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Here's the hard truth about coaches: Most of the good ones will never be famous and most of the famous ones are snakes. I'd send my kids to learn about the world from the local used car dealer before I'd give them up to the Tark, Tuna, Bela, Geno, K, even the sainted JoePa.
These guys are basically bullies, blood-suckers, mind-pluckers, child abusers. They are judged -- and judge each other and themselves -- by how many games they win, not by how many young people they set on humane pathways. Like generals, their casualty figures are important but not critical to their final score.
Just so long as you understand this, we can try to enjoy them as they really are -- not as they sell themselves.
Because very few of them were star athletes on the level they coach, they are consumed with the need to make their players extensions of themselves. College coaches do this by totally controlling the kids, taking over their lives, becoming their fathers (I think even the women coaches do this) and driving them to dominate the sons and daughters of other men (see Bob Knight).
Pro coaches do this by so complicating the game that each player becomes less an individual than a chess piece on the master's board (see the Triangle Cult of the Most Precious Phil).
So why do we revere these guys? Why do we pay them so much money, let them take charge of universities, ask them how to run corporations?
First of all, the true masters of the universe -- the pouchy little club owners, corporate honchos and university trustees -- fear and loathe the strong, young, sexy jocks who work their plantations. They hire the coach as their animal tamer. The classic tamer coach was Knute Rockne, who created Notre Dame by hiring tramp football players like George Gipp. Rockne died in a plane crash en route to Hollywood to ink a movie deal. Typical. He was too early for Nike.
Check out the list of the best coaches of the past 25 years. Then rank 'em yourself!
(Back when Rogers Hornsby was a Mets' coach, I asked if it was true that when he was the St. Louis Browns' manager, he urinated on players in the shower-room after defeats. He answered indirectly, yet affirmatively, by saying that if he didn't like what I wrote, he would do the same to me. How can't you love coaches?)
Third, fans romanticize managers and coaches because they seem to be the powerful, loving, forgiving dads they never had -- not driven puppet-masters. When I asked Tom Osborne why he kept giving the likes of Lawrence Phillips and Christian Peter chance after chance to return to the Nebraska line-up after sexual assaults, he asked me if I would rather have them running loose in my neighborhood or under his control. That must have been the right answer, because he soon became a congressman.
Fans wish Joe Torre was their dad even though he's really the Yankees' mother. George Steinbrenner is the Yankees' real dad, the kind who offers and withholds love as if it were meat on a string.
Fourth, and ultimately most important, most players believe they would be lost children without coaches. Stuck in adolescence, jocks are insecure enough; coaches play those buttons to keep them controllable and competitive. Players think they need to be emotionally manipulated and told what to do, and they might be right. How else can you explain Pat Riley?
When a coach goes too far or presses the wrong buttons, you have the sports-page equivalent of a domestic meltdown. The NBA never allowed Latrell Sprewell's choking of P.J. Carlesimo to become the criminal case it was because that would reveal what an abusive "family" a big-league team can be. What if Latrell was exonerated on a battered spouse self-defense defense?
Does this sound as though I hate coaches? Am I too anti-authoritarian? Is this why I can't deal with editors?
But I admire Dean Smith. Of course, that may be because I admire his wife, Linnea, an eminent psychiatrist and anti-porn activist. I also liked Jerry Tarkanian, mostly because his feisty wife, Lois, defended him so fiercely. And once, while I was doing a story at Grambling, Eddie Robinson asked me, my producer and crew to meet with his team and discuss career opportunities in television. Now that was a coach who cared about his players.
But most good coaches bloom and fade unseen by the world beyond their teams. I think there are plenty of youth coaches, high school coaches, who take seriously their responsibility to use sports as a crucible for character. Sometimes, they also win. Players are not reliable in identifying the good ones; in retrospect, having survived a blood-sucking, mind-plucking, abusive bully may seem like a heroic journey to adulthood.
So we boast about how they made us the blue chips we are today.
A short-order cook named Al coached my summer-league softball team when I was in college. Once, with a routine lack of grace and skill, I went up the left field wall and came down with the ball and a seven-inch gash on my arm from a protruding rusty nail. I ran in trailing blood. Al grabbed my arm, spat into the wound, and said, "Walk it off, it'll heal."
It did, in about a month, after two trips to the emergency room and an antibiotic drip. But I didn't die, and I regret that the scar has faded. It made me feel invincible.
My combat judo teacher, Charlie, was an alcoholic ex-Marine who believed there were two ways to solve all problems -- avoidance or destruction. He said that if your life or the life of someone you care about is not in immediate danger, just run away. If it is in danger, gouge out an eye as a deterrent. If that doesn't stop the bad guy, then sever his artery and step away from the flow.
Even more empowering were Charlie's final words after three years of being my coach: "Never kill a man just for being clumsy." By broadly defining 'clumsy,' I have avoided gouging out eyes and severing arteries for more than four decades.
What more can you ask of a coach than his permission to find your own humane pathway?
Anything less, just choke him back.