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Apr 03

On Coaching Angry

ESPN reported this morning that Rutgers Coach Mike Rice has been fired for…well just watch the video.

Embarrassing. But not surprising. I’ve been in many college basketball practices. Nick Macarchuk was the basketball coach when I was at Fordham and Rice was one of his players. Nick could curse a blue streak at times, but I don’t think I ever saw him touch a player or throw a ball at a player. So where Rice picked up this kind of anger is beyond me at this point.

Rice was one of the leaders of a 1991 squad that went to the NIT and won a round my junior year. He was never a great player, but he was smart and understood the game. His father is an analyst for college basketball games and coached at Youngstown State.

But the problem with sports is that there is always a “boys will be boys” attitude that is pervasive in the locker rooms of all kinds of athletic teams. The problem is that in this case Coach Rice is not a boy who throws a temper tantrum when things don’t go well. He’s a man. And needs to set an example for his players and for the university.

Sports tend to be a loud, rowdy, raucous affair. Football games are downright violent in the stands some days, never mind on the field. There’s often great fun in trash talking until it goes too far and a fight breaks out in the stands.

Losing streaks get frustrating, especially at the professional level and when players are permitted to throw bats and sticks and we just think it’s funny..there’s something wrong with us. Check out Wally Backman here in a minor league game. (there is a lot of cursing here so be forewarned).

When I was a reporter I saw coaches and players with poor attitudes and guys who would just yell at people for no reason. Intimidation was always the role of the day for most of these guys.

It’s just wrong. At any level. Looking back I only remember one high school coach really yelling in a hateful way towards his players when I played high school sports. My soccer, baseball and especially my cross country coach were all extremely positive men and great role models…and sure they got mad at us once in awhile. Sure they yelled and were driven individuals and they would implore us to try our hardest and would groan when we made errors, or turned a ball over, or were dogging it out there.

But none of them ever threw a ball at me, pushed me or called me a horrible name.

Guys sometimes make fun of each other and call each other names in jest. And I know I’ve taken part in that at times, especially in my younger years. But men need to be mature enough to control their emotions and clearly Coach Rice is out of control.

That’s not acceptable.

A final word or two: If you are a coach and you are that out of control, how out of control will your players be? Tom Landry, the famed Dallas Cowboys coach was often emotionless on the sidelines and he seemed to get the best out of his players. Mike Krzyzewski of Duke always seems rather measured on the sidelines. Here’s the worst from him…and I think this is about the level of anger that can be tolerated.

Players often need a coach who can keep his head clear when everyone else is losing theirs. It’s called being a good manager. Sometimes you do need to fight for your players and to try to keep the ref or ump honest when they make a bad call and lobby for getting a call right when you can. But you more apt get a call when you reason with those guys than scream at them.

I played in a beer league softball team which we took very seriously. It was a very competitive “hardtop” league–meaning we played in a concrete schoolyard and it was not out of the question that one of us was going to slide to try to break up a double play. Most of the guys I played with were law students and for as smart as they were we couldn’t get some of them to stop arguing with the umpires. They’d accuse them of racism when they’d make a bad call. They scream at the top of their lungs at them. They’d question their calls when they didn’t know the rules themselves sometimes. I was forever running out on the field to break up a fight between a player and an umpire, mostly because the player didn’t know what they were talking about and the umpire made the right call. The umps would just laugh it off. But do you think that guy EVER gave that player a close call after that? If it was a close play he was out. If he was pitching and a pitch was just off the corner there was no way he was getting a call strike three. It does you no good to go ballistic.

Mature adults learn to motivate others and collaborate with others in a positive way. That includes coaches and players and anyone else involved in sports. Cooler heads need to prevail.

I’ll pray for Mike Rice today. And will hope that he learns to control his anger. But for today, I’ll also remain embarrassed for him and take some time to simply sit quietly in peace, knowing that centering myself is what we all need to stay calm in the face of frustrating moments.

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