Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Mad Logic of Early College Athletic Commitments

The University of Washington got a commitment to play football this summer from a fourteen year old quarterback. The school had actually offered the scholarship to the fourteen year old, and the child and his parents accepted. This once would have raised eyebrows, now it has become the norm. This new normal in college athletic recruiting is wrong in so many ways but will continue because it is driven by a crazy but real logic.

It all begins with the  professionalization of kids sports in the United States. The professionalizing of 10 year olds and their sports is driven both by parents and the cycle of AAU and club teams. Early recruiting of college athletes also drives the process. Two years ago the basketball coach of USC (now departed) offered a scholarship to a fourteen year old. Everyone gasped, now it is becoming a norm across all sports to make offers to kids who have not even gotten their first year of high school grades. This whole approach mocks of the ideal of a college "student" athlete scholarship. In the world of AAU sneaker-assisted basketball, it is not unusual for a 15 year old to have over 100 scholarship offers.

The drive to early scholarship offers is not healthy or even reasonable. Coaches don't like it. Let me repeat, Coaches do not like it, but they have embraced it with gusto. The reason being that if they don't act fast, someone else will swoop in. This is one of those economic market situations where everyone is bidding to the lowest common denominator. Most college coaches, right now, are not comfortable unless they have already locked up most of the class of 2014--that means most offers have gone out to sophomores and freshmen!

Coaches make these offers to  "kids" of 14 and 15. The coaches have no real clear view of the young person's character, body shape and emotional and physical development. Let's not forget that you are offering scholarships to student athletes. No one has any idea what kind of a student a fourteen year old will be in high school let alone college. While coaches have a pretty good fix on the body shape of 15/16 year old young women, many scholarships are now going out before the young women hit puberty and risk huge body and emotional changes that will impact the young players. .

For a long time football resisted many of the early offer trends because football depends so much upon getting a clear fix upon the bone/body structure of the players. Boys  generally developed much later and coaches held off. No longer the case. Football has succumbed to the rush of early offers and now 14 year old quarterbacks like here at UW and others get offers from major colleges.

One of the main drivers for early offers besides the dynamic among coaches, is the desire of parents for certainty. Most parents see sports as an investment. Parents and sometimes guardians have invested thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of time and energy into supporting the athletic development of their children. For many parents, especially from working class and low social economic status homes, athletics represents the way out for their children. In some homes, the investment hinge upon a dream of their children become professionals and that jackpot will benefit the entire family.

Parents want certainty and return on their investments. The earlier the offers, the less uncertainty. So for the calculations of parents wanting a return on investment and reduced uncertainty, early offers are a godsend. Unlike their kids, parents will let coaches know of offers and play off offers from one coach to another. They are just acting like good parents trying to get the best deal for their kids but also trying to get the best return upon 10 years of investment in time and treasure for their children.

Coaches' associations have tried to develop guidelines urging coaches to not bring students in for visits early or not offer scholarships until late junior year. Self regulation always fails. It only takes one coach to make one offer and the whole system collapses because that coach now has a competitive advantage over coaches who are waiting for the proper developmental or times to make offers. So coaches compete to the bottom offering scholarships earlier and earlier. They don't like it, but do it. If they don't someone else will.

When a prominent coach lionizes a young man and offers him a scholarship at the age of 14, it is hard to respect the 14 year old's decision. The kid is 13! How many of us want to hang our futures on decisions we make when we are 14? The parents may be involved and even stage managing the offers, but this is not about a reasonable decision by kid or coach. No one should have to commit their lives at age 14 and be held to it.
These offers are always "informal" and usually made at sports camps which are exempt from many NCAA rules about no contact with recruitable student athletes. Students are not even allowed to make official visits to colleges until they become rising seniors in  of high school. Yet by now most coaches have already sown up their class of 2013 and are working on 2014 and 15 classes. Very very few student athletes actually make decisions based upon official visits. In college recruiting coaches are not allowed personal contact with student athletes until those official visits. But there are exceptions, whole universes of exceptions.

