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Coach-Pupil Rivalries

December 29, 2003 Columns No Comments

Obsession With Coach-Pupil Stories Takes Away From the Game

by Phil Kasiecki

Why is the media obsessed with sub-plots of coach-pupil matchups in sports? Such meetings are often made out to be larger-than-life contests. We saw it earlier this year when the Bill Parcells-led Dallas Cowboys played the New England Patriots, coached by Parcells’ long-time defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. In college basketball, we saw it more recently when Bob Knight led Texas Tech against Iowa and Knight’s former Indiana star, Steve Alford. When the game approaches, the questions only just begin for the coaches, and often having nothing to do with the game at hand.

The end result of all the questions and speculation wasn’t pretty, as we saw Monday night.

In the days leading up to the game, writers were persistent in talking about the relationship between Knight and Alford, including the speculation that there is a strained relationship between the two. Finally, when ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla asked about the perception that there is distance in the relationship, Knight exploded into a profanity-laced reply, lashing out at the media in general.

Knight has since apologized publicly for it, but if we take out the profanity, his response really needs to be heeded. He is probably just as sick of being asked about it as this writer is of reading about it. Is this more important than the game? Two teams with designs on making the NCAA Tournament this season took to the floor in Dallas on Monday night. Texas Tech won the game, moving to 10-2 in continuing its good preparation for Big 12 play, but most of the stories coming from that game have more to do with the relationship between Knight and Alford.

To be sure, Knight’s profanity-laced reply was inexcusable, and his apologies warranted. But look beyond the actual words; the message there should be clear. The obsession with a side story like this is almost to the point of absurdity, especially when leading questions/statements are made and the facts aren’t really known. The relationship between Knight and Alford is certainly bigger than one regular season game, for both of them; the two have lives beyond the basketball court. But fans of college basketball don’t check the game results to find out story after story talking about how Knight has won all three meetings between the two, or if there is, in fact, some real distance between Knight and his former star player. They check to see who won the game, how it went, who played well and who didn’t.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the human side of athletes and coaches is one that the average fan knows little about. Many fans simply see them on the playing field, and often forget that they are real people, with real-life issues and concerns that come up. In 1998, Ken Griffey, Jr. talked about this in ESPN Magazine when he was blasted for not wanting to defend his title in the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby. But what wasn’t known until that article came out was that his mother-in-law died right after the All-Star game the year before. Griffey wanted to comfort his wife, which is perfectly understandable – but what he said in the article is very true: “People don’t see that, though. All they see is, ‘Well, he gets paid so much, he should enjoy it.’ ” Much the same, on Monday night, all we see is Bob Knight getting every other word bleeped out; we didn’t see Bob Knight as someone who was concerned about helping his team win a basketball game and get better during the season, and was too focused on that to care about whether perceptions of his relationship with the opposing coach that night are accurate or not.

Athletes and coaches are human beings, many of whom are admirable people off the playing field as well as on, and are affected by things that happen off the playing field as well as on. Their lives are bigger than what we see, and that includes their professional life since we don’t see what happens outside of games. Without seeing that, we don’t really understand them and oftentimes criticisms and judgments made of them are not made with all the facts in mind. Through the media, the casual fan should know more about the athletes and coaches they admire on television and from the stands, but not to the point of absurdity and obsession.


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