Allegations give coaches pause

Updated: January 12, 2010, 8:44 PM ET
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley won't stop disciplining players because three of his colleagues were recently forced out after allegations of player abuse.

Those accusations, however, might give him pause.

"If nothing else, it should make you stop and think," Riley said. "Your style, your habits, your relationships with people. I think you just have to be very, very aware and smart about things."

Other coaches agreed at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Orlando this week.

Some said that new technology, more empowered student-athletes and the big business that college football has become are making things more public. Others insisted society is softening its stance on discipline.

The firings of Jim Leavitt at South Florida and Mike Leach at Texas Tech and the resignation of Mark Mangino at Kansas -- all accused of player abuse -- in a little more than a month have also forced coaches to question things that were once commonplace.

With the ever-blurring line of acceptable constructive criticism murkier than ever, what, if any, kind of physical contact is acceptable? Screaming? Saying certain things?

"As a coach now, you always need to be aware that if you think someone's not watching, someone's watching. So do the right thing," Ohio State's Jim Tressel said. "We tell our players all the time, 'You better assume someone has a cell phone video or camera.' I think coaches need to take that same philosophy.

"Maybe something one day you used to get away with, you don't any more," he said.

Coaches, while withholding opinions on the recent allegations of mistreatment until there's a final verdict, said the reports are troubling.

Leavitt was fired last week after a South Florida investigation concluded he grabbed a player by the throat, slapped him in the face and then lied about what occurred during halftime of the game against Louisville. Leavitt denied those allegations and hired a law firm Monday to help him fight to get his job back.

Leach was fired in December after a player with a concussion said he was mistreated. Leach has refuted the accusation.

And Mangino resigned last month after some players accused him of constantly making insensitive, humiliating remarks in the heat of games and practices. Mangino agreed to a $3 million settlement with Kansas.

"There's certainly emotion on the field, during the game, during practice. But there's lines that you just don't cross," former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "If you've been in it at all for any length of time, you've certainly seen that emotion perpetuate itself by players or coaches. But you stay between the lines. There's guard rails that you don't go past."

Those borders are often fuzzy.

Something that was acceptable 10 years ago might be inexcusable today. Or what some players consider constructive criticism, others might consider destructive.

Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, who was accused by current and former Wolverines players of practicing more than the weekly hours allowed by the NCAA, pointed to how "old-school" coaches used to withhold water from players because they thought it made them tougher.

"Well, that's been proven that's not a productive practice," he said. "But that's the way those guys operated. Things change."

Rodriguez also sees other parts of coaching in transformation.

"College coaching is becoming more and more like NFL coaching. In NFL coaching, there are some guys that you can coach a little harder and there are some guys that make so much money you got to be careful how you coach them. The college game is becoming some of that same way as far as some kids being sensitive," Rodriguez said.

Added TCU coach Gary Patterson: "It's also a fine line. Your job is also to grow them up and make them mature, and every kid that's in your program is different."

It isn't just football.

Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin came under scrutiny Saturday after he hit senior Chris Merriewether on the arm with the back of his hand late in the Wildcats' loss to Missouri. Martin apologized before taking questions in his postgame news conference.

But he said this week that society has forced him to tone down his fiery ways and act more like a carefully crafted "politician."

"These are sensitive times across the country. Not because a couple of coaches got in trouble for whatever. The perception is out there," Martin said. "It's causing me to act with the public in a different way."

Technology has also empowered players.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media have given them a forum to express more opinions, perhaps even fight back if they feel wronged. Players' parents and high school coaches are also involved more than ever, coaches said, and that can often create more problems.

"But kids are also educated at an earlier age now about what's right and what's wrong, so they're speaking up more now," said Jeff Dellenbach, football coach at North Broward Prep School in Coconut Creek, Fla.

College coaches understand the constant scrutiny.

Their salaries have ballooned. TV contracts have expanded. Programs are getting more exposure.

All that, coaches said, rightfully holds them to a higher standard than before.

"It used to be the old days coaches lost their jobs strictly on wins and losses," Rodriguez said. "Now that's a big part of it, but there's a lot more to it now."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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