Most recruits meet coaches at summer camps. The camps are critical for coaches to augment salaries especially for their assistant coaches, raise money and to get to see and connect with student athletes. The contacts made at camps, often when kids are barely in their teens, are critical to coaches and kids. Both see the camps as mini-tryouts.

In addition, many students take unofficial visits. These are often self-financed visits where a student athlete and parents or guardians visit a campus, meet with coaches and players long before their senior year. Students can watch practices meet with advisors and do anything that could be done on an official visit.

Many kids can't afford to take these unofficial visits, so the whole unofficial visit world has a class bias to it. It also generates a geographic bias since kids can visit schools that are relatively close. Students get around these limits with the help of club teams. If a club team just happens to play a game or tournament in the vicinity of a university, the student can visit the campus compliments of the club travel. Besides schools save money by not having official visits. Many schools regard the official visits as a waste of time and money since almost all the recruiting is finished by the time "official" visits even begin.

In addition, coaches fly all over the country to watch AAU, club and high school teams at tournaments. The coaches strut and vie with each other to be seen. Coaches have to do it because all the other coaches are. They have to prove to the student they are recruiting that they care enough to be there. They also have to babysit students who have committed but may be still tempted by other coaches.

So the press to earlier and earlier scholarship offers simply blasts air into the furnace of unregulated pre-college sports and clubs. No one has figured out how to end the cycle.

The whole early recruiting game is now big news. Scouting services, especially in the revenue sports of basketball and football, assiduously track who is commited to whom. Rabid fans follow specialized sites to see who is getting the biggest name recruits. Media shows up for athletes to announce decisions, even though coaches cannot publically comment upon their recruits. So the media and private camps and tournaments and scouting services as well as AAU and club teams now have vested economic interests in keeping the recruiting process lively and full time.

Nothing is stopping the mess from getting worse. The drive to make offers of scholarships to younger and younger students continues even though coaches, faculty and administrators recognize it makes no sense. Only some sort of national NCAA legislation will get at the problem. Self regulation by groups or coaches simply does not work.

The NCAA has twice in the last five years rejected the proposals for their Academic and Recruiting cabinets for rein this in or outlaw all informal offers until junior years. Coaches want it, but the fear of enforcement problems, grossly over blown, and the interests of the top teams in keeping their monopoly grip on the best kids, leads to its defeat. So one more gross distortion and corruption of the ideal of the student athlete occurs. We offer scholarships to kids who have not yet attended a high school class. When faced with that hypocrisy, the entire NCAA membership votes to continue the practice.

I don't know the solution, but the excuse that it can't be enforced is no longer good enough to permit these practices to continue.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Retiring Calhoun Represented College Hypocrisy on Sports

One down and a bunch more to go.

Jim Calhoun the championship winning coach of the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team retired this week. Calhoun won three national NCAA championships, and coached and recruited with a passionate intensity to win at all costs. He collected as many violations and probabtions as championships, but he and his school did not care. He embodied the coach whose sole purpose in life remained to win, period. He was not worried about character, grades, education, but about winning championships, and he succeeded and his University rewarded him for it.  I'm glad he's gone.

The predictable econiums are coming his way from the paid literati of sports media—he always made good stories, valiantly fought cancer and defied the NCAA. The media made him into a sort of a bandit folk hero rather like Gerry Tarkenian at Nevada Los Vegas. This is misplaced praise and respect. He’s a schmuck. I will not miss him and neither should anyone else.

Calhoun epitomized a long and ignorable tradition of college basketball coaches who won and won big, but could care less if his players got an education. He treated NCAA rules as signposts to be ignored when convenient. He ranks up there with Bob Huggins of Cincinnati and West Virginia with his mockery of the academic and student side of being a student-athlete. I would put him with John Calipari of Kentucky, but John Calipari lives in a different moral universe entirely where students, grades and academics not only don’t matter they don’t exist.

