Sunday, March 13, 2016


While all the attention this time of the year centers around "March Madness" and the excitement of the NCAA tournament -- and with great reason -- there is yet another madness: the firing of coaches.  For us in the business it is a very difficult time because many of those coaches that are fired are friends -- we know them, and their families.  If you are in the business long enough, some of those being shown to the unemployment line are your former players.

Please know that I'm not saying there aren't situations where a change in leadership is needed.  It happens.  But we are in a microwave society where we want coaches fired in the middle of the season because they are in a three-game losing streak.  Coaches are getting fired with winning records...because they can't "win the big one."

To boosters, the majority of fans and even some in the media the bottom line is winning, winning now, and winning big.  There is never a consideration about the job the coach and their staff is doing in developing young people. Those aforementioned individuals would be shocked at the amount of time spent by coaches away from the X's & O's working in the community or spending time problem solving with their student-athletes.

This past weekend, it was reported that Tulane's men's basketball coach Ed Conroy was told during a game that he was being fired.  During!  The only problem is that Ed was in the middle of upsetting the University of Houston so the dismissal had to wait a day.  I know Ed.  He's a good coach and an even better person and has done a respectable job at a school that historically has a difficult time of "winning."  If this report is true, the administrators involved should be shown the door before Ed -- not for the dismissal but for its embarrassing execution.

There was a time when administrators dug in and supported their coaches because they could see the work and progress in front of them. 

Most people in listing the greatest of the greatest in men's basketball coaches would list Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Yet in his first three years at Duke, Coach K was 38-47.  The last home game in that third year Duke lost to rival North Carolina by 24 points.  The next week there was a 43-point loss to Virginia in the ACC tournament.

Would any coach in America survive this today?

But then Duke AD Tom Butters dug his heals in and fought off the boosters screaming for a change.  I once read an article where Butters talked about a particular wealthy booster that pressured him greatly to fire Coach K.  A few years later Butters spoke of the constant letters from that same booster urging him to pay what he has to pay to keep him!

And right down the road another legendary coach Dean Smith got off to a slow start.  After three years, Coach Smith was 35-27.  The fourth year got off to a rough start.  The Tar Heels returned to campus after a 107-85 loss to Wake Forest.  It was their fourth straight loss.  At the bus pulled up the gym on the Carolina campus, there, hanging in a tree, was a dummy dressed like Coach Smith.

In 1967, Coach Wooden took UCLA on an amazing post-season run that would see them capture seven straight National Championships. That string ended in 1974 when the Bruin again made it to the Final Four before losing.  The next year, Coach Wooden's final one as a coach, UCLA again advanced to the Final Four capturing the programs 10 national title in 12 years.

Coach Wooden tells the story that immediately after the game, while the team is still on the court celebrating, one of the team's most prominent boosters came up said, "Congratulations.  I'm glad you didn't blow it like last year."

One of my mentors, Sue Gunter, went through three losing seasons.  At the SEC tournament during her third losing season, an administrator was telling everyone that she would be fired when she got to campus.  Upon arrival, Coach Gunter went into the AD's office unannounced talked him to keeping her because she knew they were getting ready to turn the corner.

Coach Gunter coached nine more seasons at LSU where she averaged 23 wins a season, advanced to eight consecutive NCAA tournaments, including five Sweet 16's, three Elite 8's and the Lady Tiger's first Final Four appearance.

But what I've failed to mention -- what far to many people fail to understand -- is what the student-athletes would say about Coach K, Coach Smith, Coach Wooden and Coach Gunter.  It wouldn't be about how they developed their jump shots or improved their ball handling.  They would talk about the like lessons that came from being in those type of programs.

The same type of life lessons that are being taught at Division II and Division III schools under the leadership of good coaches.  The same type of lessons that are being taught at mid-major schools that aren't in the limelight of the national basketball scene.  The same type of lessons that are being taught at universities that may not be winning enough games to satisfy fans and administrators that have lost sight of the primary purpose of athletics.

Again, I'm not saying that coaches should never be fired.  Far from it.  But now we have too many administrators from ADs to school presidents who bow to the pressure of the boosters and alums making decisions to quickly for often the wrong reasons.

We have fans that start not understanding that the coach and their staff have families.  I have from time to time wondered how they would feel if we showed up at their place of employment and yelled and screamed obscenities at them while they performed -- with their families sitting nearby.

I have the greatest respect for the coaches that do it the right way.  That come to work and grind each day to make a difference in the life of the people they coach, the staff they work with and the community they live in.  I respect the coaches that battle the pressure and work to win games so they can continue to do what they love.  I think love is the only word to describe why people stay in the business as long as they do -- at least those that are doing it for the right reason.  I have respect for the coach that take undue criticism from those not in the arena.  I have respect for those coaches that bounce back after being fired to find a job so they can continue doing what they love and impacting those within their reach. 

I have a constant reminder of the grind of our professions.  It comes from the book "The Coaches" by Bill Libby.  There is a passage in it that another of my mentors Dale Brown once had framed, handing in his office.  When he retired, he gave it to me and it has hung in every office I've had since.  It reads:

He’s called a coach and it’s a different job. There is no clear way to succeed. One cannot copy another who’s a winner, for there seems to be some subtle secret chemistry of personality that enables a person to lead successfully and no one really knows what it is. Those who have succeeded and those who have failed represent all kinds.
They are young, old, experienced, they are soft, tough, good natured, foul tempered, proud and profane. They are articulate and even inarticulate. Some are dedicated and some casual. Some are even more dedicated than others. Intelligence is not enough, and dedication is not enough.
They all want to win, but some want to win more than others and just wanting to win is not enough. Losers almost always get fired, but winners get fired also. He is out in the open being judged publicly for six or seven months out of the year by those who may or may not be qualified to judge him. Every victory and every defeat is recorded constantly in print. The coach, this strange breed has no place to hide. He cannot just let the job go for a while or do a bad job and hope no one will notice as most of us can. He cannot satisfy everyone, seldom can he even satisfy very many, and rarely does he even satisfy himself. If he wins once, he must win the next time also.
They plot victories-, they suffer defeats; they endure criticism from within and without; they neglect their families, they travel endlessly and they live alone in the spotlight surrounded by others. Theirs may be the worst profession in the world. It’s unreasonably demanding, poor pay, insecure, full of unrelenting pressures and I ask myself: Why do coaches put up with it? Why do they do it? I’ve seen them fired with pat phrases such as, “Fool”, “Incompetent”, or “He couldn’t get the job done”.
I've wondered about that, having seen them exalted by victory, and depressed by defeat.  I've sympathized with them having seen some broken by the job and others die from it. One is moved to admire them and to hope that someday the world will understand them; this strange breed they call coach.