The Cult of a Coach and the Culture of an Athletic Program

Photo via Kimberly Vardeman @ Flickr

How the cult of a coach outweighed the culture of the athletic department at Baylor and the hope that the culture that Kirby Hocutt created is enough to withstand that.

Photo via Kimberly Vardeman @ Flickr

Yahoo! Sports Dan Wetzel has a terrific article that you need to stop and read. To summarize, and I won’t do it justice, perhaps the problem with college sports is that we have made college coaches near gods when it comes to who they are and what they do and the programs they lead. Rather than just lead football teams, they become cult heroes, infallible cult heroes. When they do fall, like Joe Paterno and Art Briles, they have essentially tarnished this image that was crated by them, whether they wanted it or not.

Most telling, however, was that he engaged in the exact type of coaching hagiography that plagues college sports. He could have merely supported former head coach Art Briles, whose precise culpability is unknown because Baylor has made details so scarce.

Instead he sounded like a breathless fan, repeating the mindless tripe of how Briles was some kind of otherworldly leader of men, a person of the highest morals and someone who had a canny ability to save lost souls … as long as they ran a 4.5 40, of course. As such, Briles can’t be blamed.

“Coach Briles – and I don’t have all the facts on it – Coach Briles was a player’s coach, but he also was a very powerful father figure,” Starr said. “He, through the assistant coaches, to the best of my knowledge, said, ‘Here are the rules.’ And they were fairly quick, they’re forgiving, I will admit it, and that’s the same way I am. But he has real gifts and he wants the best for these young men. He wants them to get an education. He’s a great encourager. That’s what that program is. But clearly there were things that were extremely disturbing and disquieting.”

Clearly, there were.

Go re-read that paragraph. It’s a prominent attorney, former (infamous) federal judge and law professor arguing a premise at the beginning before concluding, begrudgingly, at the end that it was an utter failure, on account of those pesky “extremely disturbing and disquieting” things.

It’s the cult of a coach.

The worship of a coach that’s the problem, where the coach can do no wrong because they do the one thing that fans want, which is win. There are a lot of coaches who fall into this category, again, whether it is by design of the coach or simply a matter of winning.

I’ve hesitated posting any something about Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury being something more than what I really don’t want him to be. I don’t want Kingsbury to be this infallible head coach above reproach and I don’t want him to be untouchable. I really just want him to be a great head coach that when he sees a discipline problem, he addresses it head-on rather than sweeping it under the rug and hoping that things get better.

In thinking about this even more, the cult of the coach starts at the very top of a university, from the athletic director who looks the other way, to the school president who stays willfully ignorant of an epidemic.

A school president can only be in charge of so much and it has to start with the athletic director, who has to oversee the entire athletic department, or, at the very least, have competent people help oversee the entire department. But the culture of an athletic department starts with the AD creating a culture.

I was lucky enough to interview Kirby Hocutt and I don’t think the phrase Fearless Champion is something that he throws around for show. If I had to guess, I think that phrase Fearless Champion is where Hocutt starts to create that culture. Seems a bit silly, but when you try to instill something into impressionable young people that you have a very limited amount of ability and sometimes time to affect them it has to be simplistic and something worth remembering.

Fearless Champion isn’t just about being fearless on the field, I think it’s about being fearless in life too. Fearless to be right when everyone else around you is wrong. Fearless to be a voice of reason. Fearless to be an independent thinker.

Cultures are really difficult to build. I know that from experience. It’s rare that I have to police STP because I think you all like and appreciate the expectations that have been set. It’s not about me anymore, it’s about how we’ve somewhat figured out a way to collectively agree upon rules where we all generally feel comfortable asking someone to follow the rules and being backed up by hundreds of people who feel the same way.

Although I have never been part of he athletic department, it seems that the Fearless Champions Leadership Academy is about leadership outside of the athletic arena:

“With his multi-faceted background in education and leadership, Gionet is the perfect individual to lead this unique initiative,” Hocutt said. “Leadership education and training are critical components of student-athlete success. Along with the athletic and educational instruction they receive on our campus, Gionet will provide opportunities for our student-athletes to grow and mature as young adults and prepare them for a successful life when they leave Texas Tech. We also want to thank Coach Sharp for her tremendous vision in the successful development of the Leadership Academy.”

“Leadership is Gionet’s passion,” Sharp said. “All of his degrees have focused on leadership. He has knowledge, values and skills that all of our student-athletes will benefit from. In addition, he is a former Texas Tech athlete, so he’s been through the process and walked in their shoes. All of these factors will help him present and relay important information to our student-athletes.”

The funny thing about cultures is that they really have to take a life of their own, sometimes in the best and the worst ways. You can see an example of those “worst” ways in the current scandal at Baylor. Baylor can’t get out of their own way and the culture that they created was one of looking the other way, winning above everything, even the lives of the other students who call Baylor home.

I know the culture at Texas Tech isn’t perfect. You won’t find an athletic department that is, but it’s my sincere hope that the culture at Texas Tech is one where it’s bigger than the head coach, bigger than the athletic director, bigger than the president.

People are fallible and cultures can be that way too, but at the very least, when a head football coach is the pinnacle of the culture of an athletic program then it’s incredibly problematic because when that coach does fail, the fall is long and hard. It takes so much more to fail an entire culture if that culture is built on the principles of accountability. And if the culture is built the correct way, there’s a safeguard for a coach making decisions about his players and other human beings. It’s a collective group of personnel that make that tough decision.  And the only real decision for a coach is whether or not he should go for it on 4th down (yes, he should). I don’t know that this is the culture that Hocutt has created, but I hope that it is.

I don’t want to believe in the cult of a coach. I want to believe that the culture of Texas Tech’s athletic program is accountable to each other and the students that attend the university.


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