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Doug Robinson: Are coaches meaner or society too sensitive?

Published: Monday, April 22 2013 10:45 p.m. MDT

If you've followed the news lately, you're probably tempted to hide your kids from certain unsavory members of society to protect them from verbal mayhem, physical abuse and possibly even a swift kick in the keister.

I'm talking about coaches, of course.

They're on a rampage.

Lately, coaches are more temperamental than teen divas, only worse. They're Justin Bieber, with a whistle. Their behavior over the last months and even weeks has everyone calling a lawyer or the school principal, if not a press conference.

Welcome to the latest installment of the show: "When Coaches Go Wild."

Rutgers University fired its basketball coach, Mike Rice, earlier this month after a video went public that showed him throw balls at players, kick them and shout anti-gay slurs. Nice.

Then two weeks later the school suspended its lacrosse coach, Brian Brecht, for verbal abuse. Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned.

Rutgers has had better months.

Closer to home, University of Utah swim coach Greg Winslow was fired in the wake of allegations that he had mistreated athletes physically, verbally and emotionally.

Bingham High basketball coach Mark Dubach, a veteran of 22 years, resigned after he was accused of financial improprieties and verbally abusing players. According to a Deseret News reporters Trevor Phibbs and Amy Donaldson, the abuse included name-calling and swearing.

Either coaches are become testier or we're becoming more sensitive and aware (it is, after all, the PC age). Or both. Intense coaches who throw tantrums are a cliché, and we've always tolerated them. Perhaps it's mostly been a question of expedience, the ends justifying the means and all that.

The late Rick Majerus was tolerated and even applauded and he was famously foul, abusive and profane during his highly successful run as the University of Utah's basketball coach. I once saw him confront a big, strong, athletic player during practice, spitting profanity and insults inches from his face until I thought surely the player – a kid from the tough side of the tracks – would deck him. But nobody ever intervened; they just left the team or school, assistants and players alike. I once received a call from an athletic department official wondering how I felt about the coach's behavior. That's how confusing it was for some. Majerus always got a pass until he and the university finally wore each other out and couldn't stand each other.

Bobby Knight, the legendary Indiana basketball coach, was tolerated and even celebrated for years, all because,like Majerus, he could win basketball games. Even when he threw a chair across a floor and was seen kicking a player on the bench – who also happened to be his son – and abused and threatened various school and basketball officials and anyone else who was in his path, he coached on. He once admitted to slapping his players on the head – "affectionately."

Like Majerus, he finally wore out his welcome, but by then the damage was done – his behavior was so ugly that it overshadows his entire career. He was rewarded with a job on TV after he was done coaching, as was Majerus.

The temperamental Mike leach was tolerated while winning football games at Texas Tech until 2010, when he apparently went too far and was accused of ordering a player into a small room for hours after he suffered a concussion.

These are mostly extreme cases, but exploring the more everyday behavior of coaches is still a minefield. Sometimes there's a fine line between what's acceptable and what is not. In today's world, yelling at a player constitutes abuse. We want our coaches to be tough and demanding; we want them to teach discipline and hard work and commitment to youth. Then we want them to be Mister Rodgers or Father Mulcahey.

In a highly competitive, physical arena like sports, there are going to be highly competitive, physical people, both on the field and on the sideline, so maybe it's no surprise when coaches cross the line. With the rising popularity of sports, coaches are more empowered and more intense than ever because there's more at stake and because an unhealthy importance has been placed on sports at every level.

I'm not sure where the line is drawn; maybe it's akin to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said when he was unable to give a precise definition to pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Vince Lombardi is venerated as a coaching god. The Super Bowl trophy is named after the coach. He is widely loved and praised. But he was famously abusive, foul-mouthed and hot-tempered. Would he be tolerated today? Or would he turn up on YouTube screaming profanity at Paul Hornung?

email: drob@desnews.com

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