Wash. U. coaches respond to Rutgers scandal, offer thoughts on motivational tactics
Earlier this month, the head men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University sparked a national firestorm with his violent and abusive treatment of players. In recently publicly released videos from team practices, the since-dismissed Mike Rice can be seen shoving and throwing basketballs at his players and repeatedly yelling a homophobic slur.
Washington University head coaches may have a range of philosophies on motivating and teaching athletes, but heaving basketballs is not part of anyone’s repertoire.
Wash. U. head men’s basketball coach Mark Edwards, who attended his 38th Division I Final Four for the National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention, said he and others discussed how Rice’s behavior could carry on for so long without anyone outside the program knowing. They also talked about why no Rutgers players stood up to him.
“One of the sad things about [the Rice story] is that it broke the final week of the Final Four in Atlanta, which was celebrating 75 years of NCAA basketball,” Edwards said. “In other words, it was a historic, upbeat event for NCAA coaches and teams, and it was not a very good story to come out.”Edwards said the silence surrounding Rice’s behavior can be attributed to the environment. As players become enculturated into the atmosphere of an athletics program, they learn not to question it.
“The [freshmen] don’t know any better. They feel like, well, I guess this is the way it’s done. And then they became sophomores, and the freshman coming in look at the sophomores,” Edwards said.
“The thing that bothered me too is that if you watched the video, you’ll notice that his manager was standing right next to him,” Edwards added. “[Rice] would throw a ball, and [the manager] would hand him another one. It was like doing a drill.”
Edwards believes that the differing power dynamics between coaches and players would prevent such prolonged abuse from occurring at the Division III level.
“The least that you would do is quit,” Edwards said. “The chances are that someone in that framework would go a step beyond and report me or do whatever they have to do. So I don’t think that could ever happen in Division III. Division III by definition is the kids are playing the game because of self-motivation, not because of financial obligation—big difference.”
Edwards identified two styles of motivation among coaches—on the one hand, there are those who motivate by instilling fear in their players. For coaches like Bob Knight, the third-winningest coach in the history of men’s Division I basketball, fear can produce results.
But Edwards prefers the second method of motivation: fostering a desire to succeed. The approach clicked with his 2008-09 Wash. U. squad, which defended its national title by embracing the pressure of expectations and not fretting about falling short.
The UCLA men’s basketball program under John Wooden is another example, winning seven straight national titles and 10 in 12 years. Edwards coached against Wooden as an assistant at Pac-10 opponent Washington State in the 1970s.
“The rest of the country of course knew that UCLA was a powerhouse, but they didn’t know much more,” Edwards said. “They couldn’t watch it on TV—you’d have regionally televised games, and that was it. It was amazing to me that for nine straight years, those guys could walk on a court with everybody in the place against them and everybody in L.A. is for them—the pressure is unbelievable to win, and they just went out and did it. I came to the conclusion that the reason they were able to do that is because they craved it.”After spending several years working with another legendary collegiate coach, The Ohio State University’s Woody Hayes, Wash. U. head football coach Larry Kindbom witnessed a tough coaching style that some would align with Rice’s approach.
“I saw a totally different coaching style when I worked with Hayes,” Kindbom said. “He was a tough son of a gun, and it certainly worked for many of the players at Ohio State, but I wouldn’t want to emulate him because that’s not me.”
Though disturbed by Rice’s actions, Kindbom thinks that the disgraced coach most likely developed his abusive style because of the results he saw.
“Maybe somewhere along the way, Rice’s intensity worked, and so it became part of his demeanor as a coach,” Kindbom said. “I hope Rice realizes the mistake he made and remembers why he got into coaching.”
While having success and winning remain high priorities among coaches at Wash. U., Kindbom views his relationships with athletes with equal importance.
“When I go out on the field every day, my thought is how can I connect with these young men such that I can help make them better and bring them together as a team,” Kindbom said. “What I encourage my players to do is that if there’s an issue in our relationship, let’s talk about that because we’re all in it for the same reason.”
As the first Division III coach inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Nancy Fahey knows how to drive her players but cited a fine line between intensity and demeaning athletes.
“If you don’t have patience as a coach, it’s probably not a good profession for you,” Fahey said. “You have to demand, but you can’t be so impatient—it’s a learning curve. I was taught as an educator first, and educators have to understand that some people learn verbally, some people learn by doing, some people learn by watching better.”
Fahey coaches her team the way her parents raised her—disciplined but with love.
“Just like [student-athletes] like being pushed in the classroom, they don’t come here and not want to be pushed on the basketball court—they have high expectations,” Fahey said. “So if I came here and lowered them, I think that’d be something they’d actually be disappointed in.”
For Jeff Stiles, head coach of the track-and-field and cross-country teams, yelling and screaming isn’t an approach he’s comfortable using. Stiles highlighted the importance of creating a positive environment and the need to develop skills for athletes that can better prepare them for their careers and in life.
“I would say that [former NFL coach] Tony Dungy would be a coaching role model,” Stiles said. “He is the exact opposite of Coach Rice—absolutely no swearing in practice. There are some people that are motivated by harsher language, but in general, if you have Type A, motivated student athletes, which we have at Wash. U., they need a lot of positive encouragement to be successful.”