Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Strange Hard World of College Football Coaching

The yearly bloodbath has begun. 11  major college coaches have been fired of 120 plus Division I-A football teams. Not an unusual number. Lower than last year's 18 but a 10 percent annual turnover rate tells us more than we want to know about coaching college football.

College football coaches are usually the highest paid public servant in any state. Their name recognition ranks above governors, senators and business elite. Steve Mangino arrived as a savior for the Kansas Jayhawk team. He has been widely praised and admired for the team's turn around, despite his 400 pound bulk and unique (read pyschotic) coaching style. He won national coach of the year honors three years ago. Charlie Weis arrived  to save Notre Dame and restore their glory. After two bowl wins Notre Dame awarded him a ten year extension now worth 18 million in buyout money. Bobby Bowden brought fame, glory and national championships as well as endless athletic scandal to the Florida State for over 30 years. Until Urban Meyer arrived to redeem Florida, he remained a deity among the folks of Florida. All three are gone now.

Mangino, still winning, was brought down by cascade of charges of abusive style and demeaning conduct. Weis simply failed to win enough. Bowden proves the adage of what have you done for me lately. For years immune from effective oversight and Presidential control, he finally outlasted his stay with the powerful boosters and board of regents by not winning enough and going to mediocre bowls. All are millionaires; all famous celebrities; all just football coaches of colleges.

All but 14 (the numbers here are really squishy) Division 1-A schools lose significant money on the sports teams. Of the few that make money, football drives the profits and usually finances the rest of the sports program. The programs that hemorrhage money are two categories. In the first,  football brings in serious revenue but not enough to cover costs and the other program, but football keeps the deficit from terminal status. Second, most football programs hemorrhage more money than all the rest of the programs combined. The decisions of  Northeastern and Hofstra to end football this year or Western Washington last year reflects what most sane schools should do. Football seems to buy prestige but what it really does is doom most athletic programs to red ink, Title 9 maladjustments and consistent mediocrity.

The visibility and symbolic importance of football combined with its national stature as TV's  most popular market guarantees schools will continue to chase the bass ring. But the ring can't be financed by revenue so the schools rely upon boosters and commercial endorsement deals to fund the salaries. Most coaches have base salaries that seem sane, but you add up TV contracts, endorsements, and housing allowances and it adds up. While the vast majority of coaches make good but not absurd salaries, as they rise to elite ranks where the TV dollars really matter, the salaries escalate accordingly. The millions can pay off as any correlation of coaching salary to national rankings makes clear.

Coaching is a hellish life. 24 hours a day are consumed by endless recruiting, endless tape watching, endless grinds of working with 18-22 year old males, many undisciplined and barely educated; endless attempts to try and ensure the 18-22 year old males actually go to class and do get educated against their wishes; endless fundraising and smoozing with boosters and representing the university at bad barbeques and worse golf events. It is hard, consuming, thankless and unseen work.  Coaches spend more time on airplanes than at home . They must woo and fight for the affection and loyalty of 14-17 year olds. Modern coaching is supported by an army of nomad often lowly paid assistant coaches whose lives resemble army officers with their constant two and three year stays and then moving on to another billet for a bit more money, a bit more responsibility and finally a chance to become a head coach.

Coaches don't enter the insanity of coaching for the money. They enter it for love of the game; love of the kids; love of the comraderie and competition. If they seem like mercenaries, it's important to remember they are not; they love, know and respect the game, that is why they coach. The market and incredible job insecurity pushes them to be mercenaries, not their joy at doing what they love.

Endless consuming work with complex and difficult young men ends with either victories filling stadiums and bringing TV coverage or not. Even OK records like 7-5 or 6-6 will often not fill stadiums and may attract occasional second tier TV coverage. Many fired coaches over the last three years actually had winning records or had just slipped a little.

Their actions are minutely scrutinzed before and after each game. Their pronouncements dissected like oracular sayings. They live lives of superstars, lionized, worshipped, admired or despised, disputed and villified. Their decisions provide fodder for 24 hour sport talk radio devoted to nothing but dissecting sports, and college sports looms large. In smaller college towns, their children and spouses cannot escape scrutiny and face adulation or heckling.

In a world with no job security, constant scrutiny, fickle adulation or villification all depending upon the actions of 18-22 years old boys, coaches struggle to stay balanced and sane. Nothing remains forever and two bad seasons wipe out a lifetime of success; one crazy incident involving a student can wipe out a lifetime of rectitude. Every coach lives on a razor's edge, although some may have bought a little breathing room or success by past. Mangino had been national coach of the year two years earlier; Weis was awarded his outlandish ten year contract two years ago; Bowden had been to bowls for a decade.

Yesterday only buys a coach so much. In cases like Notre Dame and Florida State yesterday actually haunts today's coaches like being basketball coach at UCLA.

This world makes it no wonder that coaches respond when the brass ring is offered. The salaries are outlandish, but Universities make the offer, not the coaches. The coaches take the money when they can because they know how fragile their jobs are and how meaningless the "love" of fans really is. Only the love and respect for the game and  reality of the young men they have touched matters in the end, to be honest. Coaches have to be like Princes and trust no one's love.

