What the Mike Rice Episode Says About College Basketball

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The Mike Rice story is about more than just one aberrant coach. Liam Day argues it exposes the system that college basketball has become.

I won’t go into detail about what exactly Mike Rice, the now former men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University, was caught on tape doing to his players during practice earlier this season. And I won’t speculate on where the anger Mike Rice displays in that video emanates. Oliver Lee Bateman covered that in a great piece here on The Good Men Project earlier in the week.

What I would like to speak to are the structural issues, fully exposed by the video, plaguing the game of college basketball.

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To begin, Mike Rice’s outburst fits into a long, and unfortunate tradition of coaches, both football and basketball, who were, at one time or another, physically abusive. Woody Hayes punched a player. Bob Knight once put his hands around a player’s neck. Just this year, University of California coach Mike Montgomery pushed one of his players in the chest as he was coming into a huddle during a timeout.

As Bateman discusses in his article, Mike Rice’s outburst stems from frustration at his own failure as a coach. Rice has a losing record over the three seasons he’s been at Rutgers since being hired from Robert Morris, where he had achieved some success. Clearly he’s feeling the pressure that losing imposes on someone who is paid a lot of money to win. He most likely equates the failure to win basketball games to professional failure, a sign that, perhaps, he isn’t a very good coach.

I will come back to that last point because I assume a lot of readers will look at it and say, “Duh, Mike Rice is a coach. The failure to win basketball games isn’t just equal to, but in fact is professional failure.” And though that may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t a good coach.

Before I get to that point, however, I would like to point out something that’s easy to lose sight of when watching the carousel so many college basketball coaches ride as they move from job to job. Winning requires a solid foundation that takes time to build.

Woody Hayes used to talk about a ladder of success: you have to learn to compete before you can win, learn to win before you can win consistently, and learn to win consistently before you can win championships. In an environment in which coaches are expected to win immediately, building this ladder is no longer possible. By the time your team learned to compete, your school’s boosters and alumni would be calling for your job.

Everyone remembers that John Wooden won 10 National Championships as coach at UCLA. What most people forget is that he didn’t reach his first Final Four until his 14th season. Mike Krzyzewski went 17-13, 10-17, and 11-17 his first three years as coach at Duke. If he had started coaching in 2010 instead of 1980, he would have been fired before ever getting a chance to lead the school back to the Final Four, especially when you consider that Krzyzweski started coaching at Duke only two seasons after the school reached the NCAA Championship game in 1978.

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The coaching carousel revolves for other reasons as well. It’s not just that coaches who don’t win immediately are fired. Coaches who do win, especially at smaller and mid-major schools, usually jump ship when they do, parlaying a successful run in the NCAA Tournament into a job at a much bigger school. Andy Enfield, coach of this year’s Cinderella darlings, Florida Gulf Coast University, has already accepted the job at USC.

But Enfield has been a head coach for exactly two seasons. He finished 15-17 his first year, before leading FGCU to the NCAA Tournament this year, when they made their run to the Sweet Sixteen. USC made the offer to Enfield less than three days after his team lost to the University of Florida last Friday night. How can USC be sure that FGCU’s performance in the NCAA Tournament wasn’t a fluke? Would the school be hiring Enfield if his team had lost to Georgetown in the tournament’s first round as expected? My guess is probably not.

So, USC made the decision to hire a new coach, whom it will be paying $1 million per year, based on all of two games. As little data as this is, what should be of more concern is the lack of data to suggest that Enfield can recruit. For most of the players Enfield was, up until last week, coaching were players recruited by his predecessor, Dave Balza. Balza was the coach who built the foundation of FGCU’s success. But when you are blinded to the time it takes to build a winning foundation, as most schools now are, you can hardly be expected to sift through the media adulation surrounding a story as good as FGCU’s and Andy Enfield’s to see the outlines of the foundation that undergirds it.

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It’s not just a matter of time, either. One wonders not only whether someone like John Wooden would be given the time today he would need to build a successful program, but whether he would even be able to, given that it’s not only coaches who change schools with ever increasing frequency, but players as well.

Bill Walton, who is perhaps the greatest college basketball player in history, star of the UCLA teams that compiled a record 88 straight wins, likes to tell a story about his coach. John Wooden had a rule. None of the players on his team could have a beard and their hair was to be no longer than two inches. One season, Walton, the year after UCLA had won yet another NCAA Tournament and he had been named the national player of the year, showed up the first day of practice with long hair and a beard.

