[31 January 2007]
Remember Ernie Pantusso? No? Perhaps that’s because he was better known by a simpler moniker: “Coach”. That name should ring a bell with anyone who owned a television set during the ‘80s. Played by Nicholas Colasanto, “Coach” was the beloved mentor and father figure to Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the dim ex-jock turned bar owner in the hit sitcom Cheers. Every week (until Colasanto’s death at the height of the show’s success in 1985), Coach would offer whimsical nuggets of advice to help Sam in his never-ending series of carnal conquests, including his relentlessly artless pursuit of cocktail waitress Diane Chambers, played by Shelley Long.
Wise and wizened, patient and paternal, the character of Coach was a beloved part of the show’s ensemble of characters. He was also an archetype of sorts, a symbol of the role that all coaches are thought to play. Dishing out folk wisdom in a show of familial concern, Coach was the ultimate, well, coach; a caring, knowledgeable older man whose job it was to show the younger guys a thing or two about life.
Of course, things are always more simple in TV-land (or at least on the TVLand channel) than in real life. Coaches of today are frequently regarded with far more ambivalence than Colasanto’s character solicited. Take Nick Saban, for example, the newly former head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He recently left the team after completing two years of a five year contract, accepting an offer for the head coaching position at the University of Alabama. The move has stirred up as much indignation and outrage in the state of Florida as it has produced whooping and cheering in its northwestern neighbor. Interestingly, though, it’s not so much Saban’s leaving the Dolphins that’s causing the ruckus. Rather, it’s the way he left the team that’s the focus of the controversy.
To fully appreciate the furor, a brief history lesson will be helpful. After winning the collegiate football championship in 2003 as the head coach at Louisiana State, Saban was a hot property for professional coaching positions. He was eventually brought in to correct the floundering Dolphins, heralded as the man who would return the once-mighty team to prominence in the NFL. Saban was tasked with “rebuilding” the franchise from the ground up, a euphemism that typically implies a wait of three to five years before fans see any returns in the win column. Still, despite woes at the quarterback position and a running back (Ricky Williams) who fled to the Canadian league to escape the NFL’s substance abuse policy, Saban’s beneficial effects on the Dolphins were beginning to show. Their defense, most notably, improved to such a degree that defensive end Jason Taylor was named this year’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Still, rumors had begun to dog Saban’s tenure in Miami. After firing their head coach at the end of November, Alabama approached Saban about the vacancy. He turned them down in December, but when Alabama pressed their offer, reporters were far from convinced. Such skepticism prompted Saban to infamously declare, “I guess I have to say it. I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
Now it may very well be that, at the time, Saban was 100 percent genuine in his statement. However, just a few weeks later, Saban indeed leapt ship for the Alabama job, leaving a howling mob of outraged fans and media members in his wake. The Miami Herald‘s Dan Le Batard, for example, wrote, “There has been very little in franchise history that came with more expectations and fewer results than this hypocrite who at the end avoided the hard questions one last time. Talk like a warrior. Behave like a weasel.” And ESPN.com’s Pat Forde, in an article entitled “Saban only lied when his lips were moving”, sees the move as a sign that “‘Integrity’ is out. ‘Character’ is out. ‘Teacher’ is out. ‘Leader of men’ is out. ‘Liar’ is in.”
Such a reaction, though it may seem like sour grapes from Miami fans, really speaks to a series of unspoken but undeniable assumptions popularly held about the role of the coach in sports. It’s not so much that Saban took another job, but that he lied and said he wasn’t going to do so. A lying coach? Such a figure presents a troubling case study in the ongoing “Decline of Moral Values as We Know Them” for sportswriters and fans. Of course, such a group is always ready to point out how things today are worse than they were before footballers wore facemasks, but the outrage also underscores the persistent belief that the coach, as the leader of a team, is responsible for not only for drafting strategies, but also for demonstrating ethics. By this thinking, coaches should be both leading practices and illustrating good moral sense.
