Commentary

Coach's office or bully pulpit?

The Mike Leach and Mark Mangino cases raise issues about football and character

Originally Published: January 4, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Football is not a democracy.

At best, it's a kind of friendly fascism, an even-handed, one-vote dictatorship ruled by a benevolent despot we call a football coach. At its worst, football is lockdown authoritarianism, an airless, repressive, nickel-and-dime gulag of macho posturing, psychological cruelty, preening violence and thoughtless tyranny run by a tin-pot generalissimo with a whistle and a clipboard. And as many parents know, this can be just as true in grade school as it is in the NFL.

It was ever thus in our rock 'em, sock 'em American game, and football fans everywhere understand to a fine certainty which version of a regime, what kind of local program, they support. On a scale from Vlad the Impaler to Pop Warner, they know quite well which moral, ethical and practical corners they're willing to see cut or ignored in service of a winning season.

[+] EnlargeMike Leach
AP Photo/Mike FuentesHow far can a coach go these days? Mike Leach just found out.

So, some small-bore thoughts this big bowl week on means and ends and "character building," on success and failure and outrage, on you and me and the game of college football.

Take as part of our premise the Latin phrase in loco parentis. It means "in place of parents." And while the wise-guy translation -- "parents are crazy" -- is essentially accurate, the phrase actually describes the reasonable responsibility any institution of higher learning must take to nurture and protect our children while they are in its care. Even if they're football players.

Then stipulate as well that it's been a tough couple of weeks for big-time coaches and the old-time conventions of brute, crew-cut autonomy, especially when confronted by those loco parentis. Mike Leach and Mark Mangino and Jim Leavitt all ran afoul of changing standards of player and public relations.

Even Florida's Urban Meyer got tripped up by the dynamic nuances of 21st century ballin'. In the matter of his sudden (un-)retirement, this: It is impossible to disagree with his Saturday decision to resign for personal matters of family and health. It is imperative to disagree with his Sunday decision not to. Because the reversal constitutes what looks an awful lot like coerced hypocrisy, and recruiting hocus-pocus. The final signing date for national letters of intent is, appropriately, April 1. If Mr. Meyer re-retires not long after, we'll all know we -- and a year's worth of recruits -- have been jobbed.

[+] EnlargeFrancisco Franco
AP Photo/AP PhotoIn the old days, General Francisco Franco might've made a darn fine football coach.

But if his was a sin of omission, and excusable as such, then Leach and the trouble that got him fired at Texas Tech serialized sins of commission. I take no sides in this. But from the player to the parents to the coach to the administration to the coverage by the press, every party in this cautionary tale is equally and grievously at fault. Every corner of this story stinks of witless self-interest and self-righteous bullying and short-sighted entitlement. In sum, it smells like classic big-program college football at its small-minded worst. One can only hope that everyone involved gets exactly what's coming to them. No winners here, no heroes, only angry, petty people willing to cannibalize one another in service of low ambitions.

(I always get a kick out of it when the fat hits the fire and these fellas write that combative full-page public goodbye to the school, and choose -- at last -- to refer to themselves as "educators" and "teachers." Leach did it in the opening line of his parting shot last week. Let me know the next time a D-I football coach calls himself an "educator" with a straight face in a recruit's living room once the mother steps out, or at a beef 'n' bourbon fundraiser for the boosters and superfans, or any time he's not about to be indicted.)

Having got this far, let's talk for a second about what's going to happen in the comments. The anonymous hard guys and the laptop bombardiers, the pilotless drones and the online snipers are going to log on to bemoan what sissies we've all become. To make their case that only the caveman football of days gone by can produce a real he-man American. Poetry and ballet and accounting won't cut it. The Internet night ninja and the 14-year-old sports dorks and the vicarious livers will all swing in to remind us that only hazing or corporal punishment or the systematic destruction of individuality can produce true leadership. This is the sort of traditional, high-hetero self-martyring rigor we expect from the game of football.

And yes, doing hard things and meeting hard challenges ennobles and enlarges us. But football is certainly not the only thing on the planet that delivers hardship reliably. So I ask in return: Just how much freedom, how much independence are you willing to give up in pursuit of yourself? At what point do you willingly cede your right of dissent or even fair treatment on your own behalf?

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Dave MartinWe might knoiw more about Urban Meyer's sudden un-retirement after National Letter of Intent day.

Because there's a disturbing, unsubtle appetite in the American character for authoritarianism. We want someone to tell us what to do. We fear disorder and chaos and individuality and creativity. We see this very clearly at election time, left and right, and in times of national struggle, violence and confusion. It makes us susceptible to demagogues, con men and football coaches.

And while we're on the subject, the meteoric postwar ascension of football in this country can of course be tied most tightly to the ascension and popularity of television. But it's worth noting too that the explosive growth of our football-industrial complex follows the same arc as that of the military-industrial complex described by President Eisenhower in 1960. So we've succeeded in weaponizing at least one of our national distractions. The year-in, year-out growth of the game also mirrors the rise of the American corporation as the dominant setter of our collective agendas, and the willingness of the American citizen-consumer to be marketed to in every waking moment.

So strangely, or perhaps perfectly, we have more two-fisted football than ever before, and the pushback across the rest of the culture has been asymmetrical haircuts, skinny jeans and alt-emo tracks so self-loathing as to remind one of a group therapy session at band camp.

If football builds good character, guarantees good character -- and that of course is the tacit central assumption and assertion and sales pitch on which the entire multibillion dollar national collegiate football apparatus rests -- then why so many disciplinary problems? Why so broad a cross-section of players with characters good, bad and indifferent?

[+] EnlargeMark Mangino
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerWas Mark Mangino building character or tearing it down at Kansas?

Because the truth is it's nearly impossible to quantify any kind of cause and effect between big time college football and individual excellence. It may make better men, more thoughtful men, braver men. Or it may produce generation after generation of arrogant, careless jocks. It may stifle personal growth entirely. Or cause it to bloom. Maybe all of those. Maybe none.

Maybe it just makes money.

Most likely, young men leave the game as they came into it, only moreso.

Who knows?

Hofstra and Northeastern have given up trying to find out. They've given up on the game entirely, because the cost is just too high. (And we'll be seeing more of that in the years ahead, I suspect, as costs rise and revenues decline.)

But this week is Big Bowl Week, and we sing the student body electric. So let the school songs and the cash registers ring out, let the pennants wave and the horns blow, and let Leach and Leavitt, Mangino and Meyer spark a national referendum on how we raise our children.

And on how we allow them to be raised on our behalf.

In loco parentis?

We must be crazy.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.

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