Abuse by coaches a disturbing trend
Thirty-one years ago, the moment tumbled into America's living rooms without warning. There it was - live and in color - a college-football icon losing his mind. Enraged by his team committing a turnover, Ohio State University coach Woody Hayes punched an opposing player near the Gator Bowl sideline. The next day, Hayes was fired. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing,'' said Grant Teaff, then head football coach at Baylor University. Teaff is now executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, a group that this week will hold its national convention in Orlando. Friday, upon checking into his suite at the Marriott World Center, Teaff again couldn't believe what he witnessed on television.USF Coach Fired. For the third time in five weeks, a high-profile college football coach lost his job after being accused of physical or verbal abuse toward a player, even while explaining the actions as routine discipline and motivation. The University of South Florida fired head football coach Jim Leavitt on Friday after a month-long probe concluded he grabbed a player by the throat, slapped him, then lied about it to investigators. And that continued a disturbing trend. On Dec. 3, University of Kansas coach Mark Mangino was forced to resign after complaints of abuse surfaced from former and current players, including one who said he was forced to crawl across searing-hot artificial turf after failing to weigh in, leaving him with blisters and a patch of missing skin. On Dec. 30, Texas Tech University coach Mike Leach was fired after being accused of mistreating a player with a concussion, forcing him to remain in a darkened shed as a form of punishment. "I have never seen anything like this, ever,'' Teaff said. "I'm baffled. I don't even know how to describe what is happening here.'' Coaches gone mad? The Coaching Mentality According to several leading sports psychologists, college football has built a culture all its own. In the transcript of USF's investigation, one of Leavitt's players rationalized the coach's actions as "that's what coaches do (for motivation).'' Another USF player said "what happens in the locker room should stay in the locker room.'' In the aftermath of Mangino's forced resignation at Kansas, Jayhawks wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe said, "Coaches are going to be coaches. You can't be the nicest people in the world to try to get the team motivated to win games.'' That mentality was glorified in the ESPN film "The Junction Boys,'' based on Jim Dent's novel, which chronicles a barbaric training camp staged in 1954 by first-year Texas A&M coach Paul "Bear'' Bryant. He would not allow water breaks in the oppressive heat. "Most players from that era can relate to the no-water thing,'' said Fran Curci, who served as head coach at Tampa, Miami and Kentucky. "That was accepted. It was crazy. Thankfully, we moved on from that.'' Football remained a hard-driving physical sport, though. "You have to play physical and train that way,'' University of Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson told the Daily Oklahoman. "We can't develop that mindset if we don't practice that way. But you've got to treat people with respect.'' In that regard, there has never been a five-week period like this one, where the concept of respect has been so challenged. Has the coaching profession changed? Has society shifted? Has the 24/7 Internet news cycle placed exposure on areas that were previously undetected? Has the pressure to win - along with the million-dollar contracts - raised the stakes? The answers: Yes, yes, yes and yes. "Kids used to be spanked routinely,'' Palm Beach-based sports psychologist John Murray said. "Now that is generally frowned upon. We're much more of a legal society when it comes to using physical force against another person. "But if a kid puts a hand on a hot stove, a parent will give them a quick slap on the butt. In the military, the leaders must make expedient decisions and rebuke their subordinates. Coaches can be like that - making quick decisions, preventing young people from making on-field mistakes. It is a macho, physical sport and there is heavy contact. You can't translate that into a justification for abuse, though. That's a line you don't cross.'' Roland A. Carlstedt, the American Board of Sport Psychology chairman, took it a step further. "Corporal punishment or fire-and-brimstone approaches do more to satisfy a coach's drive and mentality than actually having an impact on most players,'' Carlstedt wrote in an e-mail interview. "Coaches should be screened for psychopathology and maladaptive tendencies and schooled in how to deal with players. "Enlightened coaches acknowledge and recognize that ... over-the-top emoting and punitive actions that cross the line have no place in modern sports.'' Pressure To Win Lee McGriff, the former Plant High School wide receiver who played and coached at the University of Florida, remembers the romantic notion of a coach's primary job - molding young men into productive players and citizens. "Actually, with the money that's in the college game these days, I'm not so sure if that's true anymore,'' said McGriff, now an analyst on UF's football radio network. "The coach's primary job is to win games.'' McGriff has seen the pressure from all angles - he played, he experienced tenuous security as an assistant coach and he was also a football parent, watching his son, Travis, play for the Gators. "The practice field is no longer a sacred place,'' McGriff said. "I'm thinking some of these coaches are just cracking under today's pressure, just losing their way. And I'm also thinking that the kids of today, if they don't get their way, they've now got a voice they've never had before. They look at the coach like, 'If you don't play me, if you don't respect me, I'll get you.' '' "There was a time when you never questioned a coach,'' said Bill Minahan, 80, the former Jesuit High School coach. "When I played, there were plenty of times when the coach about ran you into the ground. I never went home and complained about it. The coach was right. You didn't question him.'' At some colleges, that mentality might still exist. "In today's climate, even the most level-headed, big-time college football coach has to be looking around and thinking, 'Man, I'm really a big deal,' " said Charles Davis, the Fox Sports broadcaster and former Tennessee player. "You watch them come off the field. They're surrounded by one to three police officers, the SID, the football ops guy, the strength coach. They are carted around like they are kings. "I don't think the incidents with Mangino and Leach and Leavitt are a coincidence. These things have probably been building for a long time. The guys who think they are bulletproof, that's trouble. These situations should get everyone's attention. My prediction? Not every coach is going to get the memo. There will always be college football coaches who believe they are untouchable and can do what they want.'' At the same time, in today's flammable environment, it could be the spark to ignite another ugly incident. "In the long run, a culture of fear isn't going to work,'' said Murray, the sports psychologist. "Coaches can be tough. But to feel like they can run amok without consequence on a college campus? I don't think that's going to fly any longer.'' As we have learned with increasing regularity.
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.