Over the years, line between tough and abusive coach has changed
Former ND coach Lou Holtz once grabbed player by face mask on national TV
If Holtz had done the same thing today it would have likely cost him his job
Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt and Mike Leach were fired this year for absuing players
It seems so contrary to the avuncular image that has made him a television star, but before Lou Holtz was an old coach, he was an old-school coach. "I grabbed a face mask on a player," Holtz said in January, "because I wanted to make sure I had his undivided attention."
On Sept. 21, 1991, NBC cameras captured Holtz, then the coach at Notre Dame, leading freshman Huntley Bakich off the field by his face mask. Holtz then blasted Bakich on the sideline for fighting with a Michigan State player after a play had concluded. Today, a coach at such a high-profile school yanking a player off the field by his face mask would earn wall-to-wall coverage on every media platform, a review by the university and certain disciplinary action against the coach. In fact, there is a high probability such an act would result in the coach's firing.
What happened 19 years ago? The Chicago Tribune addressed the incident in its Sept. 23 edition in a three-paragraph note at the bottom of a Notre Dame football story on page C-14. A follow-up came two days later in the form of a two-paragraph note at the bottom of a college football roundup on page C-7 that covered Holtz's apology.
Even though Holtz tried to keep Bakich from breaking the rules of the game, he knows his actions would have dominated the headlines and possibly cost him his job today.
"I probably shouldn't have done that, but things were different," Holtz said. "Society's different."
Indeed it is. The past four months have proven that the rules governing how football coaches treat players bear no resemblance to the ones in effect when Paul "Bear" Bryant put his Texas A&M team through a brutal training camp in the tiny town of Junction in 1954, nor do they resemble the ones in effect when Holtz pulled Bakich's face mask.
Mark Mangino was fired at Kansas after former players accused him of a pattern of mental and physical abuse. Jim Leavitt was fired at South Florida after he was accused of striking a walk-on in the face during halftime of the Bulls' game against Louisville (Leavitt has denied the accusations and is suing the university). Texas Tech fired Mike Leach ostensibly for his treatment of receiver Adam James.
As coaches across the country reassemble their teams for spring practice this month, they would do well to heed the lessons provided by the Mangino, Leavitt and Leach cases. Gone are the days when coaches could cuss a player with impunity. And forget about grabbing a face mask. "The old way of doing things is going to be questioned more and more," said Greg Dale, a sports psychology professor at Duke who routinely speaks to coaches groups about effective motivational tactics. "Whether they want to admit it or not, the line has moved. What was acceptable in a lot of cases is not going to be acceptable anymore."
That shift has forced coaches to adjust. Abuse simply won't be tolerated. The shift also has produced a backlash by former players and coaches that poses another important question. Have decades of artificial self-esteem boosting made American society so wimpy that a football coach can't raise his voice to a player anymore without the player running to the athletic director and demanding the coach be fired?
Of course coaches can still yell. But the distinction between high-volume correction and mental abuse has changed. When accusations surfaced that Mangino had chided a player whose brother had recently been shot by suggesting that he would send the player back to his crime-ridden hometown "so you can get shot with your homies," those who played football in the later decades of the 20th century probably nodded knowingly. It seems almost everyone had a coach who would apply the verbal equivalent of a cattle prod to the darkest recesses of his players' minds to produce a desired result.
Other coaches say they try to avoid getting too personal in their critiques. Limiting criticism to what transpired on the field can help coaches avoid situations such as Mangino's. "Our line is that you don't ever embarrass a young person," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "You don't ever degrade a young person. You make sure that you try to push him, but you don't ever touch him unless you're jumping up to high-five him."
Anyone older than 30 who played football probably also had at least one coach who ordered physically harmful punishments. Mangino's undoing came quickly after former Jayhawks defensive lineman Corey Kipp told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World that Mangino had forced Kipp to "bear crawl" across the field at Memorial Stadium in spite of the fact that the turf was too hot to touch on that 2003 day. Most damning were photos Kipp provided the paper taken immediately after the incident that showed a huge chunk of flesh was either burned or worn off of Kipp's right palm.
Even 20 years ago, no school would have fired Mangino for such behavior. But society has changed, and so has the role of the college football coach. He's now a millionaire CEO, and he's expected to act like one. "Sometimes, what coaches think is acceptable, many other people think is not acceptable," said Dale, co-author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Coaches. "What other profession in the country can you regularly abuse people, swear at them, belittle them, threaten them, and still keep your job?"
Military drill instructors can, but they have good reason for their methods. They are training soldiers to deal with life-and-death situations. That isn't the case for football coaches. "Coaches are going to be held much more accountable for what they do," Dale said. "They're under much more scrutiny than ever before."
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