Coaching times are a-changin'

JOHN EISENBERG

November 29, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Ricky Diggs survived a coup at Morgan State, but not without shedding some of his coaching blood. School administrators, upon hearing players complain that Diggs was too tough, said they would begin monitoring his tactics more closely.

Imagine telling Woody Hayes that those were the rules, like 'em or not, that his players were being given an official ear into which they could complain about him, and maybe even facilitate change. Woody would rather have taught ballet.

But, then, players had no franchise in Hayes' day, which wasn't that long ago. From high school to the pros, football coaches ruled as little dictators. A player who even thought about rebelling was a communist, or at least a weenie. Getting humiliated was an accepted rite of manhood. The purple-veined, foul-mouthed football disciplinarian was a colossal figure on the sporting landscape.

The prototype was, of course, Vince Lombardi, who screamed, insulted, drove huge men to bitter tears -- and won championships. But it's debatable whether Lombardi, maybe the greatest coach ever, could hold a job today. Woody Hayes certainly could not. That way of coaching is no longer politically correct.

That is the greater lesson of the Diggs affair. Descendants of that Lombardi figure are becoming as dated as congressional perks. They're disappearing. It's happening at all levels of all sports, not just football. The coaching autocrat is being swept out the door along with the presumptuous office Romeo and others who no longer fit into today's new manners.

Sure, there are still some dinosaurs hanging around, such as Bob Knight and his bullwhip, or a high school soccer coach who gets away with slapping players because he wins titles. But only those with such outsized legends are going to survive. And they had better be careful.

A coach can still be hellbent on discipline within reason, like Mark Duffner or Fang Mitchell. Diggs was not wrong to apply discipline at woebegone Morgan. But now there is a line of respect and decency that can't be crossed. The cursing and intimidation that used to be rote are now just evidence against you, not to mention very bad form.

Players don't want to hear it anymore. At least a lot don't. That's the difference. Society has changed. It's gone from "Father Knows Best" to "Married With Children." Blind obedience is no longer considered a virtue. Whether Watergate or the Sixties or Milli Vanilli was the turning point, somewhere along the line it became acceptable for an athlete, like anyone else his age, to ask why. Maybe because no one seemed to have the answer.

Anyway, it only stands to reason that, thus emancipated, a player is going to ask why his coach has to make him cry over a game. Do you have the answer?

Of course, it used to be held that such treatment built character. And, hey, you can't disagree. Ask just about any 45-year-old ex-football player if he was mistreated, and he'd said no, hell no. Maybe they're all delusional, but who are we to judge? It was just a different day.

You could see the evolution occurring when cerebral Bill Walsh became the prototypical coach of the '80s. And, now, a pro coach doesn't discipline by yelling. He just trades you to Seattle.

Now, Colorado State has fired Earle Bruce for reportedly punching and insulting players and making their lives much worse than he'd promised their mothers. In Anne Arundel County, a high school athlete having trouble with a coach can simply transfer. In Howard County, coaches are forbidden from punishing players by making them run hills or hold their breath for five minutes or whatever it is they do.

What everyone has realized, and what is certainly true, is that there had to be a better way. Parents of high school and college players don't want to see their kids abused, and kids don't want to be called names, and even institutions have recognized that teachers shouldn't be allowed to humiliate students so ruthlessly in the name of education.

What it all boils down to is that players have rights now. Someone listens when they scream. It's only fair. If you punch kids, as Bruce did, you deserve to have to beg for a job. And if you're a high school junior with a coach who hates you, why should he be allowed to ruin your life?

A Bob Knight can still get away with his version of excess because he sends educated, respectable people into society, which gives him something of a moral mandate. But as low graduation rates and the relentless stream of grimy scandals demonstrate, many of these "disciplinarians" are satisfying mostly just their egoism. Sports will be a better place without these petty tyrants.

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