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Over the years, line between tough and abusive coach has changed

It seems so contrary to the avuncular image that has made him a television star, but before Lou Holtz was an old coach, he was an old-school coach. "I grabbed a face mask on a player," Holtz said in January, "because I wanted to make sure I had his undivided attention."

On Sept. 21, 1991, NBC cameras captured Holtz, then the coach at Notre Dame, leading freshman Huntley Bakich off the field by his face mask. Holtz then blasted Bakich on the sideline for fighting with a Michigan State player after a play had concluded. Today, a coach at such a high-profile school yanking a player off the field by his face mask would earn wall-to-wall coverage on every media platform, a review by the university and certain disciplinary action against the coach. In fact, there is a high probability such an act would result in the coach's firing.

What happened 19 years ago? The Chicago Tribune addressed the incident in its Sept. 23 edition in a three-paragraph note at the bottom of a Notre Dame football story on page C-14. A follow-up came two days later in the form of a two-paragraph note at the bottom of a college football roundup on page C-7 that covered Holtz's apology.

Even though Holtz tried to keep Bakich from breaking the rules of the game, he knows his actions would have dominated the headlines and possibly cost him his job today.

"I probably shouldn't have done that, but things were different," Holtz said. "Society's different."

Indeed it is. The past four months have proven that the rules governing how football coaches treat players bear no resemblance to the ones in effect when Paul "Bear" Bryant put his Texas A&M team through a brutal training camp in the tiny town of Junction in 1954, nor do they resemble the ones in effect when Holtz pulled Bakich's face mask.

Mark Mangino was fired at Kansas after former players accused him of a pattern of mental and physical abuse. Jim Leavitt was fired at South Florida after he was accused of striking a walk-on in the face during halftime of the Bulls' game against Louisville (Leavitt has denied the accusations and is suing the university). Texas Tech fired Mike Leach ostensibly for his treatment of receiver Adam James.

As coaches across the country reassemble their teams for spring practice this month, they would do well to heed the lessons provided by the Mangino, Leavitt and Leach cases. Gone are the days when coaches could cuss a player with impunity. And forget about grabbing a face mask. "The old way of doing things is going to be questioned more and more," said Greg Dale, a sports psychology professor at Duke who routinely speaks to coaches groups about effective motivational tactics. "Whether they want to admit it or not, the line has moved. What was acceptable in a lot of cases is not going to be acceptable anymore."

That shift has forced coaches to adjust. Abuse simply won't be tolerated. The shift also has produced a backlash by former players and coaches that poses another important question. Have decades of artificial self-esteem boosting made American society so wimpy that a football coach can't raise his voice to a player anymore without the player running to the athletic director and demanding the coach be fired?

Of course coaches can still yell. But the distinction between high-volume correction and mental abuse has changed. When accusations surfaced that Mangino had chided a player whose brother had recently been shot by suggesting that he would send the player back to his crime-ridden hometown "so you can get shot with your homies," those who played football in the later decades of the 20th century probably nodded knowingly. It seems almost everyone had a coach who would apply the verbal equivalent of a cattle prod to the darkest recesses of his players' minds to produce a desired result.

Other coaches say they try to avoid getting too personal in their critiques. Limiting criticism to what transpired on the field can help coaches avoid situations such as Mangino's. "Our line is that you don't ever embarrass a young person," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "You don't ever degrade a young person. You make sure that you try to push him, but you don't ever touch him unless you're jumping up to high-five him."

Anyone older than 30 who played football probably also had at least one coach who ordered physically harmful punishments. Mangino's undoing came quickly after former Jayhawks defensive lineman Corey Kipp told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World that Mangino had forced Kipp to "bear crawl" across the field at Memorial Stadium in spite of the fact that the turf was too hot to touch on that 2003 day. Most damning were photos Kipp provided the paper taken immediately after the incident that showed a huge chunk of flesh was either burned or worn off of Kipp's right palm.

Even 20 years ago, no school would have fired Mangino for such behavior. But society has changed, and so has the role of the college football coach. He's now a millionaire CEO, and he's expected to act like one. "Sometimes, what coaches think is acceptable, many other people think is not acceptable," said Dale, co-author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Coaches. "What other profession in the country can you regularly abuse people, swear at them, belittle them, threaten them, and still keep your job?"

Military drill instructors can, but they have good reason for their methods. They are training soldiers to deal with life-and-death situations. That isn't the case for football coaches. "Coaches are going to be held much more accountable for what they do," Dale said. "They're under much more scrutiny than ever before."

But why now? Because Holtz is absolutely correct. Society has changed. Physical abuse, while always frowned upon, is now automatic grounds for dismissal. Verbal and mental abuse, once tacitly accepted an even encouraged, now isn't tolerated by business executives or athletic directors.

That probably is for the best; no one should go to work or to practice in fear or physical or mental abuse. Unfortunately, some of today's players may not accept the difference between genuine mental torture and legitimate criticism. "You can't yell at a kid anymore, it seems, otherwise you get sued," former Notre Dame defensive tackle Chris Zorich told BlueandGold.com in January. "You can't grab a kid's face mask, and if you stick a finger in his chest you get fired. Whoever started all these new rules about coaching football is probably the same person who said every kid in Little League should be awarded a trophy for participation. Are you kidding me? Now the kid doesn't know what it means to truly earn something."

