The Coaching Crisis
His success on the field paved the way for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame; his unchecked temper however demanded his dismissal. Though the episode in the 1978 Gator Bowl served as the “tipping point” for his professional demise it unfortunately wasn’t an isolated incident. On more than one occasion, his career was marred by run-ins with opposing coaches, athletic directors and players alike.
Coach Hayes’ story and the fallout that resulted serve as not more than a starting point from which to address a set of impending “character” issues that the coaching community as a whole now faces. I could have picked one of literally thousands, but none is more known than Woody Hayes. What’s important here is not to so much to dissect Coach Hayes’ personality or his professional career, but to address on a larger scale why coaches act the way they do.
Let me say this in fairness to coach Hayes, though some may question his temper and even his coaching methodology, few would argue with the excellence with which his teams played with. Even fewer would argue with the significance of the contributions he personally made to the sport of college football. His use of game-film was revolutionary, his attention to detail was unmatched and his competitive spirit always fierce.
Coach Hayes left no stone unturned as he prepared his team for competition. He was relentless in his pursuit of sporting excellence. His dedication to the sport, his staff and Ohio State is admirable, yet all his success came with a caveat, the looming presence of an irrepressible streak of anger. Coach Hayes’ desire to succeed on the field generated more than his fair share of wins, that drive however opened the door for a volatile temper that at times revealed itself in some ugly ways.
“Woody” Hayes isn’t the only coach to deal with visible character flaws. Any cursory study of the sports world reveals regrettable incidents that have occurred during the profession’s history. Whether in youth leagues, at the high school or college level, or in the professional ranks, coaches often display behaviors that are unbecoming of the jobs they occupy. Hundreds, even thousands of coaches (regardless of their particular sport) have not only displayed the same type of destructive behaviors as Coach Hayes, but have reaped the predictable consequences. Let’s face it, every coach has seemingly “lost it” in some form or fashion, but to do it toward the people we’ve been entrusted to care for begs the question, why?
Though there are a multitude of reasons coaches exhibit the type of dysfunctional behavior they do, three emerge as primary in the sport’s history. The list reads as such: the distorted understanding of “self” (ego), the misplaced value on championships (win-at-all-cost mentality) and the undue emphasis on personal financial gain (greed). These priorities are a byproduct of a distorted philosophy of American culture that has come to typify much of the mess the coaching community currently finds itself in.
Unfortunately, as coaches focus more of their attention on “self;” their ever growing egos have distorted the collective understanding of why they coach the sports they do. The coach’s “ego” has had not only adversely influenced “self” but it has had a profoundly negative impact on the players they coach. Not only is “ego” an issue, so is the “win-at-all cost” mentality the coaching community has consumed itself with. As wins temporarily quench the insatiable thirst of our competitive culture many of the “questionable behaviors” the coaching community displays reveal themselves in greater depth and with more frequency. As the pressure and temptation to do “whatever it takes” to win increases so do the outrageous antics and decisions. Unfortunately, with winning comes attention and with attention comes money. And as money drives the athletic engine of our sports-crazed culture the focus of those that lead inevitably turns right back toward “ego” and the personal financial gain they stand to reap. It is a vicious cycle that, when left unchecked, chokes out all that are influenced by it.
We don’t have to look any further back than the 2009 college football season to find evidence of the type of impact this warped set of priorities is generating. The shift in coaching ideology has displaced historically proven practices and introduced an approach that dismisses the accompanying fallout as “collateral damage.” Whether we want to admit it or not, people and players are being used to prop up inflated egos, to pursue championships and to generate the financial fuel that keeps the institutional athletic engine running.
What was formerly deemed as important (using athletics to teach players about life) has been dismissed for a distorted set of priorities that have reshaped many within the athletic community. Yet it’s not until the winning ceases that these priorities and their accompanying practices are brought into question. Let’s face it, the care and concern of the players who play the game has been lost in the malaise of these misplaced priorities and their misguided ideals.
Just take a look at the 2009 college football season. Mike Leach, the former Head Football Coach at Texas Tech was fired a week before Texas Tech’s bowl game because he “allegedly” ordered an injured player to spend multiple practices standing in a dark room, alone (apparently as a means for treating a concussion the player had suffered). Jim Leavitt, the former Head Football Coach at the University of South Florida was fired after he “allegedly” grabbed a player at halftime and hit him in the face, to of all things “motivate” him. Mark Mangino, the former Head Football Coach at the University of Kansas was fired after stories of verbal, mental and emotional abuse emerged from the accounts of multiple players. Ironically the stories at Kansas surfaced at the conclusion of a season which was marked by a losing record. The players stated that the on-field success the team had experienced under Coach Mangino “covered up” the years of abuse. Let’s face it; these examples are only the tip of the iceberg. What about other sports and other levels of play? There are thousands and thousands of coaches “serving” out there. Surely these men aren’t the only ones who have gone astray.