Calhoun is interesting from another aspect. Despite his resolute inattention to academics and graduation, the various UConn Presidents supported him. Why? Because like Joe Paterno at Penn State, Calhoun helped put UCONN on the map. No one knew about the university until it became a basketball power. The school, like Penn State, hitched its reputation and recognition to its athletic program. Like Penn State it has been willing to look the other way and put up with penalties and undue booster influence to win championships and market itself. Who knew about UConn before Calhoun? So the University defended its coach even as he made a mockery of its educational mission. 

I won’t go into Calhoun’s record, nor his championships. His strength was playing to his talent. Players loved playing for him although he could be cruel, demanding, irascible and relentless. After all no one had to go to class, no one worried about grades or about money and the players won. Two dozen went on to three and eight year careers at the professional level. His teams played with relentless intensity and players reached their maximum athletic potential under him. He knew how to draw out the best athletic performance from the talent he recruited. For this he deserves recognition.
But from the perspective of the NCAA and someone who believes in student athletes as both an ideal and a possible reality, Calhoun represented the worst, except for Calipari, that college basketball could offer. His kids did not go to class and when they did, they did not perform.

Calhoun was not a big character guy; he was a winning guy. Most of the really good coaches try to impart character and life development through the skills and focus needed to succeed on the court. Calhoun, to his credit, never claimed to care about character or about teaching kids to live well. This fit with his utter lack of concern about them actually getting an education. The kids cooperated in this because at the talent level he recruited many expected to and would play professional ball.

We will leave aside the fact that the average professional career is three to five years and 70 percent leave the pros bankrupt. The great advantage of the American system over the European system lies in the fact that college can leave its student athletes with a life and career and skills after sport abandons them.

A team has to work hard to have a low APR, which is a surrogate measure for staying in school and graduating. But the APR provides a pass for players who become professional athletes early. This means we are looking at a very small number of basketball players at Connecticut under Calhoun. The only other master who approached this was Huggins in his days at Cincinnati where he burned through players and left them by the way side without a degree or an education.

Calhoun and Connecticut have unique honor of being one of the first schools for being denied entrance to the NCAA tournament for failure to graduate students at the 50 percent rate demanded by the APR. You have to understand that this rate excludes students who leave early to become professionals—they are given a pass. So this means that the students who do not go professional do not graduate and do not get the educational advantages or tools that the colleges promised the kids but especially the parents and guardians.

I am not a Pollyanna. Most college basketball and football players are not particularly excited about going to class and learning. They believe in, and often their entourage is invested in, the dream of going professional. But most fail and even when they achieve it, they end up at age 25 without sports or an education. So good coaches and committed schools use the motivation of play, or practice time and invest in tutoring and guidance to help those reluctant students learn to learn and grow into students by their junior or senior year. We have abundant data that this can and does occur with a very high level of frequency; it also happens far more now than before the reforms of the last six years.
Calhoun was not a good college coach. He won, but he was not a good college coach from any perspective linked to education. He leaves his team on probation and banned from tournaments. If the rules had been in place earlier, they would not have gone to a tournament for years.

But let’s be honest. Calhoun, Huggins and Calipari could not exist if the colleges pledged to the idea of student athletes did not let them. The colleges not only let them get away with not attending to education, but pay them huge salaries, name buildings after them. The Presidents of Connecticut and Kentucky praise their coaches as educators. As a teacher I can rail all I want and as a teacher I can respect the coaches who do take education seriously, get their students to class, made education and character aspects of coaching—but modern college Presidents are notoriously willing to hire and lionize coaches who do nothing but win. Calhoun is a representative of the worst moral hypocrisy of the system. I won’t miss him, but there are plenty more like him.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of High School Football: Review of Varsity Blues

I have always loved Varsity Blues, a surprisingly good and great guilty pleasure sports movie. To celebrate football season, I want return to the essence of football, Texas high school football. I discussed this in my essay of the great Friday Night Lights also set the land of Texas football. Varsity Blues presents the homunculus that contains all of football’s glory and pathology but illustrated in the lurid emotional and physical theater of high school melodrama. This is NOT Friday Night Lights, but on its own terms, Varsity Blues mixes comedy and drama while xrays the appeal and perils of football fetishism.

