At the risk of infringing upon Vince Lombardi's estate, I have to ask...
Just what the hell is going on out here?
At what point did the 2009 college football season turn into a sensitivity training seminar?
It used to be that if a coach won games, maintained a clean criminal record and kept the program out of the NCAA spotlight, he had a job for life.
It used to be that if a player was soft, a coach would be extra tough on that player in an effort to either break him or build him up. If the player broke, he would eventually leave the team, and in time come to realize his immaturity and later regret giving up the privilege of playing team sports.
If instead the player fought on and toughened up, he would immediately realize the lessons his coaches were instilling within him and be instantly appreciative that they would put forth the effort to turn him into a better man and a stronger leader. That's what college football's all about, folks. That's, in essence, what team sports are all about.
But suddenly, things are changing in college football. The whole shebang is gettin' weak and pudgy.
These days if you "verbally abuse" (i.e.: "yell at") a player during practice, that's a firin'!
Poke a finger in a player's chest to make a point? You'd best point yourself toward the door and walk, bud.
Am I being facetious here? Nope. Mark Mangino got canned at Kansas last month for three reasons. First, he was kind of a prick and no one liked him. Second, he was known to yell at his players a lot, which hurt some players' feelings. Third, he allegedly poked someone with hurt feelings in the chest during practice, probably because that kid had hurt feelings. This hurt a lot of feelings within the Kansas administration. They told ESPN about their hurt feelings, ESPN told us and then our feelings got hurt. And then Mangino—that fat, unfeeling, mean ol' fusspot—got fired.
But wait, if you think that's bad, it gets worse.
Last week, Texas Tech fired head coach Mike Leach for sending wideout Adam James to a dark room, by himself, after suffering a mild concussion. James, the son of ESPN college football mouthpiece Craig James, claims that Leach locked him in an electrical closet, in essence "punishing" him for having a head injury. To hear him tell it, you'd think Leach locked him in a cellar and hooked a car battery to his nipples.
Leach says that this "electrical closet" claim is baloney. He claims that he told his trainers to sequester James in a dark room near the practice field—presumably because the boy had a headache and was sensitive to light—and that James was under the supervision of those trainers the entire time. Furthermore, Leach claims that both Jameses, father and boy, were high-maintenance nuisances. According to the coach, Adam was a chronic underachiever and Craig wouldn't stop meddling about his son's lack of playing time.
So did Leach, long exasperated by James' antics, overreact to the player's injury by punishing him for it? Or, did two high-maintenance divas cook up a revenge plot against Leach for lack of PT? We may never know the full truth, but it certainly seems that the Red Raiders were suspiciously anxious to fire this man, who may have been the best thing to ever happen to their football program since it began 84 years ago. As it was, not two days passed from the initial reports of James' treatment leaking out until Leach was unemployed. So much for a full and thorough investigation. So much for giving Mike Leach the benefit of the doubt.
Now I realize that both of these firings—especially the Leach incident—go a bit deeper than simple player treatment issues. It's been well-established that no one in the KU athletic department considered Mark Mangino to be a snuggybear. By all accounts he was a bear of the more vicious variety. It's entirely possible that KU was looking for a reason to relieve Mangino of his duties and the sternum he poked did the trick.
In Lubbock, it's no secret that Texas Tech was sore at Mike Leach for job-hunting following the 2008 regular season. It also seems a bit too convenient that Leach was fired one day before he was due to receive a large bonus check from the university, as per his contract.
So yes, there are "unofficial" reasons for termination that go beyond yelling at, poking and dark-rooming football players. But officially, these men were fired for yelling at, poking and dark-rooming football players. And that makes the game seem soft. And football ain't supposed to be soft.
At this point, I need to get something off my chest; something that's been weighing on me for more than a decade. You see, I write about football because I was never really good at playing football. I tried, Lord knows I tried. But hey, some people are star players, some people are star writers. And then there's me.
Nevertheless, I recall a football practice—eighth grade year I believe—whereupon our team was being punished. I can't remember what it was we did, whether it was something that happened during that practice or in our last game. I do remember a lot of yelling, and then being told to line up for wind sprints.
Now, it was hot and we had already done more than our share of running that afternoon. I was exhausted and sick to my stomach. And I knew that after a couple of good sprints, what remained of my lunch would soon be pooled around my cleats. So what did I do? As I completed my first wind sprint, I pretended to twist my ankle and told my coaches I was hurt. No more wind sprints for me that day. My lunch made it past the duodenum and out the back door.
Not a week goes by during football season that I don't think about that moment. It was a shameful act of weakness and deceit. Not only did I lie to my coaches, but I disgraced a game built on toughness and grit. But Matt, you were tired. Screw me! Everybody was tired. But Matt, you were sick. Screw me! Everybody was on the verge of throwing up. Truth is, I'm ashamed of that moment. I've wished I could have it back a thousand times. But I never will, and I'll have to learn to accept that and move on.
Should Mark Mangino have yelled hurtful things at his players? No, of course not. But you know what? Players get yelled at in football, often times for their own good. That's the nature of football and football practice. If you can't handle it, maybe this isn't the game for you. If you can't handle it to the point that you cry about your hurt feelings to the administration, it definitely isn't the game for you. Unless Mangino was physically assaulting his players—more egregiously than finger poking—those players needed to suck it up and play through their inner pain.
Should Mike Leach have put Adam James in a room by himself after suffering a mild concussion? I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. What do I look like, a doctor?
Right now (and I stress "right now") it seems that Texas Tech's trainers and doctors were in on Leach's plan and, presumably, they'd have kiboshed it if they had sensed James' health was in any danger. Did James' purported lack of work ethic factor into this bizarre "dark room treatment"? I suppose it probably did. But you know what, Adam James? Deal with it. Your coach made an example of you. Now, whether or not you agree with his assessment of your work habits, that's for you and him to hash out. But crying home to daddy and getting your coach fired isn't what football's about. Football's about learning lessons the hard way, the tough way. Or, at least it used to be. I don't think I know anymore.
This I do know. One of these days, the kids who blew the whistle on Mark Mangino will feel the same regret that I feel about my faux ankle sprain. Same for Adam James. If, after all the facts are in, it turns out that he blew this "closet" story out of proportion, then he'll regret this situation for the rest of his life.
You see, football is a special game. If you played it, you're unabashedly proud to have played it. You tell and re-tell your glory stories ad nauseum, blowing them slightly more out of proportion with each recitation. If you dishonored it—once you admit to yourself that you've dishonored it—you wear that distinction like a scarlet letter. It embarrasses you for a lifetime. Shoot, its been 12 years since I faked that ankle sprain and I'm still struggling with it.
I shudder to think what Adam James will be feeling 12 years from now.