Events of recent months
give rise to an interesting query: why would anyone choose
to make a living as a coach? We have seen several debacles
in the NFL (names like Dennis Green, Jon Gruden, and Tony
Dungy spring once again to mind), a total embarrassment
at Notre Dame with George O'Leary, and the Dan Issel incident
in Denver. The Boston Red Sox have just ousted manager
Joe Kerrigan in the culmination of a process which is
a whole story unto itself. But perhaps most interestingly,
there is Nolan Richardson.
The former University of
Arkansas mens basketball coach wasnt fired,
he was bought out. He will receive something on the order
of three million to not coach the team (as of this
writing Richardson has appealed the dismissal, though
it is unlikely it will be overturned). The settlement
marked the conclusion of a turbulent week during which
the coach (whose career record, at 508-206 including 17
years at Arkansas and stints at two other schools, is
nearly unassailable) lashed out at Arkansas media for
perceived mistreatment and racism. Among other things,
he said "My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship,
not Nolan Richardson. I didn't come over on that ship,
so I expect to be treated a little bit different."
Odd, to say the least.
Whether or not Richardson has a point about the racial
element of this is up for debate. Its certainly
not out of the realm of possibility. But the incident,
and a slew of others like it, points to a larger, more
bizarre phenomenon. Even more so than the players, coaches
are subject to a vicious cycle of deification and defamation
that, increasingly, seems inescapable.
For more than a decade
Nolan Richardson was the king of Fayettevillethe
first, and for the foreseeable future, only coach to lead
that school to a national championship. This is no small
feat, and any coach that does it should automatically
be given the benefit of the doubt. Winning records are
not easy to come by in college basketball. Its getting
harder with each passing yearthe best young talent
now leaves early or goes straight to the NBA. Right now,
the Razorbacks are having a bad year, plain and simple.
They wont make the NCAA tournament, and may not
finish at .500. The thrust of Richardsons point,
a good one, is that he is entitled to a bad year or two
with all of the success hes had. Hes one of
many coaches in many sports that should be given such
leeway. More often than not, however, such leeway is not
forthcoming. As high as Richardson was, he is now just
Perhaps the best example
of this phenomenon is former Indiana and current Texas
Tech coach Bobby Knight. Here is a man who is, inarguably,
one of the finest coaches the college game has ever seen.
And he coached at Indiana. To be the best at what
you do, and do it in the place where passion for it is
unrivaled, is to be at the very top of your game. Yet
Knight left Indiana in disgrace after a string of so-so
seasons and an even longer string of accusations of abuse.
Knights example is more muddled than most given
the fact that he never really had terrible seasons, but
then again more was expected of him than most. His fiery
personality tended to bother folks a lot less when Indiana
was a perennial contender for the national championship.
When they became simply perennially decent, Knights
flaws became that much more important.
Serious sports fans have
a way of giving themselves over to the enigma of coach
as father, general, and hero. With that comes expectations
that are difficult to meet and impossible to sustain.
When the natural cycle of success and failure swings to
its lower echelons, the resent is palpable.
The truth is, its
usually not the coachs fault. But unless there is
one player who stands out so much that his shortcomings
can be said to have cost the team its shot, the coach
will take the fall. The process is a reflection of the
strange dynamic that exists between organized sport and
the people who watch it. We, as viewers, are powerless
to affect the outcome of the contest. But our happiness,
our good mood and our good times, lives and dies by the
final score. When our team loses on Sunday and our workday
goes that much slower on Monday, somebody has to answer
for it. We sling our arrows at the largest and most obvious
target. Nolan Richardsons biggest mistake, then,
was not having a losing season, it was being foolish enough
to demand that right.