Mike Rice and the Modern Coach

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

A content-hungry media, and a changed culture, make it hard for coaches to behave like monsters these days.

Several weeks ago, in the middle of the NCAA tournament, video of Rutgers head basketball coach Mike Rice firing balls at players, kicking players, and screaming obscenities became public. These videos eventually led to the termination of Rice's contract, although he did pick up an extra $475,000 on his way out the door.

Mike Rice is an out of control bully with poor impulse control; this is not a novel comment or opinion. He isn't the first to lose his job for this sort of behavior, and he probably won't be the last, either. He was an undisciplined tyrant, and he eventually was exposed.

In his coaching days, Indiana coach Bobby Knight was the same way. In a way, Knight was worse. Not only did he have essentially no self-discipline or self-control, but he spent his entire career defending his generally indefensible actions, and frequently embarrassing himself. For example, I give you the video below, which is shows the pure class of the man. Well, maybe it is class, minus a couple of letters.

The beginning of the end for Knight at Indiana happened in the spring of 2000, when former Indiana player Neil Reed alleged that Knight had choked him during practice. These stories were followed up with video from an Indiana practice where Knight appeared to place his hands around Reed's neck.

Indiana cut Knight a bit more slack than Rutgers gave to Rice. IU adopted a "zero tolerance" policy towards Knight, which he predictably violated. The most well known of those violations was when he grabbed an Indiana student by the arm, pulled him aside, and lectured him for not showing the coach the proper respect. Knight was dismissed soon after this incident came to light.

...........

If people don’t like the way I do it or how I do it, I really don’t care anymore. I’m getting old-schoolish a little bit. So guys that don’t play (hard for) 40 minutes or didn’t get back (on defense) are going to have a problem. That’s the way it used to be. They’re going to pay a price, and the price is either they’re going to sit or I’m going to tell you.

--- Tom Izzo, Michigan State head basketball coach (timesdispatch.com, April 21, 2013).

Coaches scream and yell at their players. The best and most admired ones in the country do it. Unknown JV coaches in tiny high school gyms across America do it. Coaches yelled at me -- frequently -- when I was young (*). I don't have a problem with this, and I want to differentiate this more run of the mill discipline from the sort of behavior of sociopaths like Mike Rice and Bobby Knight.

(* "Damnit Haley, pull your head out of your ass," is something that I have heard more than once. There are also some other memorable chestnuts, but they are just too vulgar to write down here.)

We as a society have accepted that coaches will occasionally be rough and coarse with their players. We have granted coaches more latitude than we would grant other educators or other supervisors. Coaches are permitted to discipline their players in a variety of ways. They can yell at players. They can make players run. They can force players to sit on the bench, rather than play. This is all reasonable.

Some of our most successful coaches are well-known for their yelling and screaming. We occasionally get a little glimpse into this world. We get it through articles, written by people who have attended practice, such as this Joe Posnanski story about Kansas head coach Bill Self:

I remember a late-season practice three years ago, where Self just unloaded on two freshmen he believed were not giving full effort. Neither was a particularly important player at that point in the season. One was an athletic looking forward who lacked confidence and averaged barely two points a game. The other was a tall and gangly 7-footer who averaged three minutes a game and nobody seemed too sure how much he even liked basketball. Self just pounded on them and pounded on them, pushed them and prodded them, insulted them and motivated them.

The former turned out to be Thomas Robinson, who became a starter as a junior and then an All-American, led Kansas to that NCAA Tournament runner-up spot last year and was the fifth pick in the NBA draft.

The latter turned out to be Jeff Withey, an All-America candidate this year who already has been named the Big 12 defensive player of the year.

Even less often, things that normally only go on behind the scenes creep out into public. One such case was this example of John Calipari, shown in the video below.

A little bit of yelling and screaming is something that we have all decided is fine. We will cut coaches this level of slack. It is considered a method of motivation. It probably even works, provided it is not overdone.

But then, we also have limits to what we as a society consider acceptable. Consider, for example, the video below of Sean Woods, head coach of Morehead State, from earlier in the season.

Wood's behavior went too far, and he was suspended for the following game by his athletic director. He stepped over the line by pushing the player, by continuing to come back to the player to scream at him, and by the fact that he did it all in public.

Little tirades like these end up on YouTube forever. They are part of the way that we view the coach. I imagine many readers had not ever heard of Sean Woods prior to this incident. If they had, it is probably because they knew of him more for his time as a player in early 1990s at Kentucky (he was one of the Kentucky stars in the famous Christian Laettner game), and had relatively little knowledge of his coaching career.

..........

Are we becoming soft? Would we have once tolerated more of this sort of behavior, back in a day where men were men? Would Sean Woods have been suspended in 1970? Have our standards shifted?

Or is it simply that our modern culture, with the 24 hour news cycle, social media, and bloggers looking for something to write about just bring more attention to bad behavior and force a response?

While our changing standards may be a factor, I suspect that we are not really becoming soft. It is hard to imagine that Billy Gillispie's behavior would have been tolerated from a coach forty years ago, had it become public.

Gillispie's offenses were numerous, but the most shocking one is how he treated injured players, per this report by Jeff Goodman of CBSsports.com:

"He [Kader Tapsoba] was literally crying at practice," said the source, who was with the program last season. "He couldn't even run and Gillispie had him running up and down the steps at the arena. I remember the doctor getting the X-rays back and coming to practice and telling Gillispie it was really bad. He'd just ice him up and tell him to go practice."

"He shouldn't have been practicing," he added. "But he bullied everyone, including the trainer. He'd make the trainer make kids come back. Bodies were dropping like flies. One day I walked in and the whole team was in the training room. All the players and even the managers. He'd make them practice."

The difference is that these days when athletes complain the modern media is ready to scoop up the story and run with it. These sorts of stories are perfect, as they help create content that both cable networks and the blogosphere craves. These stories sustain us (you are reading a blog post on the subject right now); they help us get by in the dead time between spring practice and fall practice, or between March Madness and the Midnight version.

The modern coach is forced to mind his manners more than his predecessor might have had to. He is forced to be more civilized, and behave more like you and I do in the office Monday through Friday. Because, if he is not -- if he acts like a cruel tyrant, if he hits his players or locks them in a bathroom stall -- he will eventually be found out. And he will be run out of the profession.

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