I don't know Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But I do know coaches just like him.
In fact, I played for a couple of men like him. I suspect many of us did. The accessories may vary depending on the model, but mine never seemed to be missing a pinch of chewing tobacco in their lower lip, a few days of stubble on their chin, and a flash of crazy in their eyes when their temper flared up. More than a decade has come and gone since they lorded over me, but if I close my eyes, I can hear them yelling still. I can see the flecks of spit flying and feel a bony finger banging into my chest.
Pelini is in some trouble at Nebraska this week for acting in public the way I suspect he regularly acts in private, when the cameras aren't projecting his snarls around the world in high def. In the Cornhuskers 9-6 loss to Texas A&M, Pelini was so furious about the way the game unfolded (Nebraska was flagged for 16 penalties to the Aggies two), he spent the better part of the second half screaming at officials, screaming at his players, and generally screaming at anyone who had the misfortune to walk into his field of vision.
Thirty years ago, all of this likely would have passed without comment. Twenty years ago, it might have resulted in a few raised eyebrows, but little more. But the spotlight is bigger now, and times have changed the way we judge the antics of our Clipboard-carrying General Pattons. Nebraska's chancellor Harvey Perlman said he was not happy with Pelini's actions, and even a segment of Cornhusker fans argued he embarrassed the program and the state. Pelini's finger-jabbing, verbal lashing of quarterback Taylor Martinez resulted in speculation that Martinez might quit the team.
Pelini, in his Monday press conference, wore the look of a dog that had just been scolded by its owner. He apologized repeatedly, vowed to be less "emotional" and "personal" when handing out criticism in the future, and said he had promised the chancellor it wouldn't happen again. I'm surprised, ultimately, at how quickly he conceded that his behavior might have crossed the line. But maybe I shouldn't be.
It's been 10 years since legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight was forced out at Indiana University after 29 seasons. He was accused of behavior not that much different than what Pelini is currently apologizing for. And it's been 32 years since Ohio State's Woody Hayes — one of football's most infamous hot heads — was fired for punching a Clemson player who intercepted a Buckeye pass at the end of the Gator Bowl. If Hayes and Knight were hired today, I'd wager that neither would have lasted as long as they did, and I suspect neither would have experienced the same level of success.
But our society is still somewhat divided on what exactly to make of this evolution.
For some, it represents what's now commonly referred to as the "Wussification of America." Kids today, they believe, are coddled too much as it is. A little screaming builds character. It teaches discipline. If you can't handle a coach dressing you down, the theory goes, how are you going to handle real life? These are the people who long for the days of Vince Lombardi, and are convinced Bill Parcels is the best coach of the modern era.
My father played football for a high school coach who believed he was cut in the mold of Lombardi. He was the kind of man who felt pain was just weakness leaving the body, so when my dad (a quarterback) was sandwiched between two defenders and came to the sideline convinced he was dying, the coach insisted he go back into the game. Luckily, someone intervened. My old man had a ruptured spleen.
To me, what happened to Pelini represents progress. The best coaches need to be stern, but they don't have to belittle and demoralize to teach, whether they're teaching trap blocks, zone blitzes or life lessons. To be fair, I wasn't traumatized by the experience of playing for Little Napoleons. I learned things about myself, like how to deal with difficult, demanding, and occasionally irrational people. Most of them weren't bad guys; they just didn't know any better. Their coaches were screamers, and their coaches' coaches had been screamers. It's a macho sickness that breeds because so few ever stop to question if it's actually an effective tactic.
Mostly, playing for hot heads made me appreciate the good coaches, the men who take their job seriously, but ultimately understand that earning respect is first about giving it.