Coaches at all level of sport take on a fathering role for the young men and women they coach. For far too many athletes, a male coach may be the only father-figure they will encounter on a regular basis. In his book Championship Fathering, Carey Casey identifies coaching as a major tenant of fathering:
We may never walk the sidelines of a professional football field or pace the hardwood floor in Madison Square Garden during an NBA game. But our coaching challenge as dads is infinitely more important. Teams come and go, and sports are just sports, but our children are for keeps. They are immortal beings whose destinies we help to shape.1
As a coach myself, I try to be mindful of that role whenever I step onto the court or field.
This role becomes bigger as athletes move into higher levels of competition, and, I believe, becomes most prominent at the collegiate level, when athletes move away from their homes and families, many for the first time. And it never ceases to amaze me how differently coaches choose to fulfill that role.
If you saw the horrific injury sustained by Louisville guard Kevin Ware during Sunday’s NCAA South Regional Final game, you no doubt also saw and heard the reactions of his teammates, fans, the CBS commentators, and his coach, Rick Pitino. Pitino, along with Ware’s teammates, as well as members of the Duke team, were visibly shaken, and with good reason. If you watched, you saw coach Pitino shedding tears for his fallen player.
Fast forward to some more recent news. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired video showing Rutgers University head coach Mike Rice Jr. shoving, hitting, verbally berating, and throwing basketballs at players during Scarlet Knight practices. The video, while definitely not comparable to scenes out of “Braveheart”, is, when taken in the context of a coach interacting with young men whose welfare has been entrusted to him, is appalling. Rice’s actions are simply the latest in a far too long line of poor practices and decisions made by coaches which include Bobby Petrino, Mike Leach, Billy Gillispie, Jerry Sandusky, and Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Yes, I am well aware of Coach Pitino’s character flaws. Not only is there adequate documentation of the 2009 case of extortion against Pitino which resulted from his infidelity with the wife of the team’s equipment manager, but I have personally heard eyewitness account of the coach’s less than amicable behavior.
I am equally sure that Mike Rice Jr. would be described as a likable person by his family, players, pastor, etc. Keep in mind that I’m not judging Coach Rice himself, only his actions. I am sure that if the roles were reversed, Coach Rice would not stand over a player who had 6 inches of bone protruding from his leg and call him a “s–sy b–ch.”
Rick Pitino is no saint. Neither is Mike Rice. But guess what …neither am I, as a coach, a father, a husband, or a Christian.
Coaches bring different levels of intensity to their jobs. As a coach, I would fall under the description of “firey,” but a different kind of firey that Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti applied to Rice, i.e., I don’t put my hands on my players, outside of your standard high-fives or motivational smack on the bottom. You have your Rick Pitinos, your Mike Ditkas, and your Coach Ks. And you have your equally successful Tony Dungys, Phil Jacksons, and Les Mileses.
Dads, if you coach your son or daughter’s athletic team(s), then you are very blessed. Next to “daddy,” there is no title I would rather wear than “coach.” If you are a coach, you may provide more of a fathering role to your players than you know. Even if you aren’t a coach, you still fill that role for your sons and/or daughters, and possible to kids not biologically related to you. A coach is simply a teacher, a teacher of sports. And none of us would argue that we don’t play the role of teacher to our kids.
Someday, I will no longer be a coach to my kids in their athletic endeavors. God willing, one day I will relinquish that role to a young man or woman (or an old one) who will sit in my home and promise me that he will look after my son like he were his own. And I will hold him to that promise, to as high a standard as I hold myself when looking after my kids, and those who have been entrusted to me, if only for a couple of hours a week.
Hold yourself to a high standard, dad. And remember: while you may not have the YouTube machine watching you, someone very special is. Always.
1. Casey C. (2009). Championship Fathering. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Books. Retrieved from http://www.cbdreader.com.
Coach Rice had been fired by Rutgers.
Video coverage of Coach Rice’s comments on his firing have been released. I commend Coach Rice for owning up to his actions and expressing a desire to change. Part of being a dad is admitting when we are wrong and making a commitment to change unhealthy habits.