Coaches tend to coach the way they were coached. In the case of most college coaches, they men born in the '60s who learned played in high school and college in the '70s and '80s for men who played their football in the '50s and '60s. In other words, some of today's coaches carry pieces of a McCarthy-era mentality. Meanwhile, they must now reach a generation ill-suited to endure criticism of any kind.

In his 2009 book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How To Manage Generation Y, Bruce Tulgan relayed a shocking tale from an experienced nurse. While training a young nurse, the older woman criticized her trainee for almost giving the wrong intravenous medication to a patient. This was important. The younger nurse could have killed the patient. Instead of responding with remorse, Tulgan wrote, the younger nurse told the older one that she'd handled the conversation wrong and that she should have led with some positive reinforcement.

That sort of thinking makes older coaches cringe. "False praise cheapens praise that's earned," said former college and NFL coach Jerry Glanville. "You should never deal in praise unless it's real."

Generation Y, according to Tulgan, was born between 1978 and 1990. Today's coaches must deal with the members of Generation Z, which received the same participant trophies and false praise as their predecessors but who also barely remember a world without Facebook and Twitter.

Dale pointed out that long held locker room code of silence means little to athletes raised on Facebook. "Kids are used to sharing their entire lives on Facebook and Twitter," Dale said. "It's nothing to them to talk about anything that goes on in their lives. Some kids are going to be more likely to talk about what a coach says to them. Or if a coach slaps a kid across the face last night at practice and the kid sends it out and now 500 people know about it -- and it grows and grows."

If USF's Leavitt indeed struck walk-on Joel Miller, he probably would have been fired in any era. Remember, Ohio State fired Woody Hayes -- the best coach in the program's storied history -- after Hayes punched a Clemson player on the sideline during the 1978 Gator Bowl. The difference in Leavitt's case is that accusations such as the one he faced used to stay in the locker room. Leavitt's incident wasn't revealed on Facebook or Twitter -- several players confirmed the story after Fanhouse.com writer Brett McMurphy was tipped off -- but it's difficult imagine so many players breaking the code even 10 years ago.

Now, coaches fear disgruntled players taking to Facebook or Twitter to unload dirty laundry. That's why Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema always warns his assistants to think very carefully about any criticism they offer or punishment they dole out. "That kid is in love with you now, but he's got a five-year career," Bielema said. "So we never do anything that gets in the gray area. We never do anything that crosses the line. Because if you do, it's going to be brought up later. You can't run away from history."

Coaches also can't run away from parents. And sometimes the toughest parents to deal with aren't the ones calling and asking for more playing time. It's the ones who always believe their child is correct. "Kids are taught by parents to question authority more than ever before," Dale said. "When I was an athlete, if the coach told me to do something and I went home to talk to my parents about it, they always took the coach's side. ... That doesn't happen anymore."

Still, the gadfly parents who whine about playing time do cause problems. Just ask Leach. That's why, for the sake of Duke coaches' sanity, Dale annually gathers all the parents of incoming freshman athletes for a seminar titled Drop Them Off And Let Them Go.

So what's a coach to do in this sensitive age? Don't stop being tough, Dale advised. Just don't get physical, and don't make it personal. Alabama's Nick Saban said the worst punishment he can inflict on a player is to withhold playing time. Saban believes that in coaching -- just as in parenting -- the key is finding the proper motivational carrot. "The way I've always approached punishment is that it has to be something significant to that particular player," Saban said. "It's just like my daughter. If you take her car keys and her laptop and her telephone that she talks on all the time ... you can get the dishes washed, the room cleaned up, the car washed -- anything you want. That's what works with her. Is that punishment? It's certainly not something that's abusive, but it does change her behavior."

Glanville said that as a young high school coach in the '60s, he grabbed face masks and cussed players. He said he stopped grabbing face masks when he joined Western Kentucky's staff in 1967, and he said he learned a valuable lesson when he joined Bud Carson's Georgia Tech staff in 1968. Carson never allowed a member of his staff to question a player's courage. "He said, 'They wouldn't be here if they weren't courageous people with a goal,'" said Glanville, who never again questioned a player's courage. Later, Glanville gleaned another lesson while reading a story about UCLA basketball coach John Wooden in a Delta in-flight magazine. By the time the plane landed, Glanville had decided that if Wooden could win all those championships without uttering a profanity, then Glanville could swear off swearing. So he banned it on his practice field.

Those lessons came in handy a few years ago when Glanville was defensive coordinator at Hawaii. Though a lot of parents have softened, not all have. When one father came to drop off his son, he handed Glanville a large stick. Use this if he gets out of line, Glanville remembered the father saying. Glanville politely declined, believing his no-swearing, no-questioning-of-courage methods would work as well as the stick. Besides, Glanville said, "the kid weighed 315 pounds."

If Glanville could change his ways, and if Wooden could be the greatest coach who ever lived without resorting to any techniques that wouldn't be considered abusive even in the most sensitive of societies, there is hope for the yellers, the face mask-pullers and the chest-pokers in the college football coaching community. They can evolve enough to keep their jobs and still win.

"It's going to make them better teachers," Dale said. "It's going to force them to be better at what they do."

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