Following the New York Jets divisional playoff-round win, star cornerback Darrelle Revis offered some perspective on what made Rex Ryan’s squad different from the team that failed so painfully down the stretch last season under former coach Eric Mangini: “Yes, a coach can change the atmosphere, and coach Ryan has done it ... [last season] it just started slipping, and when it slipped, we couldn’t get it back, and I think Mangini was one of the reasons. There’s things you just gotta ease up on and he just couldn’t ease up. I mean, we’re men, we’re not boys, and I think Mangini kinda ran it like a high school team.’’
Revis’ words, quoted by Newsday, resonate far beyond East Rutherford, N.J. Across the sports landscape, there’s an undeniable shift in the coaching zeitgeist, away from the classic, stern disciplinarian and toward coaches like the more easy-going Ryan.
The loudest indicators of this trend have come in college football, with Mike Leach’s firing at Texas Tech for the alleged mistreatment of receiver Adam James only the most prominent case; South Florida’s decision to dismiss Jim Leavitt — the only coach the Bulls have known and the man who put that University’s football program on the map — after whispers that he struck a player tell a similar story, as did the University of Kansas’ firing of award-winning head man Mark Mangino after reports that he verbally abused players.
Make no mistake, however — the aforementioned coaches are far from outliers. They were not engaged in a kind of cruel, personal sadism but rather were engaging in harsh coaching practices that were once not only condoned but actively encouraged. Until recently.
There are two major reasons for this shift. The first is perhaps the most intuitive: education. As we learn more about the proper treatment of sports injuries — particularly concussions — coaching decisions that were once the norm seem barbaric. Regardless of whether imprisoning Adam James in an electrical closet adversely impacted his medical condition, once the word “concussion” entered the equation all parties involved — except for Mike Leach, who would pay the price with his job — appropriately treated his case with all due diligence. And as more is learned about how injuries can be prevented, coaches such as Mangini — who lost impressive rookie running back James Davis earlier this football season due to an injury sustained while the coach let him practice without shoulder pads — look increasingly outmoded and, frankly, unintelligent for unnecessarily stretching their players beyond their limits.
The second reason is money. As Revis alluded to, pro and collegiate athletes are no longer boys — rather, they’re precious assets. It’s no longer feasible for a coach to lord his authority over a player making millions who would both represent a bigger loss to the owner if benched or hurt and brings in more money for the organization in terms of buzz and merchandise sales.
In much the same vein, it no longer makes sense on the college level to drive high profile recruits into the ground when they were heavily courted by their University for the express reason that their acceptance of a scholarship would bring in boatloads more money for their school. Fortune in college football now favors those who embrace this new reality.
Lane Kiffin may be a walking disaster, with a trail of NCAA ethics violations following him from Knoxville to Los Angeles like Linus’ dirt cloud, but there’s a reason the light-headed Kiffin has advanced while brilliant football minds such as Leach have prematurely hit the end of their roads: the great majority of his lapses — particularly his staff’s use of official “hostesses” in recruiting — involve pampering players and raising them up, rather than tearing them down.
What has stayed constant, though, is that talent and not coaching wins games. Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels may have proven his coaching chops by benching starting tight end Tony Scheffler and uber-star wide receiver Brandon Marshall before his team’s do-or-die week 17 game; unfortunately for McDaniels, the rest of the AFC had the last laugh when the Broncos gave up any hopes they may have had of making the postseason in a shocking blowout loss to the woeful Kansas City Chiefs.
Ultimately, this is all a positive evolution in the history of American sports — although it will be accompanied by inevitable overeactions, such as South Florida’s firing of Leavitt.
True, the BCS National Championship victory of the Alabama Crimson Tide under old-school disciplinarian Nick Saban may argue against such a trend; but then again, has there ever been a time when following Alabama has paved the best way forward for the rest of the nation?
— Contact Asher Smith