by Dan Le Batard
A lot of March Madness is about the coaches. Makes sense. Collegiate rosters change more than ever from year to year, allowing little time for allegiances to form. Coaches inevitably become the famous faces and most constant voices for their programs. Tom Izzo. John Calipari. Coach K. You see too much of them yelling from the sidelines this time of year, and you hear a lot of former coaches analyzing them on TV. Bob Knight. Digger Phelps. Billy Packer. The voice that echoes when college basketball is speaking—be it as loud as Dick Vitale's or as soft as John Wooden's—tends to be soaked in the perspective and sensibilities of the adults who walk the sidelines.
Often, those adults are old and white. Most of the players they preside over, of course, are not.
That's why what happened between Hubert Davis, Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas during an ESPN broadcast in February was such interesting television.
Indiana's Kelvin Sampson had just been forced to resign, and six of his players boycotted a practice in support of a man they trusted. Those players are all black, as is Sampson. He had been in some of their living rooms. As a father figure, he had helped them navigate uncommon problems off the court.
The relationship those players had with Sampson was more intimate than the one they have with their school, and they were angry it had been taken away. Even worse, they were upset that Dan Dakich, a white assistant coach, had been named Sampson's interim replacement instead of Ray McCallum, who is black.
That's not racist as much as it is human nature. There is comfort in the familiar. Easier bonds form between those with similar backgrounds, interests and experiences. Coming unglued, the Hoosiers were searching for a common bond.
Boycotting an Indiana practice could be judged spoiled and selfish outside of Bloomington, as it was from Digger Phelps' chair. But, upon closer inspection, it was pretty courageous. The collegiate athlete is powerless against the whims of his coach, administration and school. You don't like your situation? Go somewhere else and sit out an entire year, kid. The coach, meanwhile, can leave behind his recruits for another school and get a promotion instead of a penalty.
It's a lopsided relationship, one that makes a student-athlete become attached to a caring boss even though that boss has a lot of room for abuse. By making a public mess, those boycotting players risked angering their new coach and making their futures miserable in the privacy of practice, long after all the TV lights disappeared.
Understandably, the old coach in Phelps was miffed. He argued that the
Indianaprogram and the game itself were bigger than Sampson or any one man.
Phelps said that, if he were the boss, those boycotters would be benched for the
upcoming game. There isn't a lot of room for negotiation in
my-way-or-the-highway, and not many healthy relationships work that way outside
of sports, but it functions as a foundation for many coaches. Plus, fans seem to
like it. It is easier than empathy, and it can be filed under
Not the end to a college career he expected.
As he expressed his displeasure with the boycotters, Phelps was seated between Davis, a onetime UNC star, and Bilas, a former Duke player. They argued that the IU players were being team leaders by sitting out because they were standing up for what they believed. They just weren't leading the way a coach may have wanted. Davis and Bilas felt the players shouldn't be punished for being emotional about something that was, let's face it, very emotional.
It made for passionate discussion, seeing a young generation boycott while the middle generation defended the action to the older generation that didn't care for it. Davis and Bilas represented a bridge between old-school and new-school; young enough to remember being players, old enough to lend a strong voice to those still playing who are often shouted down. In the end, the players returned to the team, and the 44-year-old Dakich—who played and coached for Bob Knight—levied no punishment.
Shut up and play. How often have you heard that old-school maxim near the scorer's table? It's the repressed emotional equivalent of "Rub some dirt on it." But a little compassion can go a long way on the path to one shining moment. It can cross the enormous cultural and generational gap between teacher and student in college basketball.
Take Bob Walsh. Remember the name, because he'll be running a major program soon. He's one tiny guy at one tiny school, a speck of sand in the sports ocean, but he understands. Such a big word. Understanding. You have to look pretty hard to find any signs for it on the My-Way Highway. Walsh, a former Providence assistant, is the head coach at Division III Rhode Island College. He's 36 and has an uncommon connection with his players, in part because he knows how little he actually does have in common with them. After all, Walsh grew up with parents who took him to practice, in a neighborhood where most kids graduated from college. This year alone, he has dealt with an avalanche of issues foreign to him—issues that just about every college basketball coach must face. Every couple of weeks, a problem walked into his office that made him want to drop his head into his hands and cry. "They don't give you any manuals to handle these things," he says.
What do you do when one of your players practices poorly because he hasn't slept all night after protecting Mom from domestic violence? Or when a player is crying behind a gym curtain because Mom is sick and down to 90 pounds and won't stop begging him to drop out of school? Or when a player skips morning classes to secretly work loading trucks after finding out his sister was asking other students for money? And what do you say to a kid whose parents fight at home so much that he has a friend leave a car door open in case he needs a place to sleep?
"And then they're going to get to practice, and I'm going to start yelling at them because they lack focus and aren't contesting jump shots?" Walsh asks. "I couldn't handle the personal issues my players have to handle, and I'm a grown man. I'm amazed by how tough these guys are. Coaches can't instill toughness. We recruit it more than teach it. The mental side of some of these things is overlooked and undercoached. It has to scare a lot of guys in my position. It's easier to tell a kid, 'Block it out!' "
The lost Indiana Hoosiers were blown out in the first round of the NCAA
Tourney, one and done for the first time since 2001. The team lost four of its
last five games after losing only four of its first 28. Everything collapsed
around the time that the school's relationship with Sampson