STAR TRIBUNE: Incidents cause coaches to reflect upon their influence

by Jay Weiner

The tawdry and sad cases of former Iowa State men’s basketball coach Larry Eustachy and former Alabama football coach Mike Price are sending shock waves and philosophical thoughts throughout the college athletic world.p. But much of the discussion has little to do with Eustachy’s or Price’s recent indiscretions and dismissals, both triggered by drunkenness. A lot of the hand-wringing has to do with the role coaches play in the lives of students and the damage they can inflict on their campuses.

“When people think of an institution, the coach is often the face of that institution,” said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Eustachy’s admitted alcoholism set the stage for him being photographed kissing women college students. Price was fired after paying dancers at a strip club and allowing an unidentified woman to spend $1,000 for food on his hotel bill. Both men are married.

“I think the neon sign is blinking,” said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “If you can’t learn from these events, what in God’s name can you learn from? This is a pretty dramatic price to pay . . . no pun intended.”

The origins of the outrage — and the seeds of sympathy — for Eustachy and Price seem rooted in the same soil:

— Coaches have been the stuff of myth, and such a lofty position as head coach of a state university provides a mantle of responsibility.

— Coaches are millionaire celebrities. Eustachy, at $1.1 million a year, was the highest-paid state employee in Iowa. That brings scrutiny.

But coaches, too, are human.

“These are acts of human failing whether you’re a Division I basketball coach or a moral educator,” said Prof. Brenda Bredemeier, co-director of the Mendelson Center for Sports, Character and Community at the University of Notre Dame. “We are all complicated people, and we all make mistakes. But our mistakes are not all of who we are.”

Eustachy and Price were once beloved leaders. Price had a seven-year, $10 million contract to rebuild the Crimson Tide football program.

They worked — and were fired — against a backdrop of boosterism and those romantic days when the likes of Knute Rockne or John Wooden acted as masters of their game and of purveyors of mainstream values.

Those days might be long gone — and Rockne and Wooden might not have been saints — but, according to other coaches, administrators and sports social scientists, lessons remain: off and on the playing field, coaches’ behavior still matters because coaches, for better or for worse, teach values, not just Xs and Os.

“A coach is someone whose class is open to everyone,” said Prof. Joel Dearing, who trains students in the ethics of coaching at Springfield (Mass.) College, a top physical education program. “Everyone can watch me teach and evaluate how I teach. A game is my class. Scrutiny and criticism goes with the territory.”

Bredemeier said the sensational nature of Eustachy’s and Price’s cases shouldn’t distract other coaches, athletes, university presidents and fans from the heart of this teachable moment.

“These coaches aren’t distracting us,” she said. “They’re highlighting the issue for us: a coach has to create a climate where kids can learn to be good citizens.”

Strip clubs and bars aside, coaches can model good behavior by, for instance, curtailing trash-talking on the field, thereby showing respect for their opponents, she said.

Others noted that issues such as negative recruiting — where a coach bad-mouths another school to lure a player to his — or academic fraud, such as what occurred under former Gophers men’s basketball coach Clem Haskins, also serve to teach student-athletes the wrong things.

The specific nature of Eustachy’s and Price’s acts toward women send the wrong messages to college male athletes, said University of Southern California sports sociologist Michael Messner.

“The kind of behavior these coaches displayed has been built into the athlete’s culture for many, many years,” he said. “Coaches come out of that culture. It’s ironic that they’re asked to stand above that and be the adult authority figures, but they came out of the same culture.”

So, coaches are supposed to build character and help turn boys into men?

“That’s a joke,” said Gophers men’s gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger, who has held his job for 32 years. “I don’t think I’ve ever changed a kid’s values or basic nature, work habits or character. I feel I’ve created opportunities for kids to develop themselves with the character they have. That’s my job. But when Clem Haskins used to say, ‘I make men out of boys,’ I always laughed. Every coach has an example of the men they made out of boys, but what about the ones who are in jail?”

But Bredemeier believes Roethlisberger sells himself and other coaches short. Whether they stumble in bars or guide students on their way toward a college degree, “Coaches have impact on people,” she said. “Does he treat his athletes with respect? Does he counsel them and listen to them?”

Does the coach, in short, do the right thing?

After the missteps of Eustachy and Price, they’d better. That’s what Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi told his coaches in a meeting Wednesday.

“We have a responsibility to teach, to lead by example,” Maturi said he told his staff. “Losing that trust can affect one’s relationship with players, recruits, the campus and the community. . . . Do not put me in this position because, without knowing all the facts, I would lean towards dismissal.”

May 8, 2003

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