Lord of discipline has troubled reign

JOHN EISENBERG

November 20, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Rain pushed football practice indoors at Morgan State yesterday. Players dressed in pads and shorts moved smartly from drill to drill in Hill Field House, clapping, exhorting teammates and generally acting as though they were playing for the national championship this weekend.

An interesting way to run a revolution, wouldn't you say?

It was precisely the kind of orderly, useful practice Morgan had in mind when it hired Ricky Diggs to coach the team two years ago. Diggs, who had been an assistant at Air Force and The Citadel, was hired to remake the woebegone Bears into a smarter, sharper franchise. And anyone can see that, despite a 2-8 record, they are infinitely more disciplined now.

But how much discipline is too much? That was the issue that surfaced with yesterday's news that 69 players had signed a petition demanding that Diggs be fired after the season and replaced by defensive coordinator L. C. Cole.

Neither the players nor Diggs would talk to reporters yesterday, and everyone sprinted spiritedly through practice as if nothing were wrong. Diggs gave orders. The players obeyed. Go figure. If every revolution were this sweet, Soldier of Fortune would be out of print in a week.

But then, the players never said they wouldn't play tomorrow's season-ender at home against Bethune-Cookman. They just wrote, in the petition they delivered to the school president, that Diggs "humiliates and embarrasses" them, and that, if not appeased by Saturday, they would stage a halftime sit-in to make the point that they believe it is extremely uncool.

Giving the players credit for the concept of the halftime sit-in, an original spin of undergroundism that would warm any hippie's heart, we can proceed to the essential question: Are the players right to complain?

The word around campus is that Diggs has something of a temper and a foul mouth, but what does that make him other than a typical football coach? He obviously is a tough guy who maybe goes a little too far sometimes. In October, he told a Sun reporter his grooming of quarterback Orlando Persell was "maybe rougher than it should have been." But what could be more "humiliating and embarrassing" than having played for the Bears in the years when they could barely organize a huddle?

"To be honest," acting athletic director Joe McIver said yesterday, "I thought he was tougher on them last year. It's surprising that it came to this, but, see, we always have trouble at the end of the season. People get frustrated."

Bingo. That's the heart of the matter right there. Morgan is the sixth Division I team to stage some form of protest this year, and the common thread is that, at the time of the protest, they were all having either losing or disappointing seasons.

You can be sure that if the Bears were winning, the players would put up with a little name-calling. But, see, the chances of the Bears having a winning season are, to be kind, not good at all.

Their program is under-funded. They had no blocking sled a few years ago. Road trips meant 20-hour bus rides and four to a room. The situation is better now. The Bears take planes and stay in better hotels. But Diggs still has to teach classes. And opponents still have more scholarship money, which means losing, which means frustration, which means, in this case, a petition with 69 names.

But is it fair to devour Diggs at the end of that food chain?

On the other hand, there is a limit to what is reasonable. Diggs' former academic adviser, Betsey Stearns, has filed a complaint with the school, charging Diggs with verbal harassment. "More than one incident," Stearns said yesterday, "culminating in one extensive incident."

Not pretty. Neither are such charges listed in the petition as Diggs' refusing to let a freshman out of practice to take a test and telling a receiver who'd dropped a pass, "You'll never play again."

So the players are mad enough to revolt. Richard Lapchick of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport suggests it is part of a detectable rise in campus activism since Rodney King.

Certainly, fewer players are going to put up with a coach playing God. "Players used to run through walls if you asked them, but now they ask, 'Why?' " said Cole, the defensive coordinator

In any case, the word is that Diggs has had trouble coexisting even with some of his assistants. And in his remarks after last week's loss, he harshly criticized his players. It is true a school can't let the players name their coach, but when the coach starts naming his players names they don't want to hear, ask yourself this: If it was your kid, would you be happy?

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