Friday, April 13, 2012

I'll Take Stan Van's Pepsi Swig Anyday

It's been a tough couple of weeks in the coaching profession as there have been a number of serious missteps ranging from declaring love for Fidel Castro (Ozzie Guillen) to getting fired for lying about an affair even in the face of getting caught with said girlfriend on the back (Bobby Petrino). What has been odd to me is that of all these transgressions, Stan Van Gundy, head of the Orlando Magic received some of the sharpest criticism for simply telling the truth about the state of affairs in his organization. Given what I've dealt with in my own coaching career and understanding how outside factors shape your thought process when you are a coach, I'll ride with Stan and his Diet Pepsi swigs between dropping truth all day over some of the other behaviors coaches of all ilks display. Let me first lay out some of the factors that lead many coaches to ultimately crash and burn in the first place.

From the time a coach starts working as a volunteer for tot tee-ball, he or she is quickly made to understand that winning trumps all else if you expect to advance. Parent boards exercise the same coldness as a college board of trustees when it comes to getting rid of a coach who they think isn't "producing" no matter if the coach does an excellent job of imparting keys sports lessons like the value of teamwork, discipline, and hard work. The savvy coach develops a selfish mindset to take advantage of talent at their disposal and move on when it is gone. No one cares about the personal sacrifices the coach has to make to develop a "winning" program, so the coach in turn has no problems pulling up stakes and rolling out when a better opportunity comes along. Lane Kiffin jumped at the chance to come back to USC after only a year at Tennessee, Jim Harbaugh left a Stanford team that was a lock to be a top 5 team when the NFL came calling. You can never expect coaches to show loyalty to an organization or school because they learn early on that it will never be shown to them.

Due to the significant position that sports hold in our society, successful coaches are often asked to comment on issues outside of their realm of expertise, and this is a recipe for disaster. I'm sure there are other folks TIME magazine could have interviewed besides Ozzie Guillen to meet their mission statement, but they want to sell magazines and Ozzie is a quote machine so of course journalists set up camp in front of his desk and wait for the fireworks to begin. Coaches should be respected and celebrated for what they do in their profession, but just because you can win a national title does not mean that you are instantly ready to speak intelligently on topics such as American neo-imperialism.

This is the status when coaches have truly reached the top of your professional food chain, and now feel as if they can do no wrong, or will never get caught. It is the most dangerous because you feel entitled to do whatever you please because you have worked hard, moved your family around, and now it's time to reap the benefits. So if you're Rick Pitino, and you're the man in Kentucky, you don't think it will matter if you have sex in a restaurant bathroom. For Petrino, you don't think you'll ever get caught sending naughty texts on a university issued cell phone. Even in sports with less spotlight on them, you can still get busted, ask John Trembley, the former swimming coach at the University of Tennessee. Women sports aren't exempt either as Kim Mulkey, coach of the undefeated women's National Champion Baylor Bears, will face sanctions for overseeing a basketball program where thousands of impermissible texts and phone calls were placed. Given the money involved in big-time club, college and pro sports, it is easy to see how coaches slide down a slippery slope in order to maintain their jobs. So when I see Stan Van calmly displaying that he's had enough of the game, I'm ready to take a Diet Pepsi swig with him.

Kudos to University of Arkansas athletic director, Jeff Long, for being able to stand up and say to a football-rabid community that even though the football coach has lead the program to a 21-5 record in his tenure, and there are no NCAA sanctions pending, this behavior cannot be tolerated. The same can be said for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who has consistently shown the willingness to bring the hammer down on athletes, teams, and now coaches who don't "protect the shield". Goodell's latest target, the New Orleans Saints, will be without their head coach, Sean Payton, all year, and without their top assistant for almost half, because of a pay-for-destructive-hits bounty scandal. These suspensions make it a pretty good bet they won't be returning to the playoffs. Meanwhile Stan Van Gundy has had to put up with the circus of Dwight Howard publicly yo-yo-ing back and forth on whether he wants to stay in town, and up until recently, managed to keep his team high in the Conference standings. Even as it stands now, the Magic would be like their chances in a first round playoff matchup with Indiana. Stan spoke his truth when asked if he had heard that his franchise player wanted him fired, and let said franchise player twist in the wind when he decided to act like a clown and crash the press conference. If "speaking out of turn" after two years of making the most of a difficult situation is a problem, then I'll take that coach to run my team anytime. And I'll put in his contract that he can't own a motorcycle, speak on politics, or have the power to hire staff without my approval just to make sure it all works out.

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