Monday, May 05, 2003

The Price of personal responsibility

First Larry Eustachy, now Mike Price. The University of Alabama fired Price as head football coach, just five months after hiring him away from Washington State University. Price’s transgression was misbehaving while representing Alabama at a golf tournament. The married coach not only spent hundreds of dollars tipping an “exotic dancer” at a local “men’s club,” but also invited another strange woman back to his room, where she proceeded to run up $1,000 in room service while Price played golf. There’s probably more the public hasn’t been told, but Alabama officials saw enough to dismiss Price before he even coached a game. In retrospect, Price is probably berating himself for never actually signing his contract. That probably means he won’t be getting much of a severance package, even for five loyal months of service.

If you’re looking for a theme to connect the downfalls of Messrs. Eustachy and Price, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins seems to have found it:

A coach doesn't have to be a paragon, but what's he doing with a "Natty" Light in his hand, drinking with kids who will be "worshipping the porcelain god" or "talking to Ralph on the big white telephone" by the end of the night? The undergrad sensibility is irreverent in students, but in a head coach it's darker. Here's why. I asked a college-age acquaintance of mine, a smart-aleck Georgetown guy, who he would rather have as head coach: [Georgetown head coach] Craig Esherick or Larry Eustachy? He said, "Eustachy in a heartbeat. All Esherick does is graduate players. All Eustachy does is win games and hook up with hotties."

You see the problem. And here is a fact: One of Eustachy's players was arrested for being facedown drunk on a sidewalk and another for drunk driving.

The coaching profession should take notice: Grown-ups are running this country again. Whether you like the fact or not, people such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are in charge, responsibility is the new chic and there is extremely low public tolerance for overserved boyish high jinks from people who are paid to be leaders. At least some of the outrage at Eustachy is a result of the fact that he is the highest-paid state employee in Iowa, with a salary of $1.1 million, while Price was offered a seven-year, $10 million contract at Alabama. One of the expectations attached to that money is that a leader will make hard decisions and stand up to accept the credit or blame for the outcome.

One other note before closing this topic out. The debate over Price’s replacement at Alabama has taken on a racial tone, at least in the eyes of some media outlets. For instance, offered this profile of potential candidate Sylvester Groom, who played at Alabama for legendary coach Bear Bryant:

Croom, who has been an NFL assistant for 16 years, including the last two as the Green Bay Packers' running backs coach, was an All-American center for Bear Bryant in the mid-1970s. A Tuscaloosa native, Croom was an assistant coach at Alabama for 10 seasons (1977-86), including the Tide's 1978-79 back-to-back national-title teams. In fact, Croom won the "Commitment to Excellence" award, an honor coaches hand out every spring. A return to the Bryant roots might not be a bad thing. More important, Croom would be the first African-American head coach in the Southeastern Conference, and hiring him would prove Alabama is thinking forward, not living in the past.

Why is it “more important” that he’s black? I understand the symbolism of having a black head coach in a conference whose members once represented the most racially discriminatory schools in the country, but at the same time it’s unfair and irrational to judge Croom—or any other candidate—as possessing merit based simply on race? Nor would hiring Croom show that Alabama is “thinking forward,” not that that phrase means anything. After all, Price had no ties to Alabama’s past, yet Croom does. Shouldn’t that make Croom a less-worthy candidate than a black coach without Alabama ties? Of course not.

Just this week, Sports Illustrated published their list of the 101 “most influential minorities” in sports. Number six on the list was Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham. The magazine argues: “[Willingham’s] success as Notre Dame’s first African-American coach could embolden other schools to hire a black football coach.” Huh? So the reason we don’t have more black college football coaches is because the nation’s athletic directors were waiting to see what one Catholic college in Indiana would do? Notre Dame may have a mythical past, but it’s no longer the standard-bearer in college football. That aside, it’s irrational to presume the success of Willingham will have any influence on the hiring decisions of other schools. First of all, Willingham was a successful coach at Stanford before coming to Notre Dame, yet that didn’t influence any school to hire (or not hire) a black coach. Second, the use of the word “embolden” implies college officials are actually afraid of hiring black coaches. Why would that be? Are they afraid of racist reactions on their campuses? That’s doubtful. Finally, if college administrators really are racist, as some would say, wouldn’t Willingham’s success produce a backlash that would hurt potential black coaches, rather than help them? During the segregation era, truly racist college leaders resented stories of black athletic successes, and it only emboldened these degenerates into redoubling their segregationist efforts.

But returning to Alabama: On paper, Sylvester Groom looks like a solid candidate, and I suspect Alabama will give him consideration. But Alabama must conduct a search to find the best coach for their program, and not try to pander to the (largely white) sports media and their racial fantasies. Unless of course Alabama is actually thinking: “Well if Notre Dame can hire a black coach...” If that’s the case, we’re all doomed.

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