SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – It’s been a bit amusing to watch the handwringing and indignation surrounding the Mike Rice story. In case you’ve missed the endless video replays, he’s the Rutgers University basketball coach who was fired this week after video surfaced showing him engaged in a variety of manic and abusive behavior during practices.
The reaction of many brought back memories of Captain Renault in the film Casablanca: “I am shocked…shocked…to find that gambling is going on in here!” Was anyone paying any attention to Rice’s sideline behavior during his tenure at Rutgers? If so, how could they not have been asking questions about what he was doing away from the live crowds and TV cameras?
Let’s go deeper here and ask some hard questions about what it is to be a coach today. Full disclosure: I grew up as the son and grandson of coaches. Both my father and his father were credentialed teachers who also coached high school teams. Both coached a variety of sports. My grandfather’s legacy as “The Coach” at Kingsburg High School south of Fresno was such that years after his retirement, I could walk into that town and invoke his name; people recalled him as a pillar of the community.
In fact, the honorific “Coach” is itself emblematic of the esteem in which coaches were held. I have vivid memories of a retired NFL star who had briefly played for my father in high school spotting my dad at a football game. As they shook hands in greeting, the quarterback didn’t call him “Mr. Bunger” or “Jim”. He called him “Coach”. It’s a sign of respect, both for the person and the position.
As I mentioned earlier, both Dad and Grandpa were teachers, both in the literal and figurative sense. To them, coaching was an extension of teaching: they saw themselves as molders of young minds. Of course they wanted to win when their teams competed, but that wasn’t Job One. First and foremost, they were teachers–and they had the gradebooks and lesson plans to prove it.
Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? Let’s fast-forward to this week’s poster child for Out-of-Control Coaching, Mike Rice. Nothing in his resume’ suggests “teacher”. He wrapped up his basketball playing career at Fordham and immediately became an assistant coach at his alma mater. There followed a series of brief stays as he worked his way up the college hoops food chain, eventually becoming a head coach before he was 40. Nowhere is there evidence of him teaching anything beyond an inbounds play or a zone trap.
Make no mistake: Mike Rice was employed to win basketball games. Until his methods became an embarrassment to all, he remained employed. Nobody spent much time worrying about whether he was helping build good citizens.
It goes a lot deeper. Stop by your local high school and ask how many of the coaches are also teachers. No matter what the answer, it’ll be a smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The days of the math teacher/football coach or civics teacher/basketball coach are rapidly disappearing. Heck, it’s getting hard to find P.E. teachers who want to coach.
What’s going on? Let me offer a few thoughts:
- Money. The Oakland Unified School District just posted an opening for a head basketball coach at Oakland Tech High School. The pay? About $2800 a year. You do the math.
- Administrative and community support. You’ll find no shortage of stories about coaches beset by pushy parents and left dangling by spineless administrators. I will never forget the day I watched a father call his daughter over to the backstop during a high school softball game and direct her to ignore what the coach had just said.
- A cultural shift. There was once general agreement that high school and college sports existed to impart valuable lessons about effort, teamwork, sportsmanship and the like. Now? College sports are a multi-billion dollar business and high school (or lower) teams seem to function as feeders to that system.
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