HERE'S THE SCENE: Iowa and North Carolina State are locked in a grueling double-overtime game with a spot in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament at stake. The Wolfpack has finally opened a six-point lead with 17 seconds remaining in the second overtime. Iowa races the ball up-court, but suddenly the ball comes loose. Exhausted players from both teams dive for it, and....
CBS cuts to a shot of N.C. State coach Jim Valvano watching the scramble.
The viewers never did find out how Valvano's team came up with the ball, because all they saw was Valvano. Of course, the shot of Valvano was absolutely necessary. Without it, the fans would have seen him only 1,999 times during the telecast.
The point is this: Everyone—not just CBS—has gone coach crazy in college basketball. Call it the Cult of the Coach, call it Rock Stars of the NCAA, call it anything you want, but once and for all call a halt to it.
A shot at the end of the Seton Hall-Duke semifinal of Pirate coach RJ. Carlesimo greeting his proud parents was more than legitimate. However, we didn't need repeated takes of Angie Fisher, Mary Henson, Mickie Krzyzewski, and Mom and Pop Carlesimo on Saturday. How many times during the NCAA tournament did you hear Brent Musburger say something like, "And now Ferry will go to the line for [coach Mike] Krzyzewski"? Is that Krzyzewski U? Or the U of Krzyzewski?
Musburger's notion that the coach is the university isn't so farfetched. Is Indiana University as big as the Coach in the Sweater? Certainly, the university president isn't as important or powerful—or nearly as well-paid—as the coach at Indiana, Georgetown, North Carolina, Arizona or any number of schools where the basketball coach has been accorded the kind of hero worship once reserved for football coaches.
But shouldn't the stars of this NCAA tournament have been the likes of Glen Rice, Ramon Ramos, Danny Ferry and Kenny Battle instead of Steve Fisher, Carlesimo, Krzyzewski and Lou Henson? "I think it's a legitimate question to raise," says Billy Packer, CBS's top analyst. "Great players come and go in college basketball; that's part of its charm. But when coaches stay on top even with different players—guys like [Bob] Knight, [Dean] Smith, [John] Thompson and now Krzyzewski—we tend to focus on them. They become the product. They deserve a lot of credit, but lately we've probably gone over the edge."
Television is by no means the only offender. Print reporters tend to seek out coaches first because they are more quotable than their players. What's more, coaches want it that way. They make sure that they are accessible and that their players are almost impossible to find. And if you do find any players, more and more they sound like robots.
I call this El Deano Syndrome, in honor of North Carolina's Smith. He instructs his players as to what to say and, more important, what not to say: Never criticize anyone, always play up the seniors on your team, never give one individual too much credit, mention schoolwork at least once in every five sentences.
Then we have the Vitale Problem. I realize that Dick Vitale-bashing has become almost as much a clichè as camera shots of coaches' wives, but the man cannot get through a telecast without: 1) telling us what great guys the two coaches are, 2) telling us that at least four of the assistants in the building are ready for head-coaching jobs and 3) speculating on several brilliant young coaches who will soon be moving up to "a big-time job." What is a big-time job anyway? Was Seton Hall's a big-time job when Carlesimo took it?
If every assistant Vitale deemed ready were hired, there would be 800 head coaches in Division I instead of 294. And the ones not already there would be en route to a big-time job. Some people may laugh Vitale off, but the fact is, when he talks—which is always—people listen.
What can be done about all this? First, get the TV cameras off the coaches. If a coach is going crazy, show him. Otherwise keep the focus on the ball—and the players.
Second, let's have no family shots except at the very end of a game, and only if it produces real drama. Third, instruct all the guys with microphones to stop telling the viewers what a great meal he had with the coach. Instead, let us know how many of the coach's players graduated the year before or how much money he's being paid by a shoe company or why he has signed three Prop 48 players for next season.
Finally, all of us in the press should make a resolution for next season: Give coaches credit where it is due, and quote them when they are informative or funny. Period. They are, without question, an indispensable part of the game. But that doesn't mean they are the game.