Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Brave New World of Coach Accountability


"I didn't know" has become the standard response high profile coaches to the range of off field violations that are killing programs and careers. The ignorance is willful and arises from many areas. Most coaches probably agree  with Ohio State alumnus Bobby Knight that the off campus selling rule is “idiotic,” and agents actually can help athletes get ready for the draft. Knight aside, the rules do make sense. Boosters and fans would rush into legal secondary markets and use these sales to funnel funds to elite athletes, history is a clear guide here. But coaches do not judge the quality of the rules, they promise to  respect, teach and enforce them. Ignorance is neither excuse nor justification.

Jim Tressel of Ohio State claims a sort of immaculate ignorance of what is going on; Butch Davis of North Caroline claimed a blind trust in his assitant coaches; Pete Carroll was just too busy being a star to monitor either coaches or players; Rich Rodriquez was too busy to read the rule book, listen to his compliance people or count the number of coaches on the field. The list goes on, but all these coaches would reject and excoriate any player of their who claimed a similar level of ignorance or lack of accountability about plays, practice or commitment. All of them support what Pat Forde calls the "cult of the head coach."

“I did not know” will no longer cut it. A number of coaches have opined that  it is unreasonable to expect them to know the off campus actions of 100 football players. Well let’s think about unreasonable for a moment. These coaches are usually the highest paid officials in their state making at a minimum a couple million. In football they have 10 assistants, 2 graduate assistants, 3-5 strength and conditioning coaches plus operations folks and class checkers, the ration is not 100-1 but about 6 to 1. In basketball four coaches plus operations folks oversee 13 players, a ratio of 3-1.

More importantly such vigilance is not required for all the players. All programs know their wild cards and character impaired players. They also know their stars and future draft choices. Following up on them and their actions is not that onerous. In addition the coaches all know the parents and know the wild cards and difficult parents, so keeping tack involves sound judgment and focused attention, not the problem portayed by beleaugued millionaire coaches.

If we take the coaching ignorance excuses seriously for the last two years of violations, the self-defined lack of accountability as defended by coaches is staggering. It turns out coaches don’t have to know the rule book very well,  even after having to pass a test each year. Coaches don’t have to know that there are limits on the number of coaches they can have on the field. Coaches don’t have to know how many hours students athletes spend in work outs and conditioning. Coaches do not have to know that their assitant coaches are pushing athletes to work beyond the scale of required hours or introducing them to agents or facilitating go betweens. Coaches don’t know their athletes are driving cars they cannot afford or hanging out with boosters who specialize in secondary markets for their paraphernelia.

The off campus rules focuses on the issue not just of illegal benefits but to discourage boosters and hanger ons from laundering money to give to privileged players. I have no doubt the NCAA needs to go to cost of attendance as a norm and that many student athletes struggle on the margins to make ends meet, but the rules have strong reasons based upon past behavior of boosters.

Well here are the new rules of coaching accountability. Coaches really are responsible for learning and policing the amount of time athletes spend doing voluntary involuntaries. Coaches really are responsible for the actions and relations that their assistant coaches foster with intermediaries who help recruit but also now serve as the facilitators for the bridge to professional sports. Coaches really are responsible for understanding who is on the field coaching and how many coaches they permit to help them. To be honest, this is not hard.

Now things get a little more complicated. Coaches now must monitor very closely the outside activities of their student athletes. This includes, as it always has, summer jobs, booster facilitation of money, exorbitant purchases, now even tattoos. Coaches and their staffs now must monitor the illegal sales whether of shoes or championship rings. In addition, coaches intimately get to know families when recruiting student athletes and relations continue with parents as parents watch over playing time. They need to stay on top of relations with parents and rules.

Greg Byrne the highly respected athletic director at Arizona points to the culture of collective accountability that programs will now need. In a tweet to Arizona boosters, he urged them to read the sports Illustrated article on Ohio State and urged them all to watch and report any situations where they witness a student athlete getting an extra benefit. He correctly points out, “We are one bad decision by a coach, employee, student-athlete and/or community number/fan from facing significant challenges that can damage our university and our athletic program for years to come.” 

If boosters can do it, so can coaches. Too many top coaches practice denial even as they preach radical accountability to their players.

I have no sympathy for coaches making extremely high salaries who claim it is too hard to keep track of their student athletes.  First, the whole process begins much earlier. Coaches are responsible for whom they hire and how they socialize and reward assistant coaches and staff. Coaches create teams of assistant coaches and send very clear messages about what is valued. They must and do work to find a meeting of the minds here. Coaches are responsible and can expect to monitor their assistants behavior. 

Second, coaches create the culture of their team. The must speak and talk and walk the talk. They have to back up their values with their behavior both in their own lives but also in how they monitor and reward and punish their student athletes. Elite student athletes at the college level have experienced too much hypocrisy already from boosters and AAU coaches and shoe companies. The coach has the responsibility to teach and inculcate accountability and values to the team.

If the coach has done his or her job with the culture, then they naturally should be following it up. It is not as if coaches do not know what the problems are or who their stars and character challenged players are. It is not as if coaches do not know the parents they wooed as much as the players. But the point is that not all players need to be watched and not all families need to be monitored. Coaches know where and how to target scrutiny; it is their denial and invincible ignorance that gets in the way.

The hinge of the new world of accountability is be honest. All these coaches who preach accountability and honesty to their players should just act on it. The range of denial and lying from putative leaders points to a level of hubris that university presidents have abetted. Just actively admitting the problems, accepting responsiblity and doing it immediately would remove half the problems. As Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Tiger Wood learned, the coverups and lying kill you. We all make mistakes.

It may be unreasonable to expect this of them, but then it is unreasonable to pay a coach 2 million dollars a year plus endorsements and a special car and endless celebrity status. Unreasonable is not the problem; demanding accountability of yourself, your staff and your players is.

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