The origins of the very word “coach” might indicate as much. Derived from the horse-drawn coaches that carried passengers, a coach of an athletic team is supposed to carry that team’s players. Still, the question of just how precisely to carry a team is one that remains unresolved. For some, the coach is both the team authority and the moral authority, someone who organizes the “raw” unfocused talent of the players into purpose, structure, discipline, and productivity. In this way, it’s a coach’s job to instill and police a body of conservative, working class values that hearken back to the Puritan work ethic of America’s founders. Play for play’s sake, now as it was then, is simply out of the question.
This explains why inconsistencies and misbehavior on the part of coaches meets with so much outcry. For example, in a weird twist, Saban returns to place in the University of Alabama where a previous coach ignited a scandal in 2003. Mike Price was eventually fired by Alabama after word leaked about his visit to a topless bar in Pensacola, Florida. It was also disclosed that a woman’s $1,000 room service order ended up on his hotel bill. Fans, pundits, and school administration were united by their horror at Coach Price’s moral turpitude, and he was soon given an indignant boot. As his replacement, Alabama brought in Mike Shula, the son of legendary Miami Dolphins’ coach Don Shula. For his part, Shula avoided the topless bars, but he also avoided the win column. Now, in a kind of karmic twist, the current Dolphins coach, Nick Saban, goes to back to Alabama to replace Mike Price’s replacement.
The insularity of the football coaching ranks, evidenced by these close maneuvers, is a topic worthy of greater exploration. For our purposes here, though, we can find other examples beyond football in which coaches have fallen from the moral pedestals they assume—willingly or otherwise—when they agree to lead a sports team. Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy, for example, was widely embarrassed and quickly dismissed after pictures surfaced of him hoisting beers with co-eds at a University of Missouri student party. And the head of England’s national football (soccer) team, Sven-Goran Eriksson, found himself the focus of a scandal in 2004, when a former secretary for the Football Association (more commonly, the FA), which governs the game in England, revealed sordid details about a sexual affair she had with Eriksson. Eventually, popular outrage at Eriksson (coupled, to be fair, with an England side that perennially underachieved in international competition) led to his leaving the club altogether, suggesting that the marriage of coaching and moral stringency is a positively international phenomenon.
There exists, however, at least one glaring exception to this rule. This year, Texas Tech University basketball coach Bobby Knight recently became the most successful men’s coach in the history of Division I basketball. For all his success, however, Knight has been repeatedly implicated in public displays of anger and violence. He punched a policeman in Puerto Rico, for example. He famously threw a chair onto the court to protest of a referee’s call. He’s been caught on tape choking and slapping his players, and has even gone after students on campus. This last act, committed while Knight was at the University of Indiana (where the bulk of his record-breaking winning streak occurred), eventually did cause him to be fired. But he did not have to spend much time looking for work. He quickly moved to Texas Tech, where his recent milestone victory stands as a testament to his longevity in the league, despite his well-documented outbursts.
Knight’s longevity undeniably speaks to his success as a coach, but it also tells us something about coaching and morality. Namely, coaches are forgiven aggression and violence, but not moral shortcomings. Though Knight was indeed fired, he remained active in coaching at the same level, whereas the likes of Price and Eustachy have had to find work at smaller schools of a lower profile. The discrepancy suggests that coaches are expected to serve a specific purpose: to keep their players in line both in a moral and physical sense. We’ll forgive them overstepping prescribed boundaries to enforce that line, but we’ll not forgive coaches who may transgress the same boundaries themselves.
As Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” blared through the public address system in honor of Knight’s record-breaking win, the world was reminded that the man (known as “the General”) could be allowed his violent outbursts if they were in service of a) winning (which cures virtually all ills in sports), and b) beating his players into moral shape (read subservience). The coach, after all, is the person to whom we look for leadership in all things, including our morality. Regardless of the number of veterans a squad may have, or the players’ natural, athletic ability to improvise when a coach’s plan fails, no matter, even, that a coach never steps foot on the field—it’s clear that fans are not prepared to accept players without the organizing presence of someone in charge (in the most martial sense of the word). Even though it’s the players that we’re there to see, we can only rest assured when there’s someone in place who’s worthy, truthful, and strong enough to muscle them into shape.