The movie is set in the barren forgotten town of New Canaan Texas, the almost promised land. Like Friday Night lights, it delves into a culture where football anchors community, identity and intergenerational authority. It emerges from the land where Allen High School outside of Dallas just finished a 60 million dollar 18,000 person high school stadium that is only the third largest high school stadium in Texas.

The movie centers on the last six games of the quest of legendary coach Bud Kilmer, a slick and mean Jon Voight, to win “my” 23rd district championship and “my” third Texas state championship. With the unwavering support of the adult fathers of his players, all ex-players, he cajoles, screams and abuses his players who respond with worshipful resentment. Like Joe Paterno his bronze statue looms over New Canaan stadium, remember in the Bible Canaanites worshipped false gods. The team is built around all Texas quarterback Lance Harbor (a golden Paul Walker) with a scholarship to Florida State. Of course he dates the hot cheerleader (a young whip cream covered Ali Larter—you have to see the movie to understand). Lance plays with four buddies who have been with him since peewee ball.

We know Lance’s status because his father, an old wide receiver for Kilmer, has built a huge billboard in his front yard celebrating his son. The team, parents and town rabidly follow each play and truck out in vans across the endless dead prairie for game after game. At the center of this spider’s web of loyalty and power, Kilmer is building his own legacy and the town cooperates. Lance has accumulated knee injuries and cannot play without pain injections before each game, injections witnessed by his best friend and perpetual backup quarterback John Moxon.

In a critical game Billy Bob, overweight, slow but big-hearted lineman, suffers an obvious concussion but is sent back out on the field by Coach Kilmer who screams at the player for malingering. We first meet Billy Bob careening down the road in a large truck drinking maple syrup direct from the bottle with his pet pig. Staggering on the field, he misses his block and a blind side hit tears the Lance’s knee and ends the his season and scholarship. 

Jonathon Moxon who has happily sat on the sidelines for four years reading J.D. Salinger while pretending to master the playbook, is thrust into the game. To everyone’s surprise, including his parents, he throws a touchdown pass and saves the game. Suddenly he becomes the new idol of New Canaanites. 

The movie plays out in a battle of wills between Moxon and Kilmer. Moxon has always seen through Kilmer’s abuse and egoism. The movie and season reaches its highlight at half time of the district championship. The black running back, Wendell Brown, pulls up injured and the coach tries to convince him to inject a pain killer and play even though the pain. Charley Tweeter, the endlessly profane and horny the wide out, has heard a “pop” and worries about Brown. The compliant trainer has warned the coach it is a serious injury. Moxon, Lance and Tweeter confront the coach and warn Brown not to take the injection. Moxon states that if Brown takes shot injection he refuses to play. The coach dismisses him and turns to Tweeter to play QB, but Tweeter refuses. Lance warns Brown not to do it and Kilmer turns on his all state quarterback calling him a “gimp” and physically assaults Moxon in front of the team. The team refuses to follow Kilmer onto the field. Stunned by their own audacity and paralyzed without the coach, the team rallies behind Moxon and Lance Harbor. The team wins the championship on a trick play involving Billy Bob catching a pass.

The movie depends heavily on a didactic voice over commentary of Jonathon Moxon (James Vanderbeek,) the permanent backup quarterback. Moxon represents what my nephew calls the classic “guy who plays football.” Mox has the grades to escape New Canaan and dreams of being accepted to Brown. He is putting in time supporting his friends and satisfying his football obsessed dad who was a mediocre but reverential player under Kilmer. To sum up his attitude, “fuck Kilmer.” Yet his sudden fame as well protecting his friends like trying to get Wendell some touchdowns for recruiting purposes put him in constant conflict with Kilmer who even threatens to sabotage Moxon’s scholarship to Brown.

