Wednesday, June 09, 2010

College coaches

I first posted this in April 2007. With the passing of John Wooden, i thought it might be worth a re-run.

Sports: Miscellaneous thoughts in search of a theme

Death came for Grambling’s Eddie Robinson right when the coaching carousel was in full swing for college basketball. Very few of those who praised him noted how different he was from the men they cover today.

It is easy to criticize modern players for their bad discipline and self-centeredness. (I know because I’ve done it on this blog.) Let’s recognize that their college coaches help teach those lessons.

The prevailing ethos among big-time college coaches is take the money and run. Most of those coaches still preach the value of discipline, team play, character, and self-sacrifice. As they do so, the larger message they send is “do as I say, not as I do.” All too many coaches who exhort young players to sacrifice for the team are willing to abandon those players and that team for a chance at a bigger payday.

Many of Robinson’s former players spoke about the big role he played in their lives. The sentiments were identical to those I heard after Woody Hayes passed. Both coaches kept a heavy hand on their players and the players came to love them for it.

A coach can only pull that off if their loyalty to the team and to school are absolute. In the case of Hayes and Robinson it was and it worked. When a modern coach applies the same tactics it is just exploitive and tyrannical.

Ricky Williams was roundly (and rightly) criticized for quitting on the Dolphins and letting down his teammates. Nick Saban quit on the Dolphins and did not receive the same level of criticism. It was, apparently, justified by the big pay check. How is it that we have adopted the ethics of whoredom“I did it for the money”?

In his masterful The Face of Battle, John Keegan reflects on the reasons for the British victory at Waterloo. The crux of the battle was simple enough. Napoleon had to break the British line somewhere and was unable to do so. As Keegan puts it:

The British still stood on the line Wellington had marked out for them, planted by the hold officers had over themselves and so over their men. Honour, in a very peculiar sense, had triumphed.
Eddie Robinson’s achievements had the same source as Wellington’s victory. At Grambling, as at Waterloo, honor and selflessness made everything else possible.

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