Coach Wooden’s response? “Bill, we’re sure going to miss you.” Walton’s response, at least to hear him tell it? He raced into Westwood 15 minutes before practice for a hair cut and a shave.

Some will read that story and simply conclude young people had more respect for authority back then, though considering the year, 1973, I’m not sure that’s true. Clearly, Walton had enormous respect, even love, for his coach, but what was also at play are the power dynamics that governed college basketball back then.

In 1973, it was rare for a player to transfer schools. The cultural norm would have exerted an enormous influence on any player’s decision-making, including a player as good as Walton. He would have perceived that he had few options but to follow his coach’s dictates.

Conversely, last year, 440 players transfered from one school to another. That’s roughly 10% of all the scholarship players at Division 1 schools in the country. Today, a player doesn’t have to abide rules he doesn’t like. He can simply transfer to another school that will be all too ready to hire his services. Look at that jackass from Ole Miss, Marshall Henderson. He’s on at least his third school.

What’s even more insidious is that this habit of jumping from school to school doesn’t start in college. A lot of the players we’ve been watching the past two weeks attended multiple high schools. Many of them were recruited away from their local public high schools to play for private schools, which will sometimes collude with the players’ AAU coaches to influence them to make the switch. See our story last year on Kentucky star Nerlens Noel.

The result is a system in which everyone, players, coaches and administrators alike, are always eyeing the next move. Schools jump from conference to conference in the hopes of increasing their share of any television revenue their new conference doles out to members. Coaches take jobs on the other side of the country mere days after the season ends. Players jump from school to school until they find a coach who will either design the team’s offense around them or let them do whatever they want or, preferably, both.

The loser in all of this is, however, the player. The schools make money and the coaches make money, but the players don’t. And, if they’ve been skipping from school to school in order to advance their basketball career, they’re probably not all that concerned about the education they may, or in most cases may not, be picking up along the way. Considering that less than 1% of them will ever make it to the NBA, that leaves them pretty much screwed.

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This leads me back to the question of whether Mike Rice is a failure as a coach because he didn’t win. No, he’s not. He’s a failure as a coach because he failed at what should be his primary responsibility, which is the health and well being of his players. This includes their academic and personal development as well as their development as basketball players.

Of course, the system’s priorities, as outlined above, are so screwed up that no one cares about the players’ development, not off the court anyway. But, in an ideal world, winning games and championships wouldn’t be the only metric schools use to measure the performance of their coaches. They would be evaluated based on their players’ graduation rates, post-graduation employment rates, and any other measure one could think of to determine whether they were helping to build men and not just players.

Besides which, as a measure of how well one knows the game of basketball and how well one can communicate that knowledge to his players, winning and losing is a pretty poor metric. I spent 3 years coaching high school basketball. My teams were never very good. In fact, I won only 5 games total. I would like to think, however, that I was still a pretty good coach.

I distinctly remember one game towards the end of my last season when we went on the road to play a team whose starting front court measured 6’6”, 6’5”, 6’3”. These players had been recruited by the school to play basketball. The tallest player on my team was 5’9”. I did not recruit and, because our school did not have one of its own, we were forced to rent a gym and practice before school every morning at 6:00. We lost 76-25.

In line to shake hands after the game, the opposing coach approached me with a condescending smile on his face. As we shook hands, he proceeded to lecture me on everything I was doing wrong with my team. What he failed to recognize was that having players that were, on average, almost a foot taller than mine didn’t make him a better coach. It just made his players more suited for the game of basketball.

Shortly after that game, I gave up coaching, not because I was tired of losing, though losing wore on me more than I would like to admit, but because of something that happened during another game, one in which we were, thankfully, a little more competitive.

Sometime during the fist half, though, my team swung the ball on offense to perhaps the player I’ve enjoyed coaching more than any other at any level of competition I’ve ever coached. Wide open on the wing from the three-point line, this kid pump faked twice, then gave the ball back to the point guard standing at the top of the key.

I knew right then it was time for me to resign. This kid, a kid I loved coaching, was afraid to shoot the ball. This kid, who would have done anything not to disappoint me, was afraid to miss. And I was the one who had made him afraid. That is something a coach should never do. Mike Rice has yet to learn that lesson.

Photo: AP

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About Liam Day

Liam Day has been a youth worker, teacher, campaign manager, political pundit, communications director, and professional basketball player. His poems have appeared at Slow Trains Apt, and Wilderness House Literary Review. His op-eds and essays have appeared in Annalemma Stymie, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public health professional. He is the Sports Editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @LiamDay7.

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