You’re forgiven if you forgot there are actual basketball games to be played at this weekend’s Final Four.
At Thursday’s news conferences for the four head coaches — plus a bonus (or is the word “bogus”?) news conference where we watched merrily as NCAA president Mark Emmert ducked and dodged questions and even threw a few jabs of his own — there was one thread that ran through all of them. The theme of the day had nothing to do with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone or Kevin Ware’s shattered leg:
How widespread is coaching abuse in college basketball?
By this point, everyone with a television has seen umpteen times the awful, scary, bat-stinking-crazy video of Rutgers coach Mike Rice going all Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from “Full Metal Jacket” on his players at practices. Rice was finally fired, four months after the school’s (gutless, cowardly, reputation-obsessed) athletic director, Tim Pernetti — who resigned Friday — watched a half-hour video of Rice bullying his players. The athletic director watched the video, and Rice was given a three-game suspension, a $50,000 fine and a whack on the wrist. Television viewers watched the video and, within a day of its airing, Rice was fired.
Not exactly a Profile in Courage by this institution of higher learning, eh?
“I watched 10 seconds of the video,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I couldn't watch it, honestly. I couldn’t watch it anymore.”
So instead of spending the majority of our time in the days before the Final Four listening to these teams’ success stories — the story of Wichita State point guard Malcolm Armstead transferring from Oregon and paying his own way because he believed in the program, or the story of a Louisville team whose emotional, inspiring reaction to its backup point guard’s horrific injury revealed one of the most close-knit teams in sports, or the story of Michigan coach John Beilein’s long, winding, 34-year path from coaching Erie Community College to coaching in the Final Four — we spoke of a coach who threw basketballs at his players heads and called them unfathomable names.
We pointed to a report about Auburn bribing its football players. We wondered when a years-long NCAA investigation of Syracuse basketball would ever wrap up, and what sort of sanctions could be leveled against one of the nation’s most storied basketball programs. We asked about Emmert’s tarnished image in the wake of the NCAA’s botched investigation of the University of Miami.
And we didn’t even have a chance to get to the Pac-12 head of officiating accused of offering bounties to referees for throwing Arizona coach Sean Miller out of a game, or to the O’Bannon lawsuit about rights to players’ images that could cost the NCAA a princely sum and change everything about how college sports works.
The focus on the Rutgers fiasco during the NCAA’s marquee event is merely a symptom of one of the many greater diseases that afflict the NCAA: An imbalance in power between players — excuse me, “student-athletes” — and the high-paid coaches and administrators who are over them.
Yes, it was good to hear on Thursday that the Final Four coaches were as appalled by the Mike Rice video as any parent who watched the video and wondered, “What if that were my kid?”
“I don't think there’s a coach alive that does that, what you witnessed,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said.
“I don't think there’s a coach in the country that does that,” Boeheim said. “I think the tragedy is his team would have played exactly the same or better if he hadn't done any of that.”
“There’s moments where you coach a kid up and you tell him a few things that he probably needs to hear, but for the most part, people teach,” Beilein said. “Maybe we’re soft, but we just teach… We want young men to play for us because they love coming to the gym every day.”
All four of these coaches are good men. Beilein’s motivation to rise from JV high school coach to Final Four coach is inspiring. Pitino has played a nurturing, tough-love role in the lives of scores of kids without fathers. Boeheim has become a grandfatherly figure in the profession of coaching. And Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall has taught us all a lesson with his team: If you believe in yourself, you can go further than anyone would have imagined.
These good men all have good stories about what they’ve meant to countless players who’ve laced up on their teams. But as will be on display all weekend, the problem isn’t the individuals. The problem is the machine.
As the NCAA puts on its biggest party, it will be clouded by one of the biggest storms since the organization’s creation more than a century ago. The machine is broken. The media obsession with controversy and lawsuit and scandal isn’t just a bunch of cantankerous reporters trying disrupt a celebration by throwing feces on the tournament’s 75th birthday cake. The obsession is one more symptom of an NCAA that, as it tries to focus us all on the basketball, is actually turning its head to the worrisome existential crisis staring it in its face.