It's scary when coaches show frailties

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The stories have come ripping at us like staccato bursts of automatic weapons fire; violent, startling, piercing. It is as if the sports pages have spawned their own version of the pulsating, slice-of-gutter-life vignettes we saw in Quentin Tarantino's savage film, "Pulp Fiction."

The headlines have been riveting and unnerving:

Seattle Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson arrested on a driving-while-intoxicated charge, then later accused of covering up positive drug tests of his players at the University of Miami.

University of Michigan coach Gary Moeller, allegedly drunk and out of control in a Southfield, Mich., restaurant, arrested on a charge of assaulting a police officer.

Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox, embroiled in an ugly domestic scene and arrested on a charge of spousal abuse after his wife, Pamela, said he punched her and pulled her hair. She later recanted her story, but police stand by their report.

What happens to our society when our coaches, the leaders of so many young men, suddenly show the ugly symptoms of moral decay? How can they inspire and lead when their names are showing up on po lice blotters and their faces come spinning at us from "Sports Center," like mug shots on a post-office wall?

Is the incredible stress of coaching -- the incessant battle to win -- bringing them down, or are these isolated incidents, coincidentally strung together? Blame the media, the perpetual bearers of bad tidings, if you must, but remember, there was no dirt-digging going on in any of these cases. Each came directly from police reports.

"It's important to understand that you can be several people in one, depending on which life you're working in," notes Chris Cowan, director of the National Value Center in Denton. "The coach who looks so in control in his office or on the playing field may be a completely different person at home. An emotional trigger, or even more likely, a chemical trigger, can induce different personalities. I've known people where a half a can of beer could cause them to go nuts."

In each of these cases, there is evidence there was much more than just half a can of beer involved. The Cox incident was apparently triggered when Bobby spilled a drink on the carpet in front of friends. A dozen drinks had been served to Moeller's table. Erickson's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. He has been ordered to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program.

Coaches or drunks? Or both?

"We're all human beings," TCU football coach Pat Sullivan says. "We're not any different than anybody else in society. Obviously we have a certain responsibility because of the position we're in. I've never shied away from that responsibility.

"There's stress and there's frustration, but I don't know that there's any more going on in our profession than in other businesses or in society in general. Ours just happens to be one of the most visible. We have to accept that responsibility when we get into it."

John Reddell, who retired at Trinity three years ago after 39 years as a high school head football coach, remembers the man he played for at Oklahoma, a man who stood for something wholesome and good.

"Bud Wilkinson was certainly an inspiration to his players and a person we all could emulate," Reddell says. "He was a father image to me. When I got out of school and went into coaching, I accepted that same type of obligation. I went out of my way to do the same things for the young kids in high school that he'd done for me and my teammates.

"There can still be a private life that goes on, but I think it certainly has to be in conjunction with your public life. I don't think you can represent one thing to the kids and be something else in the rest of your life. They'll see through you in a minute."

In many ways our coaches, particularly in high school and college, are society's front line in the continual battle for higher moral conscience. Often, rightly or wrongly, they become the central character in a young person's life; a father-figure, a friend, a trusted adviser. They are, like it or not, our children's ultimate role models. It is an awesome responsibility, one most of them gladly accept and understand.

But if they falter, especially on some essential, moral scale, then we are shaken to the core because the implications and repercussions can be vast.

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