, but an elementary and junior high coach) came up to me at the state championships and joked, "I'm getting too old for this. The school board won't let me call kids p*****s anymore."
I'm pretty sure almost anyone who ever wrestled for this man probably was targeted with that pejorative at sometime. I'm sure he didn't seriously mean it in any case, and I'm more than sure that almost all of those kids have the utmost respect and admiration for the man years later. He is one of the best "people people" I've ever met.
Another area coach, who is still active in one sport, coached three different sports (boys and girls) for many years at his school. His teams won state titles in two of the sports. In the other, he was recently (last five years or so) relieved of his job by the school board after complaints from disgruntled parents and players about his methods.
Yes, his methods were tough. As much as I like the guy, I don't know that I could have played for him. Once, after his basketball team rallied in the fourth quarter for a big road win, I figured his postgame demeanor would be fine. Instead, I heard him through the locker room door yelling, loudly, at his players for how badly they played for the first three quarters.
Another time, after a playoff loss, I gave him some time to cool off, then asked for some specific reasons why he thought his team lost. Instead of answering me, he grabbed several players who were nearby, lined them up in a row and said, "I want you guys (girls in this case) to tell this man why we lost the game tonight." The players looked absolutely mortified and frankly, I didn't know how to react either.
But this same man had many ex-players come to his defense when his school board started to get after him. This same man held a postseason party at his house for his teams. He was a well-liked, award-winning teacher. Often, I would get a phone call out of the blue from him asking my opinion on some subject or another, not always sports related. At the dawn of the "everybody gets a trophy era" he and I talked for close to an hour once about whether I thought his daughter (a great athlete) should get a "participation" trophy after her youth team went 2-8. He was against it; he didn't think the players earned it. His wife didn't think the same way. He eventually caved in, but he wasn't happy about it.
There are all sorts of other examples out there of "abusive" coaches who really were doing nothing more than coaching and teaching the way they thought was right.
Another writer's experiences
Here are some thoughts, taken from a conversation on the Rice issue on the website SportsJournalists.com, from another writer on his experience with college coaches he covered:
"First coach: If he was talking to the players, he was swearing. He called players "p*****s" all the time. He was a master at motivating ... but was incredibly close with just about all of the players he coached and most ... would have taken a bullet for the guy. His practices were all open and he was by far the most open and honest coach I ever covered. He's won a national title and I would let my kids play for him without hesitation.
Second coach: No swearing allowed. Super religious. I never heard the guy swear and his players were not allowed to swear. He was much more hateful than that. He would berate the players regularly and they hated him. ... I would not let my kids go near any program where he was coaching.
Third coach: If there were cameras around, he would be playful and joke with the players. If the cameras were not around he would curse at players all the time and would scream more than any coach I've ever been around. He's coaching one of the top programs in the country. I would not want my kids to play for him.
Actions can deceive
I guess the point is, parents and others should be careful what they wish for. The coach whose behavior they might think is awful might be the most important person in their son or daughter's life, other than themselves. The one they think might be full of "good family values" may turn out to be a hypocrite or even worse.
Does the name Jerry Sandusky ring a bell?
(Souders is a sports writer for The News-Item. His column appears on Fridays.)