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Fine line between tough coaching, abuse

  • New York Times News Service
  • Published Friday, April 5, 2013, at 7:37 a.m.

Two years ago Mike Rice sat in Terry Henderson’s living room and asked him to entrust his son to the basketball program at Rutgers University. At the time Terry Jr. was a talented player at Neuse Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C., with scholarship options, and his father was trying to decide which college coach would get “the keys to my son.”

Terry Jr. was impressed with how passionate Rice was about turning a downtrodden Rutgers team into a winner: “I thought he was a pretty cool coach.”

His father was taken with Rice’s energy but sensed a lack of grounding.

“You could tell he wanted certain things out of his kids,” he said.

In the end, the Hendersons chose West Virginia and Bob Huggins, a coach who inspired loyalty despite a reputation as a stern taskmaster with a fierce on-court demeanor and who was once fired from the University of Cincinnati after being arrested and charged with drunken driving.

Neither father nor son thought about the fine line that separates a bully coach from a beloved one until the video surfaced Tuesday of Rice berating players in practice, throwing basketballs at them, kicking them and taunting them with vulgar language, including homophobic slurs.

“I saw him throwing the ball at the players and I was stunned,” said Terry Jr., who completed a successful and happy first season at West Virginia. “I was kind of sad, too.”

Shock and revulsion to Rice’s actions have reverberated through all levels of sports. LeBron James of the Miami Heat was among nearly a dozen current NBA stars who took to Twitter to weigh in on the matter.

“If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards! C’mon,” he wrote on Twitter.

But the incident also has prompted some soul-searching within the coaching ranks, especially among college basketball coaches who have seen some of their colleagues toe the line between fiery motivation and abuse.

In February, Mike Montgomery, the basketball coach at California, shoved one of his star players, Allen Crabbe, in a game. In November, Morehead State coach Sean Woods pushed guard Devon Atkinson in the back as he came off the floor for a timeout, then chastised him nose-to-nose as he took a seat on the bench.

One former coach, Dan Dakich, admitted that he would be uncomfortable if a tape of some of his motivational techniques ever emerged. He played four years for Indiana coach Bob Knight, who was fired in 2000 shortly after a tape appeared to show him putting his hands on a player’s neck. Dakich, now a broadcaster, was an assistant coach to Knight for 12 years.

“I’d be a hypocrite if I came on here and said I haven’t yelled and screamed at players — I did,” he told ESPN Radio on Wednesday. “I was crazy and am sure if I looked back and heard what I said I’d be disgusted with myself.”

Sidelines and practice fields have long been the stamping grounds of the loud and the proud as coaches like the Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach, the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne brought championships and larger than life personalities to what had long been thought of as an honorable profession, but a modest one. Their locker rooms were their kingdoms, and what went on inside them largely remained a mystery.

Money and glamour have changed everything.

It is difficult for those who have seen the video of Rice’s abusive actions to defend his behavior, but some can understand where it came from.

“I was struck by the contempt that coach Rice had for his players — the way he treated and talked to them,” said Jim Thompson, the founder and chief executive of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization that has provided training and framework to coaches of more than 4 million young athletes. “As the money has gotten bigger, it has become win at all costs. Coaches start to see players as widgets to be moved around, and they don’t care how those players feel. It’s `What more can I extract from them?“’

Dakich knew Rice and liked him. The Rutgers coach had been a call-in guest on his Indianapolis radio show. When he saw the video, however, he said he was stunned. “I was sickened,” he added. “I wanted to hit him.”

Justin Haas, a former student manager at Robert Morris, where Rice previously coached, said the image of the coach in the montage of Rutgers practices was at odds with the coach he knew and admired. Haas said that Rice had a “fiery approach” to the game and that his practices were intense for a reason: to bring out the best in his players. Robert Morris’ three conference championships and two NCAA tournament appearances were proof that his methods worked.

“His style is nothing out of the ordinary across collegiate sports,” Haas said. “Any player, current or former, that played for coach Rice and knows coach Rice will have nothing but positive things to say because they understand his method. They became a better man and better player from their experience.”

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