Thursday, February 7, 2008

Old Time Coaches

So, this week saw something strange: two old-timers—in a way—get what was coming to them. First, "Too Tough" Tom Coughlin finally got the Super Bowl he had been screaming and yelling for all these years. And Bobby, "Call me Mister" Knight just up and retired out of the blue.

Make no mistake, these two guys were from a different time; when coaches coached...by any means necessary. Yelling, threating, belittling, they weren't psychologists and mood counselors, like today's coaches, more likely to keep a team "focused" than design a special teams play. And they certainly didn't take any crap.

When he was coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tom Coughlin once ordered his teenage daughter stand up during one of his practices. Another time, a player threw a helmet across the field following an altercation, Coughlin told him to go pick it up. The player said no. He was cut that afternoon.

Players walking down the hall would lower their heads to avoid eye contact. He had rules for almost every single thing. Hair styles, sock styles. He has told players that if they weren't five minutes early for a team meeting, they were late.

But the man could coach. He took a wrecked Boston College program and turned it around in three years, ending it with a huge win over #1 ranked Notre Dame. And despite Jacksonville being an expansion team, he still coached them to a 68-60 record including two trips to the AFC Championship game. In 2002, the Jaguars cam up against major cap problems and had to dump a whole bunch of players due to salary problems. Coughlin still coached that stripped-bare team to a 6-10 record. After taking over the next season, current Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio reviewed that season and said it was one of the best coaching jobs he's seen.

However, coaching in Jacksonville and coaching in New York are two different stories. When Coughlin came to New York, and brought the martinet style, all the Giant players—mostly veterans—had to do was walk over to one of the 50 reporters covering the Giants to undermine him. And they did.

No coach, including Isaiah Thomas, Ray Handley and Rich Kotite has ever been questioned or ridiculed in the New York tabloids more than Tom Coughlin. From his decision to bench Kurt Warner and play Eli Manning in 2003 to his decision to play tough against the New England Patriots last December, the local papers and sports radio have taken a crack addict's liking for crack in trashing the Too Tough, No Fun Tom.

New York likes flair. Coughlin had none. New York likes personality. Coughlin hides his behind rules and military-like discipline. So, when player like Tiki Barber and Mike Strahan started complaining publically about Too Tough Tom's rules, and the Giants lost an upsetting playoff game last season, the smart money said Coughlin would be shown the door.

But New York gave Coughlin a lame-duck one-year extension. But with this caveat. Coughlin promised he had a plan to get Manning to the next level. And he promised to lighten up on the players.

Which he did. When Strahan didn't want to show up to training camp. Coughlin just accepted it. And he took away some of the "Coughlin Rules." He formed a veteran leadership council that had a voice in how the team was run.

He didn't completely change. He was still an ornery old bastard, tough and mostly uncompromising. Despite what everyone predicted they ought to do, Coughlin went for it against the Patriots late in December, protecting players from injuries be damned. But he loosened up enough so that the players, mostly veterans became his biggest supporters. Perhaps the best evidence Coughlin had changed is this: Just before the game, Coughlin—the guy who told his daughter to stand up at practice—told his team "Go and have the time of your life." He spoke from the heart about coaching on the 1990 Giants Super Bowl Champions and how it made him feel. He told his guys he wanted them to feel that to and that they deserved to feel that way too.

The rest is history.

It's nothing but history now for Bobby Knight. And he leaves the game as he has always coached it: With the spotlight directed on him, all bright and scrutiny-packed.

Knight once said that he had never really stopped coaching at West Point. The world and the game have changed since then, but he hasn't. As Dick Vitale said this week: If he had to pick a song to sign Bobby out, it would be "He did it his way."

That, he certainly did. He has tossed a chair across the court during a game. He has also thrown a photographer into bushes, kicked his son, shoved a fan of an opposing team into a garbage can, assaulted a police officer in Puerto Rico and would often get physical with his players. Including choking them. (Knight's lucky he never went into the pros, because the first time he tried to kick Charles Oakley or Ben Wallace, he'd get a faceful of elbow.)

On Senior Night during his son's last season as a player, Knight stood in the middle of the floor and said, "When I die, I want them to bury me upside down so my critics can kiss my ass."

Of all the articles this week on Knight's leaving (it's hilarious that he said he was leaving so he could leave quietly and get out of the way), Pat Forde's is the harshest. But he does have some points.

"You'll hear a lot in the coming days about Bob Knight doing this "on his terms." Of course he did. When has Bob Knight ever done anything that was not on his terms? He is a walking one-way street...If Knight had been willing to budge off "his terms" -- to treat people with the respect he always demanded, to refrain from bullying, to avoid the abusive behavior -- this moment would be far different...Had he managed to avoid confrontation instead of seeking it, his respect would be as widespread as John Wooden's, Dean Smith's and Mike Krzyzewski's. It would be nice if Robert Montgomery Knight could simply be remembered and revered for three national titles, for 32-0, for the Olympic gold medal...It would be nice if the career highlight reel stopped after testimonials from Buckner and May and Benson and Isaiah and Alford and Cheaney. It would be nice if Assembly Hall's court bore the name of Indiana's greatest coach."

And you know, Forde is right. Yes, Badass Bobby is a great coach. No question. And he wants, demands, and usually gets, the best from his players, both on and off the court. But the truth is, if Bobby had changed just a little bit, had lightened up just a touch, his ending might have been grander. If Knight had compromised a little with Indiana University, when they asked him to tone it down, instead of (as William F. Reed from SI.com puts it) "taking it as a challenge," Knight might be coaching in the heart of the Big Ten, instead of some outback Texas school. If he had followed the values he preached, of earning respect instead of commanding it, of treating people with respect instead of bullying and cursing them, he could ending his career as a big-time contender leaving on his terms, instead of as an afterthought, whose career will be remembered mostly for his outbursts and vulgarity, instead of the brilliant way he coached the game he supposedly loved.

And that's the difference this week. These two Old Time Coaches serve as a perfect example of the mark of time. One adapted, one didn't. One stayed stuck to his old ways until he felt there was no country for this old coach. One changed, a little, until he found success. And now, while Tom Coughlin is basking in righteousness as a Super Bowl champion, Bobby Knight leaves the game, in the middle of a season, unfulfilled in his final quest for a last Final Four, in the desert of West Texas, years away from revelance.

1 comment:

Pete S said...

Your article has some great points. The irony of Bobby Knight and other coaches (like Rick Majerus) is that they share the same uncompromising style. Majerus (who learned under Al McGuire at Marquette - routinely slapping players in the head on the way to the 1977 NCAA Championship) are ironic figures. Their hearts are in the right place. Knight considered himself "an educator", which was true. Majerus considered himself a character builder. Majerus intentionally berated players "to build their character." Both coaches have unbelievable basketball minds, yet will be remembered as much for (in Knight's case) bullying their players and (in Majerus's case) walking around nude all the time ( can you envision that?!)

Your article demonstrates a great distinction between Coughlin, who simulataneously saved his job and became a better human being in the process. and Knight, who never learned a thing while he taught players for decades. Throw Rick Majerus in there, cause he's been exiled to St Louis and will probably die of a coronary.soon. It's a shame, because he's another amazing coach. Great article...