Lessons can be learned from an abusive coach

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

A week ago on the sports news, the world learned that Mike Rice, the Rutgers’ men’s basketball coach, had been fired for abusing his players, throwing things at them and pushing them.

It brought back a lot of memories of my high school days. I had a coach who today some would say was “abusive.” He coached varsity basketball more than 30 years, and had more effect on me than any other teacher. He had only one or two losing seasons, took four teams to state (when there were two classes, not four), just missed with a few others and won numerous conference championships. For most of those years, he also coached track and field, won many conference and district (today called sub-section) championships and a number of his athletes ended up qualifying for the state meet.

When he quit, both programs slipped downhill. Ten years after he retired, the basketball team went winless, an embarrassment to a school whose tradition had been so successful.

When he began, parents were not heavily involved in athletics. Coaches were trusted. Today, they have to be more politician than teacher, keeping happy those parents whose kids otherwise trip over the end line.

I played on two of my coach’s more mediocre teams. We had winning records, just barely, although we would have won the conference one year, had we not blown a 14-point halftime lead to the eventual champion. I still look back at the 35 games of high school basketball that I played as the most exciting evenings of my life, at least in terms of adrenaline expended.

Winning was euphoria, and losing was devastating. I had not yet learned of Kipling’s admonition to “meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.”

Once, we won four consecutive games by a grand total of six points, which must have qualified us for some kind of “cardiac kids” award.

But the coach was tough. One time in practice, we did the old football fumble drill. That’s where the players form two lines, the coach stands between them and throws the ball out and the two players at the head of the line try to recover it. Instead of being on grass, however, we were on hardwood.

We played in a gym with wooden, pull-out bleachers. During games, when something displeased him, he would kick back with his heel, making a resounding “bang” to get our attention. One time, he kicked so hard, he broke the bleacher board. The head custodian turned it into a plaque which he presented to the coach the following Monday to the muffled amusement of his players.

Another night, we were returning home after defeating an opponent 80 miles away. Halfway home the bus passed through a small town, turned a corner and the engine quit.  It was 11 p.m. and 15 below out.

When the bus failed to restart, the coach had us all pile out of the bus and push it. The bus went a half block, suddenly belched a cloud of black exhaust and restarted. We returned home without further incident, but the joke was, “Imagine how far he would have made us push the bus if we had lost.”

We also had some drills we had to do before every practice. One of them involved tipping a ball off a backboard without a rim attached to the balcony railing. Extending out from either edge of the backboard was a frame from which dangled two large sandbags, which the student managers, with much delight, swung into the players’ ribs as they jumped to tap the ball.

My senior year, he bought an electronic contraption that fit in a basket and pushed the ball out so we could practice tipping it back in. We ran rebounding drills with two players flailing on each other, just trying to get position. None of those incidents qualified as abuse in my book.

But our coach mostly seemed angry and displeased. Most of the abuse was verbal. His favorite pejorative was to tell a player, “You stink.” It was said with a sneer. My daughter had a boyfriend once who played for him, and said one time the coach used the insult on him “and I hadn’t even been in the game yet.”

Another time, as we were clinging to a close lead late in a game, during a time out, the coach told us to stall. “No shots, hold the ball,” he said.

The game resumed, and the ball went to a teammate. For some reason forever lost in the mists of basketball lore, the opponents, temporarily confused, failed to guard him even though he had the ball. With a clear path to the basket, the teammate drove to the hoop and made an easy lay-up, icing the game.

The coach yelled for a timeout, and when the player came over, he screamed at him, “What did I just say?” and then he hit him with a knuckle right on the breast bone. Today, that would get a coach fired, but it was a different era.

I always said that if he had done that to me, I would have quit, but I know that isn’t true. I would have put up with it because I loved to play basketball too much.

Today, I realize that high school athletics are unimportant in the scheme of life. As a parent, I was always more concerned that my kids could read, write and do simple math than that they got sufficient playing time from their coaches.

However, I did learn some important lessons from playing for that coach: First and foremost, if you want something significant, you have to fight for it. Second, the team comes first, not your statistics, so follow instructions. And third, never quit, always give maximum effort and don’t showboat. Those are good lessons for any walk of life.

I’m still not a believer in coaches who coach by intimidation like the Rutgers coach and others have. But at the same time, having been through it and survived it, I think I came out the other side a stronger person than I otherwise would have been.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected]