By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
Idaho State football coach Mike Kramer is suspended one game and questioned by local police after a practice incident in which he shoved senior Derek Graves, who obtained a copy of the practice video, retained the services of a lawyer, and appeared on an episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
Star receiver Marquess Wilson quits the Washington State football team after being suspended by coach Mike Leach, whom Wilson then accuses of mistreating players with mental and physical abuse. In a statement, Wilson writes that “the new regime of coaches has preferred to belittle, intimidate and humiliate us.”
University of Minnesota receiver A.J. Barker quits the team after an incident with head coach Jerry Kill, then writes a letter to his former coach, accusing Kill of a “cycle of manipulation” while adding: “I will work my life to prove I’m nothing like you.” Barker then puts the 4,000-word letter on the Internet and links to it from his Twitter account.
All of this happened in a six-week span.
Is this rash of incidents a case of coaches gone wild? Or is it simply the byproduct of a social-media generation that values Twitter followers more than hard work.
No one can say for certain, but it’s clear that coaching isn’t what it used to be.
“Very honestly, I think it’s a sign of the times,” said Jim Lambright, former head football coach at the University of Washington and an Everett High School graduate. “(Social media) is something a head coach has to use to his advantage.
“When I’m reading about (these incidents), I’m always wondering how much (more) the head coach could have done … to bridge gap between the player and him. Is it the whole team, or is it just one player who’s unhappy and who would have quit anyway?”
Disgruntled players are as much a part of team sports as a hoarse-throated coach, but what has changed in recent years is the ability to quickly sway public opinion.
“It is different, there’s no question,” said Dennis Erickson, another Everett High alum and 40-plus-year veteran of coaching in the NFL and college. “The social media and the websites, that really makes things different. Guys can go on Facebook or Twitter and write what they want. Five, 10 years ago, everything was kept private.”
Whether coaches such as Leach, Kramer and Kill have crossed the line is open to debate, but what seems clear in all three situations is that frustration on the part of the coaches led each of them to try to light a fire under his player.
Leach called out his players on numerous occasions, and in mid-October singled out his wide receivers by saying: “Hell, no, they’re not tough.” By the first week in November, he suspended Wilson indefinitely after the receiver reportedly walked out of a workout. Wilson left the team shortly thereafter, then sent a letter to the media accusing Leach’s staff of physical and emotional abuse.
During this past Wednesday’s conference call, Leach said Wilson has since “basically recanted everything he said” and added that the whole thing is “a total waste of time except for some of those in the media that would rather cover that than actual football.”
When The Herald asked him a follow-up question about the coach-player relationship in the social media age, Leach went on a three-minute diatribe.
“There’s always been a certain amount of whining, but I think social media allows the whining to go further and be louder,” he said. “That doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be ignored.”
Leach added that players who don’t like how they’re being coached should quit “or maybe find a team where they don’t coach very hard, find him a team where lackadaisical effort is allowed.”
Leach went on to say: “They act like they’re mistreated. … Someone asks them to do something hard, then they whine about it, then all of a sudden the whining is all justified — that’s crazy. That’s contrary to anything that exists in regards to striving toward goals, pushing yourself, being successful in any level of achievement or accomplishment that exists.
“People don’t join football, don’t coach football, don’t watch football to watch people go out there and do things easy and be lazy. If they wanted it to be comfortable, they wouldn’t call it football.”
Asked what they should call it, Leach hemmed and hawed before giving a deadpan answer: “Cuddling.”
With such an intense spotlight on coaches in this day of cellphone cameras and instant-message boards, every sideline eruption is liable to come under scrutiny.
“You don’t want to coach out of anger, and I’ve been one who’s coached out of anger at times,” said Larry Eustachy, the head men’s basketball coach at Colorado State who once infamously got kicked out of an NCAA tournament game because of a meltdown while coaching at Iowa State. “… It’s changed; you’re not smart if you don’t adjust to the times.
“That’s not to say you can’t be brutally honest with the players. You can still get your point across. I’ve learned the hard way. You can get your point across just as easily with not as loud a voice.”
Eustachy, who rose to fame as head coach at Iowa State, has become, in a way, an unfortunate pioneer of social media condemnation. In 2003, before blogging and Facebook and Twitter became staples of our society, the Des Moines Register ran a photo of Eustachy partying with two young University of Missouri coeds after coaching his Iowa State team in a road game. The photo circulated on the Internet, eventually leading to Eustachy’s firing.
So Eustachy knows all too well how quickly a coach’s reputation can change.
“Kids have changed,” he said. “You want to be able to get through to them, but you have to do it in different ways. When you scream and yell, they kind of put up a wall.”
Of course, these are not the first instances of coaches and players getting into arguments. Former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight was infamous for his tirades. NBA player Latrell Sprewell will forever be remembered for snapping back at coach P.J. Carlisemo, who had scratch marks on his neck to show for it.
Meadowdale High School had its own controversy in 2005, when legendary girls basketball coach Karen Blair got into a tiff with parents over her treatment of players, eventually factoring into her decision to resign. Former University of Washington women’s basketball coach Tia Jackson had to alter her practice regimen after a handful of players transferred following her first year with the Huskies. Even Lambright once suspended a player for the Apple Cup after the player made unflattering comments about WSU.
But those incidents were mostly handled behind the scenes. No players went on Twitter to complain about the coaches, nor were they bringing videotapes to the ESPN studios.
The Orwellian world has put a larger spotlight on every misstep, perhaps making the strains between players and coaches seem bigger than they really are.
“I’m sure that five, 10 years ago, without the social media, people were probably doing the same things,” said Erickson, who is now retired from coaching and living in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “What happens inside and what we hear on the outside probably are quite different, so I don’t think people should come to judge about anything.
“There are one or two incidents, and you think it’s happening every place in the country. But that’s just not the case.”
WSU’s Leach, for one, said he’s not changing his style.
“I think guys that really want to play, that are determined to play, they aren’t going to do anything like that,” he said of complaints about treatment from coaches, “because they’re harder on themselves than any coach will ever be.”