Harris: Coaches straddle discipline's fine line

| Monday, April 22, 2013, 11:44 p.m.

Are we raising a generation of wimps? No, just a kinder, gentler generation of athletes.

Like it or not, tough-love coaching is being replaced by coaching with political correctness.

Recent coaching dismissals, suspensions and near-suspensions are blurring the lines as to how hard coaches can discipline and motivate players.

Thanks to the firing of Mike Rice at Rutgers for conduct unbecoming a college coach, the coaching profession is undergoing self-examination.

But it will require patience for coaches — some of whom may have taken liberties with their players that no longer are considered permissible.

“When people hear about positive coaching, they think somehow that it's soft coaching,” said Tina Syer, who in her role as chief impact officer of the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance emphasizes to high school and youth coaches and athletes that coaches can be successful and intense without being negative. “You can be a positive coach and get the best out of your athletes.”

Syer said the Positive Coaching Alliance has been swamped with calls from around the country since Rice's dismissal. However, the coaching profession has been impacted negatively often in recent months.

In February, University of California men's basketball coach Mike Montgomery shoved his star player, Allen Crabbe, during a game. Montgomery apologized and avoided a suspension, prompting Crabbe's mother to respond, “I'm probably having a hard time putting it behind me.”

Morehead State basketball coach Sean Woods was suspended for one game for shoving a player during a game. Another Morehead State player said after the incident he liked playing for Woods and “what happened the other night, that's nothing. That's why he does that, to get you motivated.”

Two other coaches weren't as fortunate.

Indiana (Pa.) women's basketball coach Jeff Dow was fired after five years, despite a 108-40 record and three appearances in the NCAA Division II Tournament.

The Tribune-Review and WPXI-TV received copies of a letter criticizing Dow and his staff, who were questioned by school officials about their coaching methods and treatment of players. Allegations in the letter include Dow slapping one player and throwing a basketball at another, striking her in the back of the head and causing a concussion. Dow denied slapping the player and said he accidentally struck another player with a routine pass during a defensive drill.

No players on this year's IUP team publicly criticized Dow's coaching methods.

Rice, who also coached at Robert Morris, was dismissed for shoving his players and throwing basketballs at them, as well as yelling gay slurs.

However, it wasn't until video of Rice's abuses appeared on ESPN that Rutgers' administration got rid of him. Athletic director Tim Pernetti was fired because he witnessed video of Rice's abuse before it went public, yet suspended the coach for only three games. Assistant coach Jimmy Martellli — who also served under Rice at Robert Morris — resigned under pressure for displaying similar behavior.

“A lot of coaches just do things their coaches did to them,” said Aimee Kimball, who in her role as director of mental training at UPMC Sports Medicine works with coaches and athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school level.

“It was accepted because they were authority figures who can do no wrong. Coaches should always be aware they're role models for their players.”

The origins of Rice's coaching tactics — so offensive to many — are deep rooted.

At Boardman High School in Ohio, Rice starred on the basketball team where “there were a number of incidents where I had to sit him down. I threw him out of the gym on a number of occasions,” former Boardman coach Al Burns told the Youngstown Vindicator newspaper. “I tried to curb his swearing and his temper, but it was always there.”

D.J. Ogilvie was Rice's classmate and basketball teammate at Boardman. “What happened at Rutgers didn't surprise me,” Ogilvie said. “To the extent of it, yes. But I wasn't shocked.”

Ogilvie said Rice — who was raised in Boardman, a suburb of inner-city Youngstown — played high school sports in an era when coaches liberally disciplined their players.

Youngstown has produced college football coaches such as Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Nebraska's Bo Pelini and Kentucky's Mark Stoops. All three coaches are regarded as disciplinarians.

“Part of me says that's where we're from,” said Ogilvie, a former Boardman football coach who now coaches high school football in Florida. “The Stoops brothers — those guys were all tough, mean, aggressive people. That's the way we were taught.”

However, Ogilvie added, “You can't put your hand on a kid. Mike went overboard.”

Going overboard shouldn't be an option for college coaches who felt it necessary to motivate players the “old-fashioned way.” From now on, what occurred in the past remains in the past.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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