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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Spotlight Glare Can Be Blinding for Coaches

June 29, 2003|Tony Kornheiser | Washington Post

Here is the mistake that Rick Neuheisel made. It is the same mistake that George O'Leary, Jim Harrick, Larry Eustachy and Mike Price made. They were not born in the 1920s.

Had they been born in the 1920s and been coaching in the 1960s, they'd be fine.

Still coaching.

No problem.

See, 40 years ago when Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes and Adolph Rupp were college coaches, it isn't like nobody cared about gambling or slipping a player some grades or padding your academic resume or drinking too much or carrying on in public and waking up with a strange woman in your hotel room, who happened to order $1,000 worth of room service.

People cared about that stuff. But nobody would have found out about it. It all would have been suppressed. It simply wouldn't have surfaced nationally. It would have been buried locally.

The only coach of the recent college Demolition Derby who actually would have gotten fired is Jan van Breda Kolff -- because he failed to put a team on the court. That you can't do in any decade. Can you even imagine Bear Bryant not putting a team on the field? The boosters would say, "Coach Bryant, you can do just about anything you want here in Tuscaloosa. You keep going to them Sugar Bowls, and you're likely to be voted governor. But come Saturday, hoss, there had better be some Crimson Tide boys out there ready to knock heads, or you're history." No, Jan, you never listen to the players and allow them to sit out a game. The only reason you're hired in the first place is because of the games. If you're not going to coach the games, we can bring in a chemistry professor.

None of these scandals would have surfaced 40 years ago, because 40 years ago there was no Internet, no all-sports radio, no 24-hour sports TV. (Not that I'm complaining. In my house these innovations are referred to as "college funds.") Morality hasn't changed. But the spotlight has. It's on coaches all the time.

College coaches are Real Big Deals now. (Tell me you weren't stunned to learn Eustachy was the highest-paid state employee in Iowa! Being a basketball coach is worth more than being the governor?) Now that we live in a celebrity sports culture every little thing a coach does -- and surely every big thing -- is coal for the fire. There's no privacy. Nobody gets a pass. Not at a million dollars a year they don't. As the money has escalated for coaches, so has their profile.

So when you have a beer in your hand, and you're photographed at a party with your arm around a student (particularly a student who doesn't go to your school), that photo is up on the Internet and around the world in five minutes. And, coach, you've got some 'splaining to do.

Ultimately, Eustachy couldn't survive the mess he put himself into not because anything he did was illegal -- it wasn't -- but because it had become too public. Eustachy's bad judgment had been broadcast all over the country. Iowa State couldn't allow itself to continue to be affiliated with this guy. Alabama had to fire Price for the same reason. You can't have your football coach hanging out at strip clubs and making a spectacle of himself, even if it is legal. O'Leary had to go because he violated the first commandment of college: "Thou cannot invent a degree." (If you can, how can we charge our students $40,000 a year in tuition and fees?) Harrick had to go because cheating bubbled up on his watch, and ESPN went national with it. That's a common thread here: The incidents quickly generated national attention and wouldn't go away. Until the coaches did.

In the old days the athletic department, the university and sometimes the local media would have protected a coach. Now, even if proprietary feelings still exist, the smoke becomes so thick it can't be contained.

There is a "Gotcha!" mentality thriving on sports radio stations and the Internet. There are self-appointed Sports Police who roam the land dispensing vigilante justice.

The one coach who I think has gotten hosed is Neuheisel. Yes, he is a self-promoter. And he lied to Washington about not interviewing with the 49ers. And he throws his name in the ring for every new job. And he got his previous employer on probation. The list of grievances against Neuheisel is long. But to fire him for participating in an NCAA basketball pool is absurd.

Being in an NCAA pool isn't gambling the way we all understand gambling. Gambling is betting on a specific team in a specific game. Everybody's in NCAA pools -- including college presidents.

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