She realized he probably wouldn’t be able to hear her.
Still, as Tywanna Patterson watched her son, Patrick, get lambasted by former Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie during a game at Rupp Arena last season, the outspoken mother felt compelled to send a message to her only child.
“Don’t let [Gillispie] yell at you like that,” said Tywanna, screaming as she rose from her seat. “You yell at him. He’s the one who’s messing up.”
While Tywanna’s shouts were conveying the concerns of a frustrated mom, other parents of major college athletes have taken their discontent much farther – hiring lawyers, petitioning athletic directors and ultimately playing a part in the dismissal of three head football coaches since the end of the 2009 season.
The firings of Texas Tech’s Mike Leach and South Florida’s Jim Leavitt and the forced resignation of Kansas’ Mark Mangino occurred after players and/or their parents accused them of verbal and physical abuse on the practice field, playing field or in the locker room. Subsequent internal investigations by the universities found the claims to have merit, and the schools took action.
As each scenario played out, the escalating battle between coaches who use “tough-love” tactics and a new breed of players with different expectations about how they should be treated was magnified.
The result: coaches in all college sports are toning down some of the screaming, yelling, threatening, insulting and other methods that have been used to motivate players for decades. No one is ready to provide orange slices and Capri Sun after games and workouts, but most realize that softening their approach may be the key to keeping their jobs.
“There are probably some things I did when I first became a head coach that wouldn’t be smart to do today,” Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said. “Not from a physical abuse standpoint, but maybe from pushing the envelope a little bit.”
A handful of factors are causing coaches to re-think some of their methods. Advancements in social media and the preponderance of users of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have given players an unfiltered outlet to be transparent about what goes on during workouts and behind the closed doors of the locker room. The advent of blogs and the around-the-clock coverage of all media has made even the smallest of incidents harder to hide.
Players and parents are quicker to threaten lawsuits these days, and interoffice politics can also come into play. But perhaps the biggest reason coaches are toning down their act, they said, is because the typical 19- or 20-year-old isn’t as conditioned to handle some of the pushing and prodding that has been a mainstay on the practice court and gridiron for years.
“Some guys can be pushed real hard,” Texas Tech offensive lineman Brandon Carter said, “and some guys just aren’t tough enough.”
That was the label some placed on Texas Tech’s Adam James after his father, Craig, told Texas Tech officials that Leach forced Adam to stand alone in a dark shed for more than an hour after he was diagnosed with a concussion.
Leavitt was fired at South Florida amid allegations that he grabbed sophomore special teams player Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him during halftime of a game against Louisville. At Kansas, linebacker Arist Wright was criticized after he told athletic administrators that Mangino poked him in the chest during a walkthrough the night before the Jayhawks’ Oct. 17 loss at Colorado.
“If that’s 100 percent true – if that’s really all it was – then [Wright] would have to be considered kind of soft,” said former Kansas defensive back Charles Gordon, who went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings. “That’s football, man. That’s sports. That kind of stuff has been going on for a long time.”
But that doesn’t make it OK.
“I don’t get it,” Tywanna Patterson said, “People say they want kids to be tough. If that’s the case, what is tough? What type of tough are they looking for?”
Attempts to reach Mangino, Leach and Leavitt for comment for this story were unsuccessful. Mangino agreed to a settlement with Kansas after his dismissal. Leach is taking Texas Tech to court over his firing. Leavitt has vowed to fight for his job.
Media reports used the word “hit.” Chris Merriewether said it felt more like a slap. Whatever the case, when Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin popped the senior guard on the arm with the back of his hand during a timeout earlier this month, he knew he’d done something unacceptable.
Certainly by today’s standards.
“I’m an old-school guy, but I understand that times are real sensitive right now,” Martin said after the game. “It was wrong on my part and is completely out of line and has no part in the game. I need to apologize for that.”
Martin’s remarks didn’t keep the situation from becoming a national news story. Video of the incident was replayed repeatedly. Merriewether – who said Martin was simply trying to motivate him – called his parents to tell them what had happened.
“My dad just said it was my business,” Merriewether said a few days later. “I turn 22 in a couple of weeks. They expect me to be able to handle things like a man.”
While no one is excusing improper physical contact between coaches and players, coaches said they wish more parents would handle similar situations in the same fashion as the Merriewethers. Instead, they complain about having to deal with “little league parents” who question everything from their son’s playing time to remarks that are made in the huddle or on the bench.
