Monday, March 1, 2010


Avery Brundage was less than admirable in many respects. The former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee (1929-52) and International Olympic Committee (1952-72) was a fan of Hitler and instrumental in awarding Olympic Games to all three members of the original Axis of Evil (Germany, Japan and Italy). He stood for a brand of amateurism that amounted to social elitism. He thought women’s sports had no place in the Olympics, or anywhere else.

He wasn’t nice, either; despite his image of starchy rectitude, it was revealed after his death in 1975 that he’d had two children by a longtime mistress, and left them all out of his will.

But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I agree with Brundage about one thing: he thought that while coaches might be allowed on the practice fields, they should have to buy tickets to get into the arenas on game days.

OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme. Some coaches are decent-enough people and ought to be given a free seat on their teams’ benches, down at the end. Come NCAA basketball tournament time, however, I often wish they’d go away altogether, and leave their players alone.

This desire emerges especially in the last few minutes of any college-hoops game that’s competitive. Although timeouts seem plentiful enough while the contests unfold, they’re downright ubiquitous in the home stretch, stopping play every few seconds for coachly strategizing. Action grinds to a halt, toilets flush throughout TVland, and the question changes from how the game will end to whether it will. By the time things are decided I’ve sometimes lost interest.

Overcoaching is particularly a problem for school sports, I think. While our professional leagues exist solely to entertain the public and enrich their participants, the games schoolkids play are supposed to have an educational component, preparing young athletes to make their way on later-life stages.

The rest of the educational process is—or should be—geared to this end. Students read, attend lectures and engage in give-and-take with their teachers, but at “crunch time”-- when papers are written and exams taken—they’re on their own. That’s turned on its head in sports when the teachers (that is, coaches) take over decision-making when a game’s outcome is at stake.

What lesson is being taught— when in doubt look for some boss to tell you what to do? What’s practice for, anyway?

Furthermore—and Dick Vitale to the contrary notwithstanding-- the efficacy of time-out play calling is anything but clear. I have this on the authority of a couple of coaches I came to admire during my columnizing days.

My favorite college basketball coach was Abe Lemons, a droll character whose 599 career victories came mostly at institutions in Texas and Oklahoma, states in which, he said, “men love their families and football, not necessarily in that order.”

Abe claimed he never went in much for X’s and O’s, noting “If my X is Michael Jordan, your whole team of O’s won’t stop him.” He’d add: “I don’t have any tricky plays. I’d rather have tricky players.”

And anyhow, “There really are only two plays: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘put the darned ball in the basket.’ I don’t need to call a time out to give my kids that last one.”

Dale Brown, who spent many years coaching basketball at Louisiana State U., agreed, pretty much. “I’d call time out late in a game, draw up a play and give every player an assignment,” he once told me. “Invariably, just before they’d run out on the court, at least one of them would ask me what he was supposed to do.

“The play never would run as planned, and a kid would wind up taking a terrible, off-balance shot. I’d go ‘No…No…No… Great Shot!’ Afterward I’d tell the reporters it happened just the way I’d laid it out.”


Mike Levy said...

Well, I have to admit, after your last column Fred, we began watching the Olympics...religiously. I watched the Netherlands coach blow the speed skater's attempt at getting Gold. So yes, maybe old Avery was correct about keeping coaches a safe distance away from their players and if they wanted to watch, they should be required to purchase a ticket. Didn't know he was such a NAZI sympathizer, but I'll bet in addition to his mistress, his dog loved him. I can only hope that his two out of wedlock kids grew up to become Rabbi's just to spite him.

Mike Levy.

Mike Klein said...

Aaah, Avery Brundage...bringing out that old chestnut to remind us of the fascist DNA of the ol' IOC. Wasn't Samaranch Franco's enforcer in Barcelona as well?

As for overcoaching--I love the fact that football (aka soccer) has no time-outs or on-field huddles. Changes in instructions generally get in through the substitutes, and we know how often substitutes grace the field...