Commentary

Twilight of the gods

The cult of the all-powerful coach might not mean what it once did. Ask Erik Spoelstra

Originally Published: November 29, 2010
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

If you weren't too busy spying on your allies or the UN or the 49ers last weekend, you might have noticed that your favorite coach was fired. Or jeered by the home crowd. Or mocked in the paper. Or shamed on the radio. Or drawn and quartered on a message board. Or fined by the league. Or physically intimidated by one of his own players. Or perhaps your favorite coach was thrown under the bus by his team owner.

[+] EnlargeFire Childress
AP Photo/Andy BlenkushBrad Childress recently met the fate that most coaches do these days.

A loser and a stool pigeon? That's no way to go through life, son.

Quit snitchin'!

Pity the coach!

I suppose it was easier decades ago. At least it looked easier. A sweatshirt and a whistle was all it took. A clipboard, or a bit of chalk, for the scientific/strategic types. A seal here and a seal here! Or a fedora, a camel hair coat and the stump of a de-luxe Marsh Wheeling cee-gar were all the authority you needed. Everybody listened to the brush cut and that pair of shined shoes and everybody did exactly what they were told.

(Perversely, Americans were even more susceptible to mindless authoritarianism back when men wore hats -- back in the very golden age to which newly minted libertarians insist we all flee as a demonstration of our fierce independence.)

Ah, the American Cult of Personality! The Cult of the CEO! The American Cult of the Coach! And that "My Way or the Yahweh" God Complex!

What ever happened to that? Does anyone still believe in it?

Does anyone anywhere believe that poor Erik Spoelstra takes LeBron James aside, or Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, to demonstrate a crisp, correct handcheck? Or explains the importance of flexing their knees when boxing out? Or keeps them late to run stairs?

Mr. Spoelstra's slot on the menu as the sacrificial lamb can only be understood by following the food chain link by link back to his boss, Pat Riley. The sleekest holdover from the last great age of the NBA, and an alpha predator himself, Mr. Riley knows that the first coach of this year's Miami Heat will eventually be picked from between the teeth of their stars. So don't expect Spoelstra to last long enough for King James to learn the correct pronunciation of his name.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesHow much basketball is the Heat's Erik Spoelstra teaching to LeBron James?

Riley will step in to "coach" this group himself only after letting them fill up on the scapegoat he's staked out.

Another Miami coach lately undone by expectations was poor Randy Shannon. Undermined by successful academics and a reasonable graduation rate, his quietly well-run football program at "The U"® was ruined as much by its low gangster quotient and absence of a vivid criminal narrative as it was by its only-better-than-average win-loss record. Miami fans expect a certain kind of theater, and the failure to deliver means bad box office numbers. "Scarface" still packs 'em in, after all. And Capo di tutti capi Donna Shalala knows that building the school's global brand has everything to do with football and nothing to do with book learnin'.

In fact, across big college football generally, the manufacture of citizens rather than winners is the kiss of death. (Please remember this when Cam Newton stops by to ask if he can borrow a cup of sugar and hide his Heisman trophy in your crawl space.)

Like the parallel cult of the American CEO, the moral authority of the coach is derived almost entirely from the job title alone. "Coach." As noun or verb, what does that even mean in 2010?

[+] EnlargeTom Landry
AP PhotoUsed to be a man in a hat had some control over his team.

If you screamed or swatted or swore like that in any other workplace, you'd be arrested and institutionalized.

The Rich Rodriguez divorce with Michigan is only a matter of notarizing the paperwork. He'll sleep on the couch until they cut him loose, then he'll be set adrift in a burning longboat. Jeff Fisher stands up to Vince Young and loses face -- or gains it. Who can say? Joe Paterno announces his return for the 2011 season; and for everyone who applauds his bravery and tenacity and durability, another cringes at the inevitability and forced intimacy of his diminishment. Bo Pelini, like something out of "Super Mario," screams and apologizes and screams again. Bopelini! Look out, Princess Peach! Brad Childress falls on Brett Favre's sword. Mike Leach files suit. Caldwell out at Vandy! Who? Where? Chizik and Miles and Saban, oh my! The smoking wreckage of Florida's once proud football program in the wake of Urban Meyer's 20-minute retirement! Madmen! Everywhere!

Josh McDaniels fined 50 grand for espionage, which raises this interesting ethical question about ends and means among the Mile High fan base: Are we better off with a guy who won't look at illegally recorded scouting footage? Or one who will?

How dare you question an 11 and 16 lifetime record?

The Godzilla Complex!

Coaches appearing all around us in all God's incarnations, as multiform as Zeus or Vishnu. The angry, Old Testament God, vengeful and filled with rage; the warm and loving New Testament Father; the prophet and the apostle; Mohammed, or Moses, or Abraham! The lotus rising from Phil Jackson's palm! The revelations and exaltations of the Gospel According to Lombardi!

Or maybe just Willy Loman. That haunted look of the long overdrawn. The slump of the shoulders, the set of the jaw the only difference between a Belichick and a Phillips.

Pray soft your vespers to the Holy Ghost Landry. Wake up instead to Jason Garrett.

[+] EnlargePelini
AP Photo/David J. PhillipIn any other line of work, Bo Pelini's sideline temper tantrums might have him under arrest.

O cruel universe!

Shanahan crazy-eyed as a wanted poster; Norv Turner, with a look like an undertaker whose hearse just got towed; Ault and Gagliardi near invisible because there's no money in it for anyone, including us.

Somehow, coaches remain the face of the school, the franchise, as much as any star. Players come and go. But a coach can be forever. Rockne. Auerbach. Wooden. Summitt.

Paterno as eternal flame. Both man and monument.

Weird.

But here's the oddest thing of all: The central premise of coaching isn't really despotism or tyranny or mindless authoritarianism.

It is rather a willingness to delegate your own outcomes. To place yourself in the hands of Fate and of your players. To depend utterly on the success of others.

There's something of very strong character in that.

And something just as weak.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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