The power of football culture and the towering coach reaches deep into the town through the fathers of the sons who now play. The sport reinforces the patriarchy of the town and the fathers push, cajole and force their sons to play for the man who shaped them, Coach Kilmer. He’s the kind of coach who says and believes, “Never show weakness, the only pain that matters is the pain you inflict.”

The fathers live through their son’s success on the field while the supine wives run the household and go along with the football fantasy, except for Wendell Brown whose mom must do his recruiting because Kilmer will not help his sole black player. Lance’s father throws his son’s success into the faces of all his old friends especially Mox’s father. When Lance writhes in injury after blowing his knew, his dad mutters, “Lord, how can you do this to me.” At the hospital Lance’s father does not ask hear about the depth of Lance’s injury or how Lance has been able to play without any tissue for the last year, all he wants to know is how soon before Lance can “play” and get his scholarship. When Moxon receives his acceptance letter to Brown, his father ignores it and demands to talk about the next football game. This ends with Moxon telling his dad, “I don’t want your life.”

When Coach Kilmer grabs helmets to scream at players and endlessly abuses them to achieve “my” championships,” the fathers lounge chairs watching the practice. “It’s good for them,” they mutter as they celebrate rosy memories of their own humiliation. This summer at least three high school players died in practice while similar parents watched and celebrated the cruelty that coaches and dads think shape players and men. The fathers celebrate their own baptism under Kilmer’s abuse by claiming he is “making” their sons “men.”

I think a couple lessons come through the entertainment that remain true at all levels of football.

Football Glory is Fleeting and Hollow—Bruce Springsteen’s song Glory Days reminisces about the fate of us who see all life as shadow play compared to our Technicolor athletic memories. The reality is worse. Lance sees everyone abandon him including his scholarship when he injures himself. Even his girl friend Ali Larter tries to seduce John Moxon as her way out of New Canaan. Lance’s coach simultaneously uses his injury to insult and motivate his team but turns viciously on Lance and calls him a “gimp.” Lance sits in agony in his room listening to everyone forget him when Jon Moxon wins a game and displaces him as the new “hero.”

Football is not reality. It exists for a moment, a brief transient moment, like all sports. Kilmer and the patriarchy heighten that moment to the highest point of life to motivate young men desperate to get their father’s and Kilmer’s approval. Kilmer relies upon the father’s collaboration to abuse and exploit their children. Mox sees through it all and knows that if Kilmer continues to win, his young and quite weird younger brother will be forced to play for the tyrant.

At the end when Moxon rallies the team, he rejects the glory for a life myth that sustains football’s dominant narrative. He stumbles upon what the best athletes know—focus upon the moment, only the moment and not the glory or the future. He pleads with his teammates don’t make memories, don’t play for the future or creating a past. Summoning the great Greek myths of western sport he yells,

“Before this game started, Kilmer said "48 minutes for the next 48 years of your life". I say, "Fuck that". All right? Fuck that. Let's go out there, and we play the next 24 minutes for the next 24 minutes, and we leave it all out on the field. We have the rest of our lives to be mediocre, but we have the opportunity to play like gods for the next half of football.”

Guys Do Stupid Stuff—kind of goes with the game, but we often forget that our college heroes are 19-year-old guys. Mox, who should know better, gathers his four friends Tweeter, Billy Bob and the straight-laced Wendell and rescues Lance Harbor from self-imposed exile, to spend the night at a strip club. Leaving aside the fantastical moment when they find their PE teacher at the strip club—I never said this was reality! —The guys have a great and wonderful time and stumble out dazed and hung over. Kind of like when this year perennial high school power Catholic high school De Matha was playing a game in North Carolina and the five players snuck prostitutes into the hotel past 18 parents and coaches. Of course the team loses the next game as the four play still hung over and encounter Kilmer’s wrath because the “disrespect of a few” cost him “my” undefeated season.

