Monday, January 4, 2010

Coaches Imploding

I've been discussing college football coaches in the last several blogs because they exemplify all the issues surrounding intercollegiate athletics, both good and bad. The validity of the whole enterprise as an educational endeavor depends upon the quality of the coach. The implosion of a number of prominent college coaches this year gives me pause to think about the stresses and pressures  they experience.

Mike Leach of Texas Tech, one of the true characters and offensive minds of college football coaching, was fired this week. Allegedly he consigned a player who had suffered a concussion (another stalwart danger that never goes away in football) to enforced darkness in a small room (sounds like a form of torture, but it is alleged). Mike Locksley, coach of New Mexico, assaulted an assistant coach early in the season, one of several alleged and clear incidents of coach on coach violence of the last two years. Most interesting of all, Urban Meyer, the hard driving and absurdly successful coach of Florida, announced his retirement from coaching a week before the Sugar Bowl. He had suffered from increasingly serious stress and heart related issues. He abjured his "self-destructive behavior" and  declared he needed to devote time to his "faith and family."  Two days later he joylessly announced he would instead take a leave of absence after meeting with his players.

Coaches compete. They compete relentlessly to recruit, coach, win. They compete for jobs, salary, status and kids. Most coaches utterly and intensely hate to lose; few enjoy the fruits of victory very long. (Bill Bellichek of the Patriots embodies the ultimate joylessness of modern coaching) One game gone;  the next morning they are working on tape for the next. One season end; they are on the road recruiting. College coaching grinds on and never ends. Coaches compete and depend for their jobs and their glory upon wins, upon recruiting successes, upon outsmarting their opposite numbers.

All these rewards feel external. Winning & competing depend upon external validation. Coaches find it very difficult to find a place of stability and peace. Most football coaches teach their players to play with "controlled rage." Football's violence seeps into the bones of players and flows from the pores of coaches. They model the controlled rage for their players. That simmering anger, that drive to win and prove oneself, the controlled and focused force exists in most of the coaches themselves. Players read it, respond to it and understand the emotional language.

Competition, controlled rage, utter dependence upon external validation are recipes for disasters for human beings, players and coaches. Most coaches constantly exhort their kids to "play within themselves' and to "control what they can control," their own effort, focus and emotions. Coaches need to follow their own advice because if they take it too seriously, if they rely upon external world for validation, they will be vulnerable to the implosions we see on a regular basis in coaching. They will suffer the stress, the violent eruptions and heart and impairments that flow from it. They'll respond with obsessive behavior--eating, tape watching, working out, excessive control, hyper vigilance.

Young coaches have to learn to channel that anger and rage and desire to win and be the best; they can share it with their athletes, but to survive in the long run, they need more. Many coaches discover or turn to faith as a source to provide an awareness that "it's just a game" is really true. Their faith provides a way of understanding and  and getting distance from  the tectonic stresses on college coaches.

If they are lucky their family remains intact and family can provide the same, but coaching brutalizes family life with long hours away and emotional preoccupation. If they can keep their family together, it provides another space to renew and remember that worth and value flows from deeper values and not "just a game." Finally, the very best coaches renew themselves daily in coaching not with their competing and recruiting and countless demands to "win" but rather by connecting with their players and fellow coaches. They experience the abiding satisfaction of helping young people grow into adulthood and achieve excellence and develop the dimensions of life that can help them excel later in life. This reciprocal relation of mutual growth eludes too many coaches, but when they discover it and keep it intact, they discover a reservoir for sanity.

And yet, even this relation can become a source of destruction for the coach. Someone as obsessively controlling as Meyer needs to learn how to hold others accountable. As a perfectionist he can't let go but needs to for others sake. If a coach or any leader holds themselves accoutnable for everything and everyone, they bear a burden that cannot be borne and take away the opportunity for the assistants and players to grow. Learning how to care and share responsibility  keeps balance and health. It helps insulate oneself form the self destroying pressures of leading. At the same time his connection to his players may have motived his sudden turn around which may not be a  good thing for Meyer or his family.

Coaches don't have to implode, but their work conditions invite it. Meyer should listen to himself; this is about family, faith and perspective, not coaching.


  1. I definitely thought about your recent blog entries when going over the headlines concerning coaches this past month. What a wild month it has been. First there was Mangino, then Leach, and now there are rumors that South Florida’s coach Jim Leavitt may be fired for supposed physical violence against an athlete (

    At the time Mangino got fired, I thought that the only reason why he is being fired is because the team stopped winning. I figured that the allegations and controversy would not have surfaced if he was living up to the fan’s standards. Then the Leach situation happened. As far as I can tell, the fans were happy with Leach (though they did have a down season compared to the previous year). Sure, the administration may have been upset about his salary, but it just seemed so unprecedented. Sure, there have been firings before for coach-player violence, but this wasn’t really violent at all.

    Has a major change occurred in college sports seemingly overnight? Are “Junction Boys” tactics now off limits? Will coaches be held to the same standards as other college employees? I still think that some schools will let their coaches get away with murder if the coach is winning, but clearly not all will be able to do so. Why the change of heart? Insurance reasons? Maybe. Are administrators looking to stick it to coaches for high salaries and contentious contract negotiations? Quite possible. If that is true, I am somewhat pleased (and surprised) to see presidents defend their turf. Maybe the Internet has made the fickleness of fans so apparent that schools are looking for excuses to get out of contracts any way they can. A coach that has a good season may be shooting themselves in the foot because the fans will have higher expectations. Of course, they will be fired if they don’t have a good season as well. As you’ve pointed out, coaches really are in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. They make good money so I won’t shed tears for them, but the Urban Meyer situation does make one wonder if it is really worth it. Then again, I suppose workaholics get themselves in trouble no matter what field they are in.

    BTW, Mike Locksley coaches at New Mexico, not New Mexico State.

  2. Thanks for the note of New Mexico. I think a couple things have happened. First, the modern players will not tolerate the level of abuse that coaches dished out and glorified in in the past. I remember Bo and Woody when I taught in the Michigan system and neither could survive today, Hayes, of course imploded. Second, I think that the costs to school reputation but also to recruiting are now much higher and teams cannot afford this. Third, I think that Presidents are increasingly under internal and external pressure around these issues and for good and bad reasons are reasserting control. In Leach's case, the President gave him a way out, all he had to do was apologize, but he refused. I do think that the pressure cooker on coaches is much greater than it was in the past and this is tied to the money issue. John Wooden argued, correctly I believe that it really takes 4-6 years to build a true program and culture and schools could afford this twenty years ago. But mobilized boosters, ratings and above all the money tied to winning and getting ESPN windows has reduced that to 2-3 years. This encourages quick fixes and cheating as well as even more tightly wound coaches.