Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bottom Line Business

Two coaches were fired this past weekend in the Big Ten, and plenty has been said about them. We should feel sorry for them, we shouldn’t feel sorry for them, and plenty of people are leveraging the newly-opened jobs for a State of the Union of What This Says About College Basketball.

I don’t think either of these terminations means anything significant at all. It’s just two millionaires who won’t be drawing a salary this month. After the past dozen or so economic quarters we’ve had, it’s a minor miracle that such events qualify as news at all. But I have the luxury of this perspective. I’m just a part-time analyst and a full-time fan. I’ll never know these guys, and the only impact they’ll have on me comes in the form of box scores and end-of-season records. That’s how most of us know them. Most of us, but not everyone.

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Probably the best perk of working with BTN is that every year, I get to sit courtside at the Big Ten Tournament. High definition TVs are really great, but it’s just no substitute for the real thing. Players are sprinting while being bumped, grabbed, and hacked--and usually, no whistles are blown while all of this happens. Up close, it’s easy to see that things like non-moving screens are a fiction of the highest order. In the post, everyone is fouled, it’s just a level of degree. You see how referees are more peacekeepers than officials, how coaches are part-attorney, part-teacher. And it’s amazing to watch a 20-year old tune out thousands of people screaming at the top of their lungs for him to fail. Every one of these guys is an awesome basketball player, and it’s the smallest of margins that separates them.

But the best and most eye-opening part of live action comes from sitting directly in front of the families. If you could fill a stadium of 15,000 player parents for the home team, you’d have the loudest arena in all of sports. Ears would literally bleed. And it’s not just volume, it’s resilience, too. Simply put, they don’t shut up. Whether up by 15 or down by 30, they’re shouting at full volume. Every foul called against one of their own is a hose job, as is every foul gone unnoticed. They plead for their kids to take the ball, to grab the rebound, and when the players do the smallest thing well, the reward is effusive praise. In short, they behave exactly like you expect supportive parents to behave. When you watch the game on TV, you forget the players are only a couple of years removed from being children. When you sit in front of the family section, that reality is jarring.

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“Mixed emotions” is probably a fair way to describe how most parents feel when sending their kids off to college. As proud as they are, they’re also worried about how their kid will fare on their own. I doubt many parents are ready to fully let go when their son starts unpacking his dorm room, and I suspect that’s no different even if he happens to be a McDonald’s All-American. And while I’m sure many players (and parents) harbor dreams of NBA riches in their futures, the more immediate goal is getting through college, for as long as they decide to stay. And in that respect, a college coach is somewhat of a transitional parent. For 18 years, it’s Mom and Dad telling their son what to do, but once the college athlete is in school, they take orders from the coach. There’s usually a bit more freedom granted by the coach, sure, but to the parents, the issue is the same. This is the man to whom you are entrusting with your son, who you don’t fully trust to navigate the world on his own.

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And I think that’s why almost no matter the reason for a coach being fired, there are some who will always be saddened by it. These coaches have been trusted by families to help their sons get through the first years of adulthood. That’s a big part of the job, and some might argue the most important. And that’s all well and good, but that’s not what anyone signed up for.

It’s usually the NCAA that’s painted as greedy, but that argument falls flat when one recognizes that almost all of the money the organization collects is ultimately paid out to the schools, much of it in the form of scholastic aid for student-athletes (who, as we’re often reminded, are irrelevantly going pro in something other than sports). If greed exists in college sports, the kingpins are the coaches, especially for men’s basketball and football. They are the individuals who receive the largest checks, after all.

Those checks are funded by ticket sales for people who want to watch the games live, television deals which are in turn funded by advertisements targeted to viewers that want to watch the games at home, and merchandising for both sets of viewers to collect. In other words, coaches are paid by the fans who don’t give one lick about what great father figures they make. They want pretty box scores and won/loss records. And it’s hard to take seriously the fact that such-and-such coach was a good man as a reason he should be retained, because that same coach has previously negotiated for a extremely lucrative contract.

It’s a bottom-line business, and frankly, we should all be OK with that. If it weren’t, if coaches were happily drawing $50,000 salaries to teach life lessons and a little basketball on the side, there would be thousands of athletically-skilled high schoolers that would all have to search for jobs at the factory or the local big box retailer, instead of pursuing higher education. So the tragedy isn’t that nice guys are being fired, but it would be quite sad if they weren’t.

This isn’t to say that every firing is a good one, even from a bottom-line perspective. The grass isn’t always greener, and it all depends on context. They’ll name a court after you at Gardner Webb for performance that will get you fired at Kentucky. Moreover, every coach that’s fired was once seen as a savior of the program by the same people now calling for a change. But whether or not the change ultimately turns out for the better, it’s unequivocally true that it’s appropriate and positive that the fanbase has standards and demands accountability.

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In some ways, I think coaches are glad to get the axe. Most of the time, the writing has been on the wall, thanks to those meticulously-negotiated buyout packages that tend to delay terminations until just before the torches and pitchforks have been brandished. And I can only imagine how much it sucks to hear 15,000 people that you considered supporters emphatically shower you with boos. Getting away from that, and being paid for the privilege, has to be at least a minor relief.

I first heard Bruce Weber’s name from a girl I was dating. She told me how her school’s team just took down an Indiana team led by Jared Jeffries (this same Hoosier team later beat my alma mater by 31 points). “Floorburn U” was the moniker bestowed on his Southern Illinois teams, and defense was the calling card for his Illinois teams until the past few seasons. I suspect watching his teams graciously escort opposing teams to the rim has worn on Weber more than anything else.

It’s serendipitous that the SIU job happens to be open just when Weber is looking for work. He’s not my team’s coach anymore, but I hope he gets a look there. I have little doubt that he’d be successful once again in Carbondale, where he’s remained an ally to the program. Floorburn U hasn’t been an appropriate nickname for the Salukis in a long time, and I’d like to see SIU Arena packed once again, with chants of “S-I-U!” and “Gray Dog! Brown Dog!” reverberating through the bleachers. So would my former girlfriend, now my wife, who hasn’t been back since the NIT became an unrealistic goal for her team. If Weber does make his way back, we’ll make the trip down and cheer for the Salukis, albeit not as loudly as the parents.