Monday, October 22, 2012

Professional versus College Coaching

This last weekend I watched teams coached by Nick Saban, Mike Riley and Steve Spurrier. All the teams played with abandon, skill and precision. Yet I was also struck by the fact that all the coaches, like Pete Carroll who made his reputation at USC but has returned to the professional ranks,  had one thing in common. All had barely OK professional football coaching careers, but flourished at the college level.

Their experience and many others like them lead me to reflect on the divergence between the worlds of college and professional coaching and the interesting migration from one to the other. Rick Pitino and John Calipari  epitomize the college basketball version of failed professionals returning to become superlative college coaches, but I will focus on football. The the core the professionals coach players but the college coaches educate and teach young men.


The journey from pros to college is treacherous and many fail in their first try, witness the failure of Charlie Weis at Notre Dame or Bill  Callahan at Nebraska. The move from controlling the talent and dealing with the maturity level of professionals can compare badly to endless recruiting and the need to maintain the level of motivation required for 19 year olds. It can  be unnerving and even feel demeaning.

The move in either direction can be treacherous as almost any coach who has coached at both levels will tell you. Professional coaches assume an ultra elite level of skills and paid commitment as well as 12 month development by players. They also possesses an ability to move people in and out quickly. On the other hand, most professional players have a profound awareness that they can be traded at any moment, and  ultimately they must protect their individual value which lies in individual skill and achievement on the market, not the team. They will think of their career as much as their team.

To be honest, coaching college is not for everyone. Many ex pro coaches hate having to woo and identify with 18 year olds. Worse, coaches must now show up for games of 14 and 15 year olds. Grown adults must work with grasping coteries, middle men and relatives who can surround elite players. 

Many coaches prefer the chess board approach of the pros where everyone is a free agent and all the players are fungible, completely replaceable. It makes developing the talent level much easier. Any contract can be terminated, at some economic cost, but no coach is stuck with kids for four years or has to worry about the care and feeding of adolescents let alone the need to make sure they have enough to eat or get to class on time. More importantly no coach has invested years in wooing and helping the kid from pre-high school nor have the coaches talked and worked with the kids parents and guardians. Professional coaches often don't need or want an personal investment in the quality and growth of the players--college coaches must make that investment to attract and retain their players.


But the sheer truth is college coaching is alot more fun than pro coaching. There is a reason coaches call the NFL  the "no fun league." Professional football players, for good reason, are all free agents. Football players represent the issue in its purest form.  Players play a violent harsh games with no institutional compassion or loyalty. Their contracts are not guaranteed so they need to protect themselves to maximize what will only be a short hard career. This puts serious limits on what coaches can do with them and how much influence coaches have. Very little real teaching goes on in the NFL. The players may pick up certain techniques and adapt to systems, but they do not over invest in one particular system since they may be playing across the ball on another team the next year, and the half life of professional coaches covers nano-years. Very little reason exists for players to buy into a system or feel an abiding loyalty to a team or tradition or fans and certainly none exists to change or grow as a person unless it increases their endorsement value.

If the players know this, the coaches are worse. Bill Belichick epitomizes the coach who treats all players as interchangeable parts to play until they break or fail and discard or replace them as needed. Let's be clear, all coaches must "cast a cold eye on life, on death," as Yeats would have it. Every leader needs a clear hard eye to judge and evaluate and decide upon performance, but professional Coaches seldom have the luxery to care and infuse their coaching with care. The demands to win, to perform before a relentless and fickle public and owners do not give them the luxery to care about or to educate players.

The coaches who return from the pros to college often feel relief and liberation rather than failure and exile. If you talk to coaches who have coached in both leagues, most recognize the immense satisfaction in being a teacher with a profound and lasting impact upon the life of a young person. Eighteen year olds have their limits, but they possess possibilities. A coach can still change a life; they "can save" and "rescue" kids. 

Coaches and teams can impart  lessons of discipline, internal judgment and teamwork. Good college coaching  builds moral and social equity in the young men. You won't hear pro coaches referring to their players as "kids," But college kids can grow into young men under a coach's tuteledge.  For many of their charges the coaches serve as surrogate fathers, powerful role models. The coaches and the academic staff hound kids to get educations despite themselves. Watching a disorganized and angry 17 year  old grow into a fine player and competent and sometimes fine human being buttresses the lives of many college coaches, especially the ones who are not at the glamor jobs or the army of assistants who migrate from team to team teaching the sport they love and helping kids they enjoy being with. Few professional experiences can match the exuberance and emotional commitment of college players. The vast majority of college players know this is the end of their playing career and they give it their all.

I do not want to romanticize college football coaching. Nor do I want to pretend it exists independent of its own world of pressures to win and boosters who seldom worry about the welfare of moral growth or education of the young men. To boosters and athletic directors,  the players are fungible. But college incentives push coaches to invest more time and energy in the developmental aspects of players. Coaches not only get to the know the players and parents when they are younger, but they have them for four years--they cannot just cut them at well. Most good schools and coaches put strict limits upon dismissing a player just for competence issues.

Interestingly in college because coaches are stuck with their kids for four years (I know a few schools permit coaches to run off the players they believe are not good enough, but surprising numbers of coaches for moral as well as self-interested reasons live with "my mistakes). If a student-athletes gives their all, commit to the program and compete with honor, then most coaches and most schools will not run them off. This stuckness means coaches  have to work with what they have. They have to teach harder and work harder to connect with players and help players really develop their potential.

College coaches can't go buy free agents or trade players who don't live up to their potential. College coaches have the opportunity and the constraint to work with young men to grow in skill, commitment and learn as they must master complex schemes and master judgment under stress.right. They experience the satisfaction of being a real teacher or educator that transcends just coaching.

Pro coaches seldom get to experience the joy and satisfaction of watching young men blossom or the pain of watching them implode and fail. College coaches have more responsibility for the humans in their charge; because of that they also have more fun.

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