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COMMENTARY : When the Boot Fits, the Firing Is Justified

February 21, 1993|TONY KORNHEISER | WASHINGTON POST

All this fuss about Lou Campanelli getting the boot at the University of California. All week long, every college basketball game I watched, somebody was going on about how Campanelli shouldn't have been fired. And every day I picked up a paper, somebody was writing the same thing: Campanelli shouldn't have been fired.

Not in the middle of the season!

Not with a winning record!

Not because a few players were unhappy! A few players are always unhappy!

And who's saying these things? Who's defending Lou Campanelli?

Mostly, basketball coaches.

Or former coaches, such as Dick Vitale and Billy Packer. Or play-by-play guys who are good friends with coaches. Or sportswriters who deify coaches, fastening on to them like barnacles. The basketball/media establishment.

Whose side do you think they're going to be on? They think the players have almost nothing to do with basketball. They think it's a board game diagramed by geniuses -- who are certified by them.

They're wrong.

Cal was justified to fire Lou Campanelli.

He was an abusive bully, as made clear in a story Monday in The New York Times. He reportedly cursed his players incessantly. He belittled them so often that they held a players-only meeting and voted to express their discontent to the athletic director, Robert Bockrath.

Meanwhile, Bockrath had already gotten a large dose of Campanelli when he inadvertently overheard a vulgar locker-room spew at halftime of a previous game. "It was so incredibly bad," Bockrath said. "The players were beaten down and in trouble psychologically."

Bockrath was shocked -- and he'd played for that madman Bo Schembechler!

A few days later Campanelli was fired.

"What you say in a locker room should be between the coach and the players, and no one else's business," Campanelli said. "I did nothing immoral. When you commit a crime, you at least get a trial. All I got was a bullet to the head."

Oh, please.

When are these guys going to get it?

It's not just about steering clear of the NCAA investigators.

You can't treat people like dogs.

Don't tell me the locker room is sacred, and that What Is Said There, Stays There, because the 19 year old you've just berated carries that out with him. It perpetuates a cycle of abuse. If you teach him that the only way to inspire people is to psychologically attack them, he'll teach that to his kids.

Don't tell me everybody curses at their players, because that doesn't make it right. There's too much boot camp Machiavelli. Why do we think screaming is the key to victory? Who died and named Bobby Knight the Avatar of Behavior?

Cal is a college campus. Cal is not the pros. College is about getting better, not getting yelled at. Talented as they may be, these are college kids; 18, 19 and 20 years old. Can you imagine how long a chemistry professor would last if he cursed at his students every day? Not another minute is how long.

Sportswriters are always being told by college coaches: Hey, don't write bad stuff about this team. They're young. Be kind to them.

Shouldn't coaches be kind to them too? Or is the business of basketball -- even at this tender age -- like the business of real estate in "Glengarry Glen Ross," and is everybody involved in it desperate to meet their quotas?

One of the more interesting defenses of Campanelli came from a coach who knew Campanelli from James Madison, and said he was always this way. "It couldn't have come as a surprise to Cal," he said. "So how come they recently extended his contract? How come they didn't let him finish the season?"

My answer was: If he was always abusive, then whenever you fire him is the right time.

When I was younger and playing sports, I thought coaches could say whatever they wanted to me and they were right because they were coaches. I have children playing sports, I'm more concerned with a coach's conduct. Dignity begets dignity. Abuse begets abuse.

I am not moved by the argument that universities have to stand by their coaches and against their players, or else they are giving in to caprice. If you have the whole team disgusted with you, maybe it's your fault. That's how revolutions start -- with the peasants oppressed by the kings.

As it is, some big-time coaches are too big. They are allowed to run their programs like feudal lords. With their basketball camps and their TV and radio and sneaker deals, they're earning five and 10 times what other teachers at the school earn -- and they're earning it off the slave labor of their players. Campanelli's total earnings have been estimated at $300,000 a year. Is it asking too much of him to treat his labor pool decently?

Colleges bear some blame: They snobbishly exclude their coaches from the faculty. They should offer tenure to basketball coaches like they do to 18th-century literature teachers. A great liberal-arts institution like Cal ought to value them both. But coaches are Hessians now, hired to win games and make money. And like Hessians, they can be dismissed without notice.

That may be why the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches condemned the firing this week: because Campanelli was winning games, and making money, and was axed without warning.

Coaches look at Campanelli and say to themselves: They wanted me to bring in great players. I did. They wanted me to win. I was. Now that's not enough? Now I have to be nice to my players? And though I have a contract, I have no job security?

What it's about is a thin, fortunate group of very highly paid gym rats who are inexplicably valued by the culture -- and how some of them are delusional about where they stand in the moral order.

Lou Campanelli treated his players shabbily, and they rebelled.

The winds of social change swept in and blew Lou Campanelli away.

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