Earlier this month Michael Scott, the father of Notre Dame basketball player Carleton Scott, contacted the South Bend Tribune to complain about his son’s role on the team. Leach said Craig James constantly called Texas Tech’s football offices and badgered his assistants about Adam’s role on the team. Some Red Raiders coaches, though, said that Adam was a prima donna who didn’t push himself as hard as other players. Craig James, an analyst for ESPN, could not be reached for comment.
“I liked Coach Leach,” said Carter, the Texas Tech offensive lineman. “He was a good coach, but he made some wrong decisions. But the side of the story about Adam James not pushing himself to his potential … that’s also true. I see both sides of the story. One guy didn’t work like he should’ve and one guy did something he shouldn’t have.
“I don’t think parents should be involved unless there’s a circumstance when they should stand up. In this case I understood it. Still, if you’re in the business world and your boss rips into you and fires you, your parents aren’t going to go up there and talk to your boss. You’ve got to learn how to deal with your own problems, but some people just aren’t able to.”
At Kansas, it was widely known that Pete Padgett, the father of former basketball player David Padgett, used to make frequent visits to the Jayhawks coaching offices to complain about the high-low offense Self employed during his first few seasons in Lawrence because it didn’t do enough to showcase David. And last summer Carl Henry – the father of current freshmen C.J. and Xavier Henry – said his sons were considering backing out of their letters of intent because of a disparaging Kansas City Star article. It took an emergency trip to the Henry’s home in Oklahoma by Self and assistant Danny Manning to convince the brothers – and their dad – to honor their commitment to Kansas.
Reached Thursday, Self didn’t address either situation specifically. Instead he spoke in general terms when he said: “I don’t know if kids today are softer, but they’ve been raised differently. It used to be that, when your kid got in trouble at school, you wanted the teacher to paddle your kid. Now a teacher will get fired for doing that.
“I don’t think it’s a coaching thing. It’s a society thing. Our society has changed, and it’s revamped how people view things.”
Patrick Patterson’s parents also keep a close watch on their son at Kentucky. Last year, they were told that an assistant coach had ignored Patrick’s complaints about blisters on his feet during conditioning drills. Patrick was told to keep running, Tywanna said, and eventually his sock was stained with blood.
The Pattersons – who used to text Gillispie several times a week – phoned athletic director Mitch Barnhart with their concerns and then began showing up at Kentucky’s practices.
“The coaches you meet in recruiting are not always the coaches you see on the court,” Tywanna said.
Dr. Harry Edwards is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California-Berkeley who has written essays for publications such as Sports Illustrated and Psychology Today. Edwards said that the riches of professional athletics are causing today’s parents to view themselves in a different light than they did 20 or 30 years ago.
“They see their kid as a ticket to socio-economic mobility for the whole family,” Edwards said. “Parents are looking at themselves as Archie Manning or Dell Curry. They think they know everything, and that by getting involved they’re going to help their kid get to that next level.”
Instead coaches said the motives often backfire. They said kids who are coddled throughout their childhood sometimes arrive on campus with the wrong intentions.
Before he was hired at Kansas State, Martin was a successful high school coach in Miami. Prior to each season he said he met with the families of his players.
“If you’re here to support your child and your child only, then you need to leave,” Martin said he told them. “If you’re here to support our program, which includes your child, then we’ll get along just fine.”
Self agrees with that philosophy. He said he used to get frustrated when he attended his son’s seventh-grade baseball games and heard parents complaining that their child needed to be playing a different position to enhance his chances of earning a college scholarship.
“People have a totally different mindset now,” Self said. “The people who have the most success in college are the ones whose parents allow the coaches to coach instead of trying to do it themselves.
“You can’t tell every player that they’re going to live out their dream, because it’s not always going to happen. But what you can tell them is that, over time, college could be the greatest experience of their life, but they’re going to have to go through some **** to get there.
“The problem is that lot of parents don’t want their kids to go through the ****.”
Larry Coker went 60-15 in his six seasons as coach of the University of Miami football team, won a national championship – and was fired. Frank Solich lost his job after an 8-3 campaign at Nebraska. R.C. Slocum went 14 years without a losing season at Texas A&M and still got the ax.
According to Edwards, the sociologist, those examples illustrate the pressure that today’s coaches are under to win, which helps explain their fervor when things go awry during workouts or in games.
“Some of these coaches are trying so hard for that Nick Saban or Urban Meyer-type of contract,” Edwards said. “Then you combine that pressure with the fact that schools have become less and less patient with coaches who don’t bring them a BCS bowl berth or a national title.