So, what’s wrong with the coaching community? Why do we find ourselves in this “abusive” place? How do we get back on track? According to Bruce Svare, “If we do not overhaul our present sports system soon, we will be well on our way to ruining the many positive things that athletic participation can provide.”
Our Sports Culture’s Crisis
Let’s see if we can more fully unpack the three primary issues the coaching community is facing…
Few would argue the fact that the world of amateur sports finds itself in the midst of a crisis that is threatening its future. While coaches and administrators discuss what is best for their individual team, league or sport, it appears as though the short-term thinking and the long-range planning continue to be clouded by the ever-enticing, cultural trappings of self-promotion, winning performances and profit margins. Though some argue these priorities have advanced their cause, others contend that they have undermined many of the athletic realm’s “higher” ideals.
As athletes, coaches and athletic departments prioritize fame and fortune and as fans stand shoulder to shoulder demanding wins, some athletic leaders find themselves in conflict with a sports system loose from its ethical moorings. William Bowen and Sarah Levin state, “Zealous efforts to ‘improve programs,’ boost win-loss records, and gain national prominence can have untoward effects that may erode the very values that athletic programs exist to promote – as well as the educational values that should be central to any college or university.” It is a moral dilemma that is driven by the desire to build programs, establish “brands” and to generate the revenue necessary to keep the athletic “engine” running.
Though the “me-first” mentality of the American culture continues to function as a primary influencer in modern sport, its presence is triggering a series of moral rumblings that are threatening the sports world’s ethical foundation. This cultural dysfunction has not only adversely influenced, but in many ways compromised the stability of the athletic environment and its dependent institutions. Unless today’s athletic leaders respond to these warnings in an informed manner, the sports world as we know it may very well become a victim of its misguided morality, falling into a state of irreversible disrepair.
So what do we do? “There simply has been too much bad news clinging to college football this fall. Some of it is sheer bad luck, but not much. Most of it signals warped perspective or systemic problems within the sport. This should be a call to arms for those who love college football to earnestly and candidly address the problems within it.”
Pat Forde, Columnist, ESPN.com
Those With The Power To Fix The Problem
Athletic leaders have a responsibility to face the situation the sports community now finds itself in. The issues are real. The men and women in charge have a duty to engage their roles (as leaders, mentors, and influencers) so that they can begin to provide solutions to the impending catastrophe that lies just below the shifting cultural surface. If those in charge do not address the issues, the sports world as we know it may very well experience an unprecedented collapse that leads to its tragic ruin. However, if an effort is made to seek appropriate solutions the athletic leaders of this generation could be the ones to redeem the many positive elements that the sports experience offers.
The Influence of Coaches
How coaches can help…
The problems this dilemma has generated are not the sole responsibility of athletic administrators. The coaching community finds itself in the same crisis and is just as responsible for providing a solution. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, coaches continue to find themselves at the vortex of this impending social disaster, yet appear to be ill-equipped to offer any viable solution.
Coaches are in a precarious position, they are strategically situated to provide an answer to the crisis, yet find themselves shackled with the challenge and pressure of producing on-field results. Often times this situation, with its toxic temptation to choose misplaced priorities leads to a willingness to compromise principles for the sake of self-survival. The result is misguided decision making that reveals itself in how the coaching community leads.
As undeveloped character traits reveal themselves in coaches’ behavioral choices the vicious cycle of temptations reemerges as they willingly acquiesce to the pursuit of fame, fortune and the pursuit of the next championship. What’s even more alarming is that those outside of the coaching community are urging them to pursue these “temptations.” The result is that coaches, the guardians of all that is good about sport, actively submitting to those things that are undermining the game’s central purpose, to influence and equip the next generation of leaders for the better. John Gerdy in his book Sports the All American Addiction says, “…we have moved beyond simply winning at all cost. Today the driving force behind sports is profit.” In Gerdy’s sober assessment of the sports culture, he accurately identifies the “state of affairs” while implicitly sounding the alarm for the coaching community to act.
There Must Be a Better Way
The “higher” ideals the coaching “fathers” once operated with serve as appropriate guideposts for the coaching community. Unfortunately all indications are that these guideposts have either been ignored or altogether abandoned over the last half-century. Unless these ideals are reintroduced the choices athletic leaders are making will continue to be distorted by the warped desires of our misguided culture.
I believe coaches stand at the nexus of the solution. If the coach can begin to rightly influence his/her players they can begin to turn the moral tide that is threatening the shoreline of the athletic community. If not, a cultural tsunami is certain.
