Everybody in the huddle: The era of the coach-king is over.
The firing Friday of South Florida coach Jim Leavitt over reports that he throttled and slapped a player makes three coaches in fewer than six weeks who have either quit or been fired for abusiveness in their quest to bring out the best in amateur athletes. University of Kansas coach Mark Mangino resigned in early December after allegations of physical and psychological mistreatment of players. Last week, Mike Leach, head coach of Texas Tech, was fired ostensibly for ordering a concussed player to sit in a darkened equipment garage.
The rapid-fire ousters of some of college football's most winning coaches have made college athletics the latest bellwether over the direction of American sports culture. Certainly, coaches are watched more closely than they ever have been, and players feel confident enough to speak out about perceived maltreatment, which was not necessarily true in the past. A coach's words and actions are subject to challenge – an improvement when it uncovers abusive coaches but a possible demerit when it come to a coach's ability to keep discipline among players.
“The trend in youth sports is looking for coaches who have a kinder and gentler approach rather than the Bobby Knight throwing-chairs approach, so that mind-set may be filtering up to college athletics as well,” says Patrick Cohn, an Orlando, Fla., sports psychologist and author of the “The Ultimate Sports Parent.” “It sounds like some of these coaches are definitely crossing the line and holding grudges against athletes. The message the schools and the NCAA are sending is: We’re not going to tolerate this, no matter what type of program the coach built.”
A month-long investigation
All three coaches were felled by complaints from players and parents. When a second player corroborated a teammate’s allegation that Leavitt throttled player Joel Miller and struck him in the face twice on the sidelines during a Nov. 21 game against Louisiville, a month-long investigation led to Friday’s firing.
The investigation found that Leavitt "inappropriately grabbed the throat and slapped the face of a student athlete" and that his denials were "consistently uncorroborated by credible witnesses ... [and] contradicted by a number of credible witneses,” according to FanHouse, an online sports news site that broke the story.
What’s remarkable is that these aren’t minor league journeymen coaches. Mangino was college football Coach of the Year in 2008. Leach was 2008 Big 12 Coach of the Year. And Leavitt is credited with one of the fastest program turnarounds in the history of college sports, leading the University of South Florida from a nonexistent program 13 years ago to one that now regularly sells out Raymond James stadium in Tampa.
Politics probably played at least some part in the Leach and Leavitt firings; both coaches had butted heads with their respective administrations about the direction of the programs.
While the Leach firing took many in the college football world by surprise, USF’s summary action against Leavitt had the air of inevitability. Leavitt’s emotions were known to rise to the point where he’d at least once head-butted a locker hard enough to bloody his own forehead. “He could be a bully, vindictive,” writes Tampa Tribune columnist Joe Henderson.
In defense of the tough guy
Still, many players have come to the defense of the ousted coaches. And many colleges will weigh a coach’s temperament against “the number of W’s on the season” and the financial windfall from a good bowl game seed, notes Mr. Cohn.
For others, the firings contradict a central tenet of football: the ability of players to take a coach’s guff like a man.
“If my son called and said, ‘Coach made me run X amount of laps or yelled at me or made me stand in a dark room for an hour,’ I’d say, ‘Son, are you a football player? I think you’re going to face a lot worse on game day,’ ” high school coach Ron Freeman, the father of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, tells the Kansas City Star.
Empowered by doting parents and insta-communication technology, more players are letting their thoughts, feelings, and reactions emanate from once-sacrosanct depths of the clubhouse. Coaches who expect what happens in the locker room to stay in the locker room will have to rethink their assumptions, experts say.
“There’s no longer anonymity in the locker room,” sports psychologist Harold Shinitzky tells the Star.
The lines of how far a coach can go to push a player change, of course, sometimes subtly. In some ways, the recent firings should come not as a surprise, but as evidence of the slow suffusion of new values and attitudes into the NCAA's constellation of schools.
In 2004, NCAA president Myles Brand, who as University of Indiana president had fired the hotheaded Bobby Knight in 2000, instituted a strategic plan that mandates that "individuals at all levels of intercollegiate athletics will be accountable to the highest standards of behavior," the Monitor wrote after Leach’s firing.
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