Lock the gym doors. Hang a notice declaring that practice is closed. Tape brown paper over the windows if necessary.
Coach Fill-in-the-Blank has got some serious teaching to do and he doesn’t need to be interrupted by outsiders who don’t quite understand the process. This is all about the team, after all, and making every player better, toughening up the mind as well as the body.
And what exactly might happen in there, when the going gets tough, when the talking points of the day aren’t quite getting through to the kids in a timely manner and the shouting points aren’t either? Well, that’s a tough question, a little uncomfortable even.
For that we really could use some insight from Bob Knight, ESPN analyst, who as of Wednesday afternoon had not appeared on air to offer a reaction to the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice.
This specific case has to do with a coach who was caught on videotape shoving his players around during practice and firing basketballs at them at close range and even escalating to the occasional kick. The first time those images were shown to Rice’s athletic director, the coach’s job was not required of him, lousy record notwithstanding. Only later, after all of America went to the replay, was Rice shown the door.
“There’s a difference between coaching your team hard and physically attacking a player,” said Seth Greenberg, ESPN staffer and former college basketball coach.
Makes sense, but I don’t want to hear from Greenberg or Jay Bilas or Digger Phelps or Dick Vitale or Bruce Pearl on this. I want to hear from Knight, who during a spectacularly successful career at Indiana was allowed to do and say pretty much whatever he wanted as long as students graduated and NCAA rules were upheld.
Then in 2000 came a published accusation that Knight had put a hand around a former player’s neck and choked him during a particularly angry practice-session boil-over. Knight denied it, which led to CNN Sports Illustrated airing a videotape of the incident, which led to the zero-tolerance policy on further misbehavior that eventually proved too much for the General to bear.
Take away the videotape and ask if either coach, Rice or Knight, would have lost their jobs.
Players either couldn’t or wouldn’t change the patterns, not with scholarships to be lost. Assistant coaches were silent partners to whatever went on, not wanting to stop their own climbs up the ladder. Trainers and interns also understood their places in the food chain. In combination, their voices wouldn’t have amounted to a peep.
Look at the way basketball coaches act on the sidelines, in front of the public, ranting and stomping and flirting, by all appearances, with a nervous breakdown. That is defined as “intensity,” and is respected as a virtue of a coach who burns with competitive fire. Should a milder blaze be expected when the team is behind closed doors, or an absolute dedication to the most sophisticated and civil forms of instruction?
Numerous TV insiders report that Knight is on his way out at ESPN, with the plan being to let his contract expire at the end of this season. Somebody at the network could still invite him to comment on all of this between now and Monday night’s NCAA championship game, but I don’t expect that to change.
Truth is, with the mind-bending pressure on coaches to protect their turf and their rising millions in salary, I expect only one long-term change from all of this.
Coaches everywhere and at every level are going to be asking themselves if all those hours of practice videotape are really worth the trouble.
Let one camera in, or even a cell phone, and we’re all there, seeing and hearing things that almost any coach wants kept within the family, dysfunctional or otherwise.