Crossing the line
College coaches have the liberty to be harsh and demanding, not the license to be cruel and abusive.
By now, millions of sports fans across the country have seen the video that led to last week's firing of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice. That Rice wasn't fired immediately by Athletic Director Tim Pernetti when Pernetti first saw the video four months ago led to Pernetti's dismissal two days after he finally fired Rice. This scandal may ultimately cost Rutgers President Robert Barchi his job.
Let's be clear about what the video showed and didn't show. There were clips of Rice berating and physically manhandling players. He threw basketballs at them and insulted them with homosexual slurs.
That conduct is many things, but it is most certainly not coaching. It doesn't even rise to the level of bad coaching — it's an abuse of power, a temper tantrum, a nervous-breakdownlike rant by the king of the court.
The players were his prisoners, and Rice did as he pleased when they displeased him. He had to go. Any coach in any sport at any level who acts like that has to go.
The conduct is unacceptable, to put it mildly. Further, it's hard to imagine how any sports program could be successful with that kind of erratic leadership at the top.
College and professional sports are a tough business. The pressure to win is enormous, and the culture of sports emphasizes toughness and sacrifice. Unfortunate facts show that coaches who've used abusive tactics and won have become heroes.
It's no exaggeration to say that, whether he viewed himself that way or not, Rice was a graduate of the Bobby Knight School of Coaching.
More than 50 years later, sportswriters and fans are still celebrating former football coach Bear Bryant and his so-called Junction City boys, the so-called survivors of a brutal training camp Bryant oversaw in his first year as head coach at Texas A&M. In reality, Bryant recognized the error of his ways and never repeated that cruel regimen. Nonetheless, the Junction City episode is lauded as emblematic of the myth of the tough coach and his commitment to winning, not the self-destructive and cruel mistreatment of college athletes that it really was.
But that's the atmosphere of college sports and, to some extent, competition demands something akin to that. Winning requires preparation, and preparation requires hard work. In the macho, pressurized world of men's athletics, emotions can run wild.
Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim said he was sickened by the Rice video, but said he, too, is rough on players.
"I get verbal, I'm on players. I don't like to curse. I do curse sometimes. You get out of control and just things come out when you're in the heat of the moment, but you can't touch a player, other than just on the shoulder or something. You certainly can't push them or grab them and you can't throw something at them," Boeheim said.
Rice never learned that and, because he was the king of the court, no one under him had the authority to get him in line. Public outrage over the video forced the issue. Now that Rice is gone, let his very public demise serve as a lesson to coaches and players everywhere.