Playwrights often depict tragedies where the blindness of an aging hero leads to acts of hubris that doom them. Aeschylus, the great Greek playwright, reminds everyone, “call no man happy until he is dead.” In Shakespeare’s King Lear, “robes and furr’d gowns hide all,” tells the familiar story of how position and success can lead to hubris, bad judgment and spawn the “cankers” of the mind that destroy judgment. Old age and unaccountable power ferment a witches brew that through history has corrupted leaders in all walks of life.
The story is all too familiar in every culture—a young hero and leader triumphs. They continue their success and aggrandize power and position and come to they identify with their position. They see themselves as indispensable and refuse to step down with dignity or honor intact. College sports is not immune to this unfolding tragedy.
Woody Hayes assaulted a player on the sidelines during the 1978 Gator Bowl and then attacked his own coaches as they tried to hold him back. Lute Olsen finished out his fine career amid embarrassment, recriminations, strokes and depression. Bobby Bowden was forced out of an extraordinary career after five mediocre years amid the humiliation of having a successor forced on him and being stripped of 14 victories. We have all watched the 84 year old Joe Paterno fall from grace over alleged disinterest in the sexual abuse by an old coach and member of the Penn State family.
Ohio States’ Hayes was 65 and had been regularly reprimanded for loss of control and assaulting people during his career, but despite the warnings of his superiors continued with his behavior. Olsen was 74 at the end of a brilliant and largely untarnished career, a gentlemen coach. He had bitterly resisted efforts to provide an honorable exit for him as he lost control of his game and life. Bowden was 80 and had forged Florida State into a football power He had fought efforts to move him out tooth and nail and the Board did not side with the President just as with Paterno.
Knowing when to leave with dignity and honor intact is a rare skill that few of us arrive at on our own and often we need help from friends or more vitally from our leaders. This is where Presidents should come in.
But knowing when to leave with dignity is hard but not impossible in life and in sport. Tony Russo’s recent retirement at the age of 68 after winning the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals illustrates how it can be done. John Wooden stepped down at the age of 65 after winning his tenth national basketball championship. Dean Smith of North Carolina stepped down at the age of 66 after a brilliant career. In football Bo Schembechler from Michigan retired at the age of 60 after two Big 10 championships and Tom Osborne retired from Nebraska at the top of his game.
To survive for twenty years at one place in the cutthroat world of college sports requires coaching brilliance and persistence. It means the coach has won time and again and probably had to resurrect himself or herself. To keep passion and interest, they fuse their identity with the consuming activity of coaching. It is excruciatingly hard to step down from what they are great at, let alone what defines them as a person. Only superb self-knowledge or a very good President can deal with this temptation.
The key denominator for all these coaches who ended in embarrassed failure lies in the unwillingness of their Presidents to remove them. In leadership theory we would talk about “mentor them out!” In cases of celebrity coaches, athletic directors stand relatively powerless, and in the case of Olsen, Bowden and Paterno the Presidents refused to act when they should have. For just as the fool tells King Lear, the coaches need someone wiser to help them:
O, sir! You are old;
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be rul’d and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. (2.4:140-144)
Why do the Presidents fail?
First and foremost, a successful and visible college football or basketball program becomes a lodestar for a university’s identity and brand. Penn State built much of its rise in enrollment and national stature around the signal power of Paterno’s program and his old school charisma. Ohio State’s rise to national prominence followed the same path. A school like Florida State staked its brand and strategy directly upon the success of the football program. From an institutional perspective university administrations and Presidents are very reluctant to remove a coach who has come to represent their university. This is also why coaches must increasingly be pure as the driven snow in their public life because they now stand for the school and its values. The endless drum beating of publicity flaks and the ESPN world augment the college coach’s prominence. As the always thoughtful Don Wetzel argues, the media tends to “goddify” such coaches to everyone’s detriment.
Second, the power base of the coach transcends the power base of the President. The Board of Trustees takes a personal interest in the success of athletic programs. Universities deploy athletics programs as a forum to lobby and wine and dine officials and contributors. This places coaches at the center of the mix of public and private power that sustains modern universities. A coach’s relation with the Board expands to enmesh with rich and heavy weight boosters and contributors. Even if a President believes that the coach should retire for reasons, the Board and boosters may paralyze him or her.
Third, coaches are human despite the publicity around them. Individuals surround and lionize coaches. Fans quasi-worship and deify them. The ESPN media machines amplify this myth making. Everyone around them, their coaches, players, staff, fund raisers and sometimes Presidents have a vested interest in not telling the coach the truth; he or she would protect their legacy by going out on top rather than playing out the denouement of tragedy and mortification.
Coaches are humans. They succumb to the myth of their indispensability just like the political and corporate leaders who cannot give up power, success and repute. No one wants to leave it all behind and risk that horrible question, “wasn’t he once somebody?” Only the Presidents have the perspective and responsibility to deal with this and for them, “ripeness if everything.”
Paterno disgrace symbolizes the problem; the issue will arise soon at some other prominent programs. I do not blame the coaches, really. I would struggle for the self-awareness and discipline to leave in such a position. But very few who succumb to the temptations that Shakespeare and Aeschylus portrayed will leave in dignity and honor. They will bring down their institutions with them.
Just as these feel like classical tragedies, a classical virtue would have lead the Presidents to act and guard their institution and protect their coach—courage.