Ironically, the question of how a coach conducts himself/herself in the midst of the tides of our culture is often reserved for those who end up with losing records. More often than not it’s the character of the coach who fails to deliver championships that most often gets questioned, while those who win go unchecked. Let’s face it, alumni and adoring fans more often than not offer a “free-pass” to the “winning” programs, acknowledging that how a win is acquired is secondary to the win itself.
With the athletic realm experiencing a seismic shift in its moral priorities, a shift that has left its foundation compromised and its institutions threatened, the questions persist, who will begin the foundational repair work that is necessary to secure the stability of the sports world? Will the coaching community be the one that presents a viable solution? Or, will we continue to ignore the rising tide and witness our own destruction?
What History Reveals
When American sports are considered, its history highlights some disturbing trends that have developed over the last century. The previously mentioned issues of personal promotion (fame), performance (the “win-at-all-cost” mentality) and profit margin (fortune) have revealed themselves in unprecedented ways recently. It’s these issues that comprise the core of the problem. When we wrongly prioritize these goals we compromise both the athletic institutions and the welfare of its participants. Unfortunately, what American sports history has revealed is that the institutions in charge of the athletic system have been slow to address these issues primarily because they themselves have become an integral part of problem. This dysfunctional relationship has proven to do nothing more than to promote the misplaced priorities of our culture, priorities that will only continue to ruin the experience for today’s athletes and for those still to come.
Reality shows us that the distorted moral compass we have chosen to use continues to lead us astray. As fame, fortune and the pursuit of profits consume the sports experience, so do the unfortunate side affects of these influences. Though the athletic world boasts larger budgets, increased salaries, and state of the art facilities, there seems to be a vacuum of both moral and ethical substance in the coaches, their leaders and the players that play the game. Though teams project a better appearance, are physically stronger, more skilled and even faster than the coaching “fathers” thought possible, the question persists, at what cost? At what cost have we produced a better “on-field” product?
For many, how “success” is defined has skewed a more value-laden approach to the game. The higher ideals coaches once intended to teach have been replaced with a performance-centered approach, one that focuses on the bottom line—wins and losses. No longer is the “success” of a coach or the value of their team calculated by the character of the athletes he produces, instead it is measured by the outcome of the season. With the multiplication of the sports culture’s misplaced priorities, coaches now find themselves adrift in a sea of unrelenting, performance-centered expectations. Those expectations have led to problems that persist beyond the playing field and, at their core, are character-based.
Through the years the American sports culture has implied that “success” is measured by wins and losses. History tells us that from the 1960’s on, the rapid development of television broadcasting has accelerated this mentality. Now, with the presence of twenty-four hour sports television, local and national sports-talk radio shows and the proliferation of sports-related internet websites; media outlets relentlessly encourage the athletic culture to hold winning as the only ideal worth pursuing. As a result, more than two generations of coaches have experienced the unyielding onslaught of an athletic obsessed, media-driven audience that holds personal-glorification, “on-field” performance and profit margin as the only goals worth pursuing.
Fame, fortune and championships serve as the gods of our sports culture and we have willingly sacrificed at their altars. Whether on the collegiate, high school or youth level, sports function as a source of pride for communities and are often a major source of income for the athletic departments they serve. For many, the number of wins accumulated over a season proves to be an indication of the amount of revenue an athletic program will generate throughout a school year. In some cases football, which functions as the financial backbone of most athletic programs, has been the most blatant offender in this cultural war. It can be so influential that the team becomes the identity of their community and on occasion a religion all its own. With such a strong emphasis being placed on pride, performance and financial outcome, the idea of character development, has slipped from the game, having lost its way in the endless pursuit of the next championship.
Is it possible to reverse this “win-at-all-cost” mentality? Is it possible to reprioritize fame and fortune? Some of the “great” coaches of the past and present are proving that athletic leaders can operate with a philosophy that is larger than the cultural obstacles they face. These men and women have found ways to integrate a philosophy of sport that looks beyond the cultural trappings of our society. It’s an approach to coaching that focuses on the development of people. It embraces a perspective that not only values the competitive aspect of the game, but emphasizes a more holistic approach to coaching. Interestingly, history points to the fact that this philosophical approach has resulted in “success” both on and off the field. The question is, “Are we willing to embrace it?”
Unfortunately the dominant issue in sports is no longer the pursuit of higher ideals, instead it is how to best build a legacy, chase championships and maximize the athletic department’s profits. It is time for the athletic world to reevaluate the fundamental intent of the athletic experience and to provide a better alternative.
What’s clear is this; we’ve got a problem!
The question is; are we willing to fix it?
I’ve got an answer…
Come find out what it is…
Come join A COACHING REVOLUTION!
Steven D Wright, DMin