There’s a not-so-fine line between assertive leadership and chucking basketballs at your players’ heads.
Video recently leaked of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice Jr.–the son of Duquesne hoops legend and longtime Portland Trail Blazers announcer Mike Rice–berating and physically assaulting the players on his team. As someone raised in an environment of near-constant emotional turmoil, I had a powerful reaction to this footage. “What an amateur,” I thought, recalling marathon screaming sessions in which the foam and spittle from my beloved father’s mouth would soak through the front of whatever ridiculous neon-colored late 80s/early 90s t-shirt I happened to be wearing. Following that, and on a more serious note, I experienced a profound feeling of pity for Rice.
Mind you, I don’t envy Rice’s players their situation, saddled as they are with a well-compensated ($650k per annum!) New Jersey state employee as their mentor. But, much as an individual who has stood on the sidelines of five divorces might perform flawless color commentary for other break-ups, I can watch Mike Rice implode and understand precisely why it is happening.
Rice, you see, is failing miserably at his new, higher-profile job. After semi-succeeding as a Fordham University benchwarmer and then as the person responsible for transforming the Robert Morris Colonials into a team, uh, “powerful” enough to defeat a lackluster Kentucky squad in this year’s NIT, he hasn’t so much as broken even in the Big East during his three seasons as Rutgers’ head coach. And it’s abundantly clear, as NBA veteran Eric Murdock (best known to me, and perhaps to you, as a playable character on the Sega CD version of NBA Jam) states in the brief Outside the Lines video at the beginning of this essay, that Mike Rice doesn’t have a clue.
Why do the heathen rage? is a question that, in the hands of the great Southern author Flannery O’Connor, ends with the ineffable. Why do Mike Rice Jr? rage, on the other hand, can be answered quite simply: dude can’t coach.
When the chips are down and the odds are long, going batshit crazy is a time-tested and almost-always ineffective option for harried athletic administrators of all stripes. The Woody Hayes school of leadership, which comprises everything from pounding on your own forehead until it’s bruised and bloody to punching out opposing players, can serve as a substitute for genuine motivational skills as well as a mask for deep-seated insecurities.
It’s also a style of behavior that the American public, in most instances, will no longer countenance. CEO types like Bill Belichick and player’s coaches like Jimmy Johnson are now the norm–and why, to be honest, would a grown man want to play for anyone else? Sport even at the collegiate level is a semi-professional endeavor, and the participants are all above the age of consent (though not, it must be noted, beyond the age at which brain maturation is complete). For these individuals, products of a postmodern society who are sometimes derided by deluded champions of a bygone status quo as “immature” or “undisciplined,” watching a man like Mike Rice make a spectacle of himself is the stuff of a Family Guy cutaway, not a source of pride or inspiration.
What has to be frightening for them, though, is knowing that their scholarships–one-year grants, renewable annually–are in the hands of such an unstable and incompetent individual. Rice, who possibly believes he’s channeling Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi, fails to understand that the violent tempers of those coaches, notable strategists and teachers both, were their least attractive qualities. Knight, after all, lasted at Indiana University until it became clear that he no longer had the tactical and recruiting acumen needed to offset his ferocious anger.
Mike Rice, like so many others before him, has confused “being hard-nosed” and “having fire in one’s belly” (to repeat but two sportswriting bromides) with performing a complicated task at a high level. There is, perhaps, some correlation between competitive intensity and success, but outward-directed anger of the sort displayed by Rice is merely an attempt to give the appearance of both qualities. It is no different from puffing up one’s chest or sucking in one’s gut: sheer pretense, intended to gull the rubes into believing that they are in the presence of gr8ness.
In a recent post here on the GMP, Susie Meister pointed to infighting among women as a structural problem that reinforces sexism. Mike Rice’s outburst provides an example of a different, albeit related, issue that affects many men; viz., how impotent rage, projected at others but truly focused at oneself, is the result of an inability to discuss personal limitations and weaknesses in a candid way.
If Mike Rice were honest with himself and others, if he took his disappointed players aside and shared his darkest feelings with them in a not-at-all whiny and superficial way, couldn’t it be argued that that he had chosen the most courageous course of action available to him?
Whenever I confess my own ignorance to the students in my classes, admitting that I know just enough to know that I don’t have all of the answers about the specialized field of history that I teach, I am forced to recall my beloved father’s vitriol-filled rants. I still wish that, far from heaping anger and abuse upon me and my half-brother for days without end, he had instead told us the awful truth: although he had once been a star athlete like some of those hapless kids on the Rutgers basketball team, his life hadn’t turned out the way he wanted it to, and he was now just as lost and confused as everybody else.