The year was 1999, and I was trying out for the USA Jr Olympics. After 3 grueling days of tryouts, one evening, I found myself sitting in the dorm rooms of the late Jason Collier and Luke Recker who were also there trying out for the team.
It wasn’t a light conversation nor was it a casual shooting the breeze. What I heard would stick with me for the rest of my life.
Jason Collier and Luke Recker were telling Bobby Knight stories for about two hours straight. I was completely shocked at what I was hearing. The level of torment they both endured, the public humiliation, the degrading outbursts, the verbal abuse, the cursing, the yelling, the screaming at the top of the lungs, the insults, the physical abuse, the attempt to completely break them down to the lowest level, but most of all, the outpour of support their abusive former coach received from all of the adults who worshipped at the throne of Bobby Knight.
I remember asking them, why they didn’t tell somebody, and they looked at me and shook their heads as if I just didn’t understand. They told me that there was nobody to tell. Everyone was on his side in the entire state of Indiana. I remember looking at their eyes and seeing the torment still visible as they recounted different things that had happened to them. I remember looking at Luke Recker’s hands as they couldn’t stop shaking while he revisited a reoccurring nightmare that had tormented his dreams like Freddy Krueger. He talked about literally closing his eyes attempting to go to sleep and replaying Bobby Knight’s enraged yelling cursing berating abusing episodes night after night after night.
They discussed the years of therapy they both needed, the threats they received after transferring, the insults, and the criticism. And I asked them, what the devil were people criticizing you all for ? What were they saying ? They replied that people said they were weak, soft, cowards, sissies, and a lot of other expletives that I won’t repeat.
Then, I remember my senior year in 2000, Neil Reed we r public with his claims that Bobby Knight had choked him three years earlier. I remembered what Luke and Jason had told me so I immediately believed the claims. I wasn’t surprised that Bobby Knight denied the accusation, but I was shocked to see then current player A.J. Guyton not only deny Reed’s allegations, but attack his character. I remember seeing A.J. Guyton on TV saying, saying that Reed was unanimously voted off the team. And he continued to say
"Without this system, without coach Knight challenging me, that would not have been possible," Guyton said. "I say that because at Indiana you know you're going to be challenged. I don't think Neil Reed understood that. In order to become an All-American, you're going to be challenged by a coach that pushes you to the limit. It's all a process of a boy becoming a man."
It was as if he was under some trance like Children Of The Corn or something and
was programmed to say, Bobby Knight is great, Bobby Knight would never hurt us, Bobby Knight loves us like his own sons.
Then the video surfaced showing that despite the fact that Bobby Knight vehemently denied all allegations, that he accused the media of unjustly attacking him through anonymous sources, despite the fact that he publicly disparaged Neil Reed calling him a liar and attempted to assassinate his character, as it turned out, Bobby Knight had in deed done exactly what Neil Reed said he did.
That’s what I was reminded of when I saw Michigan State’s head coach Tom Izzo have to be restrained by his players while looking like an enraged mad man at whatever infraction or mistake freshman Forward Aaron Henry made in MSU’s eventual 76-65 first-round win over Bradley. Apparently, this is nothing new for Izzo but despite the fact that they were on the huge stage of March Madness with all the cameras watching, that didn’t deter him from having such a public outburst. The same way that unfortunately, cameras watching, and body cameras and dash cams turned on, don’t deter some police men from police brutality or public executions of unarmed citizens but I digress.
Seeing all of the players familiarly restraining Izzo made me think of Neil Reed’s words,
"He came at me . . . and grabbed me with one hand. I grabbed his wrist and started walking back, and by this time people . . . grabbed coach Knight and pulled him away."
Why would a coach have to be restrained by other players from attacking another player ? Surprisingly, many people don’t have an issue with this and have rationalized coach-player interaction and athlete management behavior to the point of almost hero worship and the mind state that coaches have to do whatever they need to do to “maintain order”. And furthermore, many people (sadly including a lot of parents of athletes) have told themselves that this type of verbal abuse and public belittling would somehow benefit the players in the long run, prepare them for life, and create more humble and worthy athletes. These are the same statements many people gave as a response to
every Bobby Knight accusation and/or criticism. The kids nowadays are soft and weak. They don’t need to be coddled. They need discipline. They need structure. They need to be held accountable for their mistakes.
Newsflash : You can achieve all of those things without verbally or physically abusing a player. Without publicly humiliating or berating them. Without challenging a player’s manhood or attempting to demean them to the point where they are forced to defend themselves.
Tom Izzo said at the press conference,
"I don't know what kind of business you're in, but I tell ya what, if I was a head of a newspaper, and you didn't do your job, you'd be held accountable."
Newsflahsh Again: You can hold someone accountable without abuse. The two are not mutually exclusive Coach Izzo. Furthermore, in what world besides athletics would it be acceptable to have to be physically restrained from attacking an employee by other employees because the person didn’t “do their job”
The reality is, if Aaron Henry wanted to, he could’ve put 64 year old Tom Izzo to sleep with one punch. But had he done that, all of Mainstream America would have joined together in demonizing Aaron Henry and he probably would have never played basketball again. But with Izzo knowing the position of power he possesses over a freshman player, he feels the freedom to carry on like he did.
I have seen and played for a few coaches who exhibited that same type of cowardice. For a coach to physically challenge a player knowing that he has all the power in the situation and all of the authority and that the player is without the ability to actually take up their challenge doesn’t constitute as good coaching, it is the act of a bully and a coward. And just as we have policemen (not all but far too many) who exhibit these characteristics, we also have coaches, (not all but far too many) who do the exact same thing. And just as we have a blue wall of silence where “Good Cops” refuse to call out “Bad Cops”, we have “Good Coaches” who refuse to call out “Bad Coaches”.
Now, regardless of the situation, the player has to do everything completely right or he will be vilified and ridiculed and his career may in fact be over. He would suffer a career death but the coach has free rein to act however he wants and have it be characterized as “passion” or “discipline” or “a will to win”.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for discipline. All for structure. I am a firm believer of guidelines and consequences for failure to do what is expected of you to do. But it has to be done the right way. You can still correct a player and treat them like a human being at the same time.
I coach my son’s AAU team the FBCG Dynamic Disciples and every player and parent will tell you that Coach Thomas doesn’t take any foolishness from the players. I am strict. I hold them all accountable. Do I yell at times ? Of course I do, what coach never raises his/her voice ? I have very high expectations and am definitely a disciplinarian. But discipline and a public display of verbal and potential physical abuse are two very different things.
Bottom Line: What Tom Izzo displayed during that timeout was troublesome and should have raised much more than a few eyebrows. The teeth clenched, balled fist, enraged, have to be restrained, frothing anger, channeling his inner Bobby Knight exhibition isn’t praiseworthy. This behavior shouldn’t be applauded by ESPN or anybody else. Simply put, its not ok and should not be acceptable behavior for any coach. Not even if your program is winning and you make it to the Final Four.