We understand again how closely aligned power, violence, sex and friendship merge in football culture. It also becomes clear that friendship matters because Mox is the only guy to visit Lance Harbor. Lance has learned how quickly not only glory but also all the fake friends disappear. It’s a life lesson anyone with position or fame learns; football just etches it more clearly. We learn friendship lasts past fame and glory.

The Abuses are Deep Rooted—this should be no surprise. High school really is the homunculus of the college and professional world, all the joys and pathologies exist in smaller form. They will just scale up as the level of visibility and stakes rise. Special treatment from police who are intimidated by the coach to ignore drunkenness and theft—check; special gifts of illegal beer at no cost to the players—check; driving injured players to play through peer pressure and appeals to their manhood—check; players living out the fantasies of their fathers—check.  Getting captured in the hype even when you see through it—check.

The seduction of football fame hits everyone. The usually levelheaded Mox cannot believe his luck and the fun and rush of being treated like a celebrity with free beer, seductive cheerleaders and swarms of girls as well as media spotlight. After one game, a newscaster traps him and asks him if he plans to play QB in the Ivy League. A flustered Mox shucks and  “thanks God” and talks of himself in the third person, “Jonathon Moxon is only one man.” Lance listens in agony in his lonely room. Lance’s sister and Mox’s levelheaded girlfriend (a type cast Amy Smart) all but leaves him after telling Mox how he just behaved.

And yet we can almost understand why star athletes refer to themselves in the third person. It may be the only way they can separate their own humanity from the bigger than life persona that the media and their fans thrust upon them.

Despite its cutting critique of the tyranny of coaches and collaboration of fathers and towns in exploiting their sons, the core of the movie delivers a different message of football and guys. It begins with guttering footage of four young kids playing peewee ball.
Late a night a despairing Billy Bob is blowing up all his trophies, he tears he cries,, “we were just kids,” but coaches and fathers screamed and pushed and demanded of them even then.  Nothing they did could satisfy the lust of parents and coaches for using them as pawns in their need for status.

But the four kids held together. They held each other up. Different as planets, they shared the same orbit and protected themselves from their parents and coaches. We move from that shadowing memory to Billy Bob’s careening truck to the end of the game.

They have stood up for each other and protected Wendell, helped Billy Bob through his concussion, stayed with Lance when everyone else abandoned him. At the end, the moment of victory was “ours.” It belonged not to bronzed coaches, not to incomplete dads, but to them. None of them would play football ever again, but that did not matter.

In the end the value arises not from the game, not from love of the game, not from the community’s misuse of the sport, but the small and real love of the guys for each other—four kids, four friends playing an adult game with each other.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Going out on Top: Pia Sundhage & Tony La Russa

One of the hardest things in life is to know when to leave and how to leave with honor and respect. This weekend Pia Sundhage stepped down as the coach of the US Women’s Soccer team. No one forced her out. The team had just finished winning its second Olympic Gold under Sundhage. She had rebuilt the team and restocked it with young talent and a new style of play. She leaves to fulfill a life long dream coach her native Sweden’s national team and prepare for the Euro-cup. She had reached the pinnacle of success and knew it was time to move on and take up a new life challenge.

To leave at such a moment takes a rare and powerful self-knowledge and brave discipline. Her action reminded me of Tony La Russa’s decision to retire from baseball last year after a magnificent job of managing his underdog St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series victory. After three world championships and 33 years of managing, the 67 year old La Russa stated very clearly that he believed he did not have the energy and commitment to come back for another grueling season. He knew he had not only reached the zenith of his career and profession but also that staying on would be  permanent aftermath.

Leaving when on top is incredibly difficult. Every athlete and professional faces the question of when to move on. Successful people rely upon the equation of SKILL+EFFORT+JUDGMENT to succeed. Over time all of them can erode due to the stress of competition and work, the costs of aging and the ever-increasing intensity of younger competitors.

