Mike Krzyzewski became the winningest coach in the history of men’s college basketball Tuesday. It was an accomplishment worthy of fanfare and celebration.
Only I couldn’t stop thinking back to the syrupy ESPN special he participated in last summer: “Difference Makers: Life Lessons With Paterno and Krzyzewski."
That would be Joe Paterno, the now fired Penn State coach who is dealing with serious questions about both his personal role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the overall culture of his Nittany Lions program.
None of this is to suggest we should be waiting for a fall from grace for Krzyzewski. In fact, this entire column really isn’t fair to Krzyzewski, who is linked by a coincidence of timing.
Still, the Krzyzewski milestone, coming on the immediate heels of the Paterno firing, should’ve served as a cautionary tale on what is often over-the top, impossible-to-live-up-to adulation for these coaches.
Tuesday was the 903rd time Krzyzewski managed to get a group of college kids to score more points in a basketball game than another coach’s group of college kids.
Very little of the coverage however, particularly during the ESPN broadcast and gushing post mortem, was about his in-game strategy, his scouting ability or his preferred principles of basketball. It was mostly about Mike Krzyzewski, great man, honorable human and principled leader.
It was stating as fact Krzyzewski's emotional connections with people. This is not only impossible to quantify, not to mention verify, but in terms of actually winning games, it is of debatable importance.
It also, in the long run, doesn’t really help anyone.
“Stop Godding up the players,” Stanley Woodward, the sports editor at the old New York Herald Tribune once told his then columnist, Red Smith.
In college sports, it’s not the players who get God’d up. It’s the coach. It’s the “program.” It’s the “culture.” It’s the “values” and “life skills” and who knows what else.
It is, well, mostly nonsense and it’s at least one of the reasons I believe college athletics have gotten to this spot, besieged by scandal, rocked by rule breaking and seemingly under assault on a daily basis.
Somewhere along the way just being a coach that was capable of drawing up plays and figuring out opponent’s weakness wasn’t enough.
Now they’re held up as infallible. In fact, they aren’t even coaches, they’re “teachers.”
There is a Cult of the Coach in college athletics that isn’t healthy. I’m as guilty as anyone in the sports media of following this narrative.
These guys shouldn’t be categorized as beacons of morality and ethics. They aren't better people than anyone else. They shouldn’t be expected to show players not simply how to run the spread offense, but how to live their lives as perfect beings. In some sections of the country, they even have to be super Christians.
For this to be true you’d have to assume that the 200 or 300 best people on the face of the earth all decided to become major college football and basketball coaches.
You’d have to pretend this isn’t a cutthroat business that only the most competitive survive in. You’d have to ignore the hours the job consumes and the likelihood they are lousy fathers, husbands and friends.
You’d have to believe they aren’t human, full of the usual frailties.
I know a lot of coaches on a personal level. “Human” is exactly what they are. They are no better or worse than any other friend I have. Many are completely uncomfortable with where this has gone, that they have to pretend to be more than they are. They struggle with the balance of work and home, of pressure and perception.
So many of them can’t even drink a beer in public any more – what would that suggest? So they build bars in their basements to do it in secret.
Many got into the business to coach their sport, not to be some mythical leader.
Yet they realize that the NCAA makes its billions off peddling college athletics as a more innocent and nurturing alternative than the professional ranks. A lot of it is reflected in their paycheck. This is the deal they have to make.
No one knows what the mindset was at Penn State that allowed Jerry Sandusky to exist all these years, but protecting the pristine brand of Joe “Difference Maker” Paterno is certainly a possibility.
The cover up is always worse than the crime, but the crime wasn’t so good either. The headlines in 2002 of a former defensive coordinator allegedly raping a 10-year-old in the locker room showers certainly wouldn’t have just been quickly forgiven.
This would have left an indelible stain and brought hard questions, especially for a program coming off consecutive five-win seasons. Some people may have lost their jobs. Other schools certainly would’ve used it against the Nittany Lions. It was Penn State, after all, that loved to tout its perfect compliance record and superior morality to high school prospects and their parents.
This is the box the coaches are in. They can’t have scandal, even if it isn’t their fault. (Pro coaches don't get blamed when their players get arrested. Professors aren't faulted when their students are in trouble.)
Coaches can’t lose a game either, especially in football where under the BCS the margin between playing the championship and not (at the top level the difference between a successful or failed season) can be a single result.
Many were stunned when in 2010 Ohio State coach Jim Tressel failed to report that his star quarterback, among others, was involved in a likely NCAA violation for trading memorabilia for tattoos. It’s an almost comical “crime,” certainly little reflection on Tressel.
Except Tressel had been lifted up to near high-priest status at his school (and he certainly appeared to play along though the years). Could he deal with another NCAA violation? Could he risk a single loss due to having his best players suspended in a much-anticipated season where anything less than 14-0 wouldn’t be good enough?
Yet last March, in the 24-hours after Yahoo! Sports first reported Tressel knew, I was besieged by emails and Twitter responses saying we were wrong because Tressel would never lie.
Really? Fans believe their coach would never lie? Never? Ever?
After Tressel had lost his job, I spoke to another high-profile college coach, the kind who could also one day earn an ESPN fluff piece about teaching life lessons. He readily admitted that confronted with the same situation as Tressel, he would’ve done the exact same thing and told no one.
Why? He said he wouldn’t have wanted to deal with the investigation, the headlines and the potential losses. It would all be such a hassle. The shorter answer: he’s human, no matter how the image-makers have sold him.
While both Krzyzewski and Paterno provided valuable mentorship to many of their players, let’s offer reasonable perspective.
Both coaches were dealing with young men who were highly motivated and highly skilled both athletically and academically. The players were trying to get better at an activity they already loved and had been celebrated their entire life for doing well. The ultimate goal the coaches were preaching would result in fame, cheering crowds and, quite possibly, professional riches.
Getting guys to slap the floor on defense isn’t getting kids at the juvenile detention center to learn calculus.
They are exceptional game coaches. They are capable of teaching a great deal to young men. They can be powerful mentors.
They aren’t Mother Teresa.
From the NCAA publicity machine that profits off this supposed wholesomeness, to the media Godding up the “culture of the program,” to the fans who suspend all reality and buy the impossibility everyone is selling, college athletics will be a better place the sooner it stops pretending it is.