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What Is a Coach? It Means More Than What Happens to a Player on the Field

by on August 09, 2018 5:00 AM


In recent years news of proven and unproven allegations about coaches mishandling criminal allegations within their programs have given pause to everyone in the profession. These are uncertain times for coaches and their decisions about off-field issues.

Last week ESPN staff writer Andrea Adelson wrote a column where she stated that society had evolved but that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had not. She wrote that he was willing to tolerate player misconduct if it meant winning championships and even took him to task for giving people second chances. The column also implied that many coaches have a “God complex.”

While citing some anecdotal incidents where things did not turn out, the writer ignored far more cases where coaches saved young men from a potentially hopeless future. It is not a “God complex,” but rather the idea that coaching involves far more than what happens to a young man on the field.

So in 2018’s “evolved” society what should college football coaches do?

Today the profession has many slick, media-savvy coaches with big reputations as great recruiters. Head coaches spend time on social media trying to be one of the guys on their teams. Everyone wants to be a “players’ coach.”

That is easy, but is it really coaching?

The writer Renata Adler once wrote: “It is always self-defeating to pretend to the style of a generation younger than your own; it simply erases your own experience in history.”

If coaches act in ways that erase their own experience in history they cede the wisdom that comes from the years of their lifetimes. Rather than catering to being “liked” by their players, a coach’s life perspective can help players learn valuable life lessons. Because college is the bridge to adulthood, coaches should be educators, grown men setting an example for what it takes to grow up and become an adult.

In the 1990s Penn State coach Joe Paterno gave his coaches and his student-athletes a document he’d written entitled “A Declaration of Coaching,” outlining what coaches and players alike should expect from his coaching staff.

One listed expectation was: “Help you to realize that growth is not a steady climb upward, but a series of ups and downs which require courage, perseverance, goal direction, and togetherness.”

To that point, players will make mistakes. They’re human and anytime you assemble a group of 120 people some will step out of line. In today’s world, when players or coaches make a mistake it is broadcast to the world.

That makes more difficult the coach’s job of helping players grow to become better people after those mistakes. The public’s knee-jerk response is calling for the player’s head or for the head of the coach if he does not act to dismiss the player.

“Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” –Oscar Wilde

Today we demand each alleged sin should result in banishment, robbing a coach the chance to help the player grow by learning from his mistakes. Because some crimes are far more serious or complicated than others, coaches and universities must evaluate each case individually.

The perception of players getting in trouble also lacks proper context. A few years ago Sports Illustrated wrote a story stating that 7 percent of the players on Top 25 College Football teams had been arrested. Not convicted, just arrested.

Those numbers were Exhibit A in suggesting a crime wave narrative where coaches willingly tolerated player misconduct. However, using federal census and crime data that same year shows 2,069,702 arrests of 11,014,176 college-aged men had been arrested — a rate of 18.8 percent.

Turns out college football coaches were doing a good job of getting guys to be a part of a team and stay out of the legal system at a far lower rate than their peers.

The reality is this: coaches are not lawyers nor should they be. They are educators that are in the difficult task of being responsible for someone else’s children under the white hot, 24/7 media spotlight. Every time a young man comes in front of them with a problem, a coach must decide whether that player is a good kid who made a mistake or a bad kid beyond help.

No one among us would ever be 100 percent in those difficult assessments and demanding a standard of perfection is insanity. With society’s judgment, the easy move to satisfy the masses is to eject every player who makes a mistake. The more difficult and noble action is teaching players to make amends for what they’ve done and become good citizens.

It goes back to the idea of society’s evolution. If we believe a society that does not give second chances as having “evolved,” then we are on a bad path forward. A society indiscriminately demanding a virtual death sentence for all alleged transgressions is one that has actually devolved.

After all Saint Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus amid his life of persecuting Christians before he became the most devoted of all disciples. It just took someone to show him the right way and to give him a second chance.

And that may be the most difficult but most important part of any college coach’s job.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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