Most of us continue on because we need the money and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with mastery of expertise and the fulfillment of working with colleagues. Most of us will continue on past the peak of our achievement for all these reasons. Athletics seldom gives people that option. Few  professions are as brutal at exposing limitations as athletic competition where even slight erosions of the skill-effort-judgment matrix can lead to plummets in success. It’s hard for anyone to step down especially if our identities are linked to our professions and in athletics most players are pushed out or fade away.

But to be the best! To achieve the top honors and do so consistently puts someone at a different level of competition and stature. To climb to the top of the greasy pole and leave, that take courage. La Russa and Sundhage’s decisions much like John Elway’s famous decision to leave football after his second Super Bowl win, reflects a clear eyed and honest assessment from a position of strength. They decide not to slowly fade away or lose their edge or outstay their ability to motivate themselves or a new generation of athletes. They quite self-consciously walk away heads high and draped with honor and garlands. 

La Russa sums up the logic of both their decisions, "There isn't one (factor) that dominates (my decision). They all just come together telling you your time is over. We went through the season and I felt that this just feels like it's time to end it and I think it's going to be great for the Cardinals to refresh what's going on here. I'm looking forward to what's ahead. I'm ready to do something different.”
They both had accomplished what they set out to do and that was enough.

Now they could find new challenges.

At 52 Sundhege is much younger and now moves on to fulfill a dream to coach the Swedish national team. Four time Olympian Christie Rampone put it, “But I know she’s done everything she can here.”
Neither spent a lot of time explaining why, and that makes the decision all the clearer. They were not being run out of the game; they are not quitting; they were not leaving their cupboards bare. But the fit between maximizing what they could accomplish and working with a team that responded to their style and won occurs in rare windows of time. High-level coaching demands not only tactical excellence but managing complicated and talented and often fragile players and stars and daily facing the emotional black holes of insatiable fandom and media.

We have all seen athletes and coaches who got it right. They looked inside and saw that they had reached the perfect moment, the apex of their achievement and profession. They knew in their minds and hearts that not only had they won glory and achieved greatness but that if they stayed, the relentless toll of athletic endeavor and the expiration date on their bodies and skills, not matter how hard they practiced, would only lead down hill.

Michael Jordan left professional basketball after his perfect shot at the buzzer to win his sixth championship. Lance Armstrong retired after his seventh Tour de France. They both epitomized these perfect moment decisions. Larry Brown left coaching after leading his underdog Kansas Jayhawks to the NCAA title. I could go on but many athletes and coaches get it right. The problem is leaving is very hard. Leaving at the top even harder because you know you could still contribute and everyone else wants you to stay.

The sheer joy of playing and the adulation of the crowds, the intense ecstatic satisfaction of elite competition and the immense money as well as continuing fame draw them back. Many athletes or coaches figure out the negative trajectory of their talent and energy versus the rising competition and got it right. They know their own limits facing the emotional and cognitive costs to fight through the conditioning and rigors of the season. In an act of honesty they knew they did not have the commitment or stamina or skill to continue, so they stepped down. The first decision was the right one. The results of the “comebacks” are painfully predictable.

We suffer through the third act of Michael Jordan’s comeback or the third act of Magic Johnson’s comeback or the third, fourth or fifth act of Larry Brown returning to coaching. They seldom ever achieve that epitome of greatness. Instead their continuing play slides into very good to good to painful to watch. They never regain their glory and people wish they would just stop deflating their greatness. In Lance Armstrong’s case, his hubris lead him to try again and lose everything.

Sundhege and Russo leave at the perfect moment—on the moment of a great and glorious victory. Both came to the realization that it was time. Like the ancient Greeks counseled, they left at the moment of maximum glory and achievement. Such self-knowledge and self-discipline is rare. They should be honored for this.