The final irony for these individuals living in high pressured take no holds world is that they coexist, barely, with tenured faculty in universities. It is hard to imagine a more brutally polarized world. Tenure faculty cannot be fired; tenured faculty keep tenure long after they have quit producing meaningful scholarship or effective teaching; tenured faculty possesses remarkable freedom to take intellectual chances and can invest years in projects to create a book or research project protected by their tenure. The insulated and isolated and protected faculty are the coaches' harshest critics, sometimes for good reason, sometimes out of despair and envy that their university is tied to the craziness of college football. In the end, the faculty have no conception of the world and lives the coaches live.

I don't envy the life of modern college football coaches. They live at the crossroads of two worlds that live uneasily together. They live on a knife's edge at the mercy of kids and the fickle whims of boosters who have no loyalty to them, only to winning. The best ones still live in this world working to teach the game they love and to help young men grow not just into athletes but better person. They deserve a better lot.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fallen Idols and Mortal Athletes

Tiger Woods welcome to the world of mortals. Welcome to the world of Alex Rodriquez and Rodger Clemens and Rick Pitino and, yeah, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King. Men who squandered professional accomplishment and reputation for sexual peccadillos.

Americans create heroes of their athletes for well over a century. We see the teams as aspects of identity and memory but also as ways to identify with excellence and achievement. We point our children towards athletes as models of character and achievement. More cynical minded critics of sports would argue that we only do this to augment our egos and only identity with winners to augment our own lives of quiet meaninglessness. We make them heroes, we make them idols.

The problem with hero worship and idolatry is that no human is perfect. Excellence in one area of life does not translate into probity or in personal life. Artists, politicians, doctors, lawyers, business people all can leave wreckage in their personal lives for success in professional life.  The relentless demands of professional excellence erode the time and focus upon domestic life. Constant travel, constant time away, constant exposure to fawning fans and hero worshippers throw temptation for sexual escapades in the way. The time and focus devoted to work hollow out time for family or the energy needed to maintain intimacy. No one has quite figured out why men, and it is largely men at this stage, seem to believe that as public figures under intense scrutiny that their sexual liasons will somehow escape notice, but they do. And the trangressions come to light exposing the all too human mortality, weakness and sheer gall or stupidity of the powerful people, in this case athletes.

Thoughtful or angry athletes always insist they are not role models. Alan Iverson and Charles Barkley have been defiant if inarticulate defenders of this position. "We're basketball players, not role models." They are correct and no sane person would expect that NBA players serve as role models, but some do. But the situation is more complicated.

Athletes inherit obligations whether they want them or not. First, children and especially adolescents, inspired by media exposure and fathers identify with athletes and see them as possibilities and people to emulate. Kids walk, talk, dress, swing, shoot and use the same steroids the athletes use. Second, the athletes sign contracts and become celebrities supported by media companies to sell products. They even create their own lines of clothes, like Tiger,  or accessories so that hero worshipping fans can not only buy their numbered jerseys but their shirts, shoes or colognes. Children, corporations, merchandising promote athletes to cultural icons and avatars of consumption.

This exposure drives narratives. Sometimes being a bad boy heightens the marketability so being a negative role model sells hoodies and shoes to rebels or wannabe "homies." Tiger took a different rode. He spoke at Obama's innaugration; he embraced a role as a bridge across races; he embodied a fierce work ethic and excellence; he overcame physical adversity; he had a story book marriage; he served as the face of everything from his clothes to international consultancies like Accenture. This narrative paints a seamless and heroic picture of Tiger as a paragon. He shouldered it well if uncomfortably.

I believe private lives should remain private and that we are not responsible to the public  for them, unless we make our private life an aspect of our public celebrity or persona. Or unless we use private world to shield illegal or abuse behavior. Politicians who run on their family probity or business leaders who demand domesticity from their employees make their private lives legitimate points of inquiry.

Tiger never sold or lead with his private life. He always lead with his professional athletic excellence. The media narratives were fascinated by his life and celebrated it, but he sought to shield his life as much as he could. Still he can't escape the question of whether you want to wear the cool clothes of the best golf player of all time or an accused compulsive philanderer?

The media will hound and berate and exploit this for weeks. A media frenzy bringing down a hero is ugly to behold. It will waste hundreds of precious hours of TV coverage while the battles over Afghanistan and Health Care languish on page 2. We as viewers and makers of heroes collaborate in this distortion. The scandal sells, always has and will. Tiger Wood's own anguished but deliberate comment
"Personal sins should no require press releases and problems with a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions," is correct but won't stop the media ghouls or the voyeurs from exploiting his pain and humiliation.
This is a lesson we never seem to learn. The Greeks knew better. All their heroes had tragic flaws. The ability to overcome the flaws and still excel was an essential aspect of their heroism. We expect too much of heroes. All I ask is that they be human and we enjoy the gift of excellence they bequeath us.

(Photos courtesy of:;;