“That’s the thing people are missing. You have to understand the environment that they’re operating in. It can create a volatile situation. That’s been evident with the situations that have occurred the last few months. The only thing that amazes me is that we haven’t seen more of it.”
Even though Carter said Leach was in the wrong for his treatment of Adam James at Texas Tech, he said he can’t help but sympathize with his former coach.
“The pressure to win is so great that sometimes it may cause coaches to do something they wouldn’t normally do,” he said. “They want to keep their jobs, and sometimes it causes them to do things that may be inappropriate.”
Edwards said sometimes those “inappropriate” actions involve coaches intentionally berating an underachieving athlete until he decides to transfer.
“That way,” Edwards said, “a scholarship frees up so the coach can go sign another player that may help get him a big, new contract.”
Another problem, Edwards said, is that coaches are having more and more trouble relating to their players because of the cultural gap that exists between the two groups. He said not enough is being done to bridge the gap between white coaches and black players, which often leads to conflict and rebellion because the two sides don’t have enough respect for one another.
“At the end of the day,” Edwards said, “you have a situation where it’s Lawrence Welk and Pat Boone talking to Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and Vanilla Ice in the locker room. They don’t get it. They don’t understand it.”
Now that most coaches have come to grips with the fact that they can’t conduct themselves in the same manner that they did 10 and 20 years ago, some of them are focused on finding new ways to motivate players.
Ruffin McNeill was the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech last season and is now the head coach at East Carolina. He said it’s important to remember that each player has a different personality depending on his upbringing, which means not everyone will respond favorably to the same things.
“You can’t just look at a kid and judge him,” McNeill said. “I’ve seen kids that grew up with five-car garages that you think would’ve been [coddled], but when it came time to work, there was no one who could outwork them.
“Every kid learns differently. Every kid has to be treated differently. There’s not one way to coach the whole group. You have to find out what makes each kid tick.”
Texas football coach Mack Brown agrees. He said he reminds his staff daily that their purpose is to build players up – and not break them down.
With media scrutiny at an all-time high and “citizen journalists” flocking to press conferences and sidelines with cameras and recording devices, Brown said coaches are being watched more than ever.
“We understand that people can bring microphones into meetings,” he said. “They can video everything that happens every minute of the day. We ask our coaches: Don’t ever say anything that you wouldn’t say in public or don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do in public.
“There’s a hard balance between pushing a young man to be as good as he can possibly be and going past that line.”
With his college career now behind him, Brandon Carter is now in Florida training and preparing for the NFL draft. He knows coaches at the next level will get in his face and yell from time to time – just like his coaches in high school and at Texas Tech.
Carter isn’t a fan of the tactic. But he said it doesn’t bother him.
“You have to be able to take it,” Carter said. “If you want to be the best player you can be, you have to take coaching and build on it and not get down on yourself.”
Gordon, the former Kansas standout and Vikings player, said the top performers on a team are rarely the ones who complain about hot-headed, fiery coaches – mainly because they don’t view their actions as mistreatment.
“Athletes need to be pushed,” he said. “The only time I draw the line is when it becomes personal, when it’s not a motivational thing. But I guess each player has a different definition of what they consider ‘overboard.’”
While some coaches have vowed to change, the ones who still believe in old-school tactics would certainly be refreshed by Carter and Gordon’s comments. Mangino, for instance, said after his last game that he had no plans to alter his style if Kansas would’ve allowed him to return.
“I may be one of the more pleasant people to deal with in college football,” he said. “Trust me.”
Gillispie lost his job at Kentucky last spring after the school deemed he wasn’t a “good fit.” After his ouster complaints surfaced that he was too negative with his players.
“All coaches always have an honorable attitude about what they’re doing,” Gillispie said earlier this week. “The No. 1 reason coaches get into coaching is because they care about young people and want to make a difference in their lives. That’s the reason I do it. I think the best players realize that, and I think they still want to be coached.”
Then there’s Martin, who may be more old-school than anyone. He yells, he curses, he glares – and his players love him for it. Outsiders may use the word “volatile” to describe Martin.
The Wildcats – who are 17-3 and ranked 11th in this week’s Associated Press poll – prefer the term “passionate.”
“Our society and our educational system are all about making it easier for kids,” Martin said. “We’re not holding them accountable. When you’re 43 years old and you’re not doing your job, you’re getting fired. No one is patting you on the back and saying, ‘Do it better tomorrow.’ So why should we do that with these kids?
“We shouldn’t be trying to make it easier on them? Life isn’t getting any easier. It’s only going to get harder.”