Are College Football Coaches Out of Control?

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Geoffrey McAllister / Lubbock Avalanche-Journal / AP

As the college football bowl season heats up, a topic much more unpleasant than marching bands and last-second field goals threatens to overshadow the rah-rah festivities: out-of-control coaches. A recent spate of disturbing incidents has brought unwanted off-field attention to the college game.

In early December, Mark Mangino, the consensus national coach of the year at Kansas just two years ago, resigned amid allegations that he mistreated his players. He allegedly poked a player in the chest during an October practice and reportedly told a former player, whose younger brother was once shot in the arm as a child in St. Louis, Mo., that "if you don't shut up, I'm going to send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies." (Mangino has denied any wrongdoing.) In mid-December, several members of the University of South Florida football team accused coach Jim Leavitt of striking a player during halftime of a game in November. The player, however, has said that Leavitt merely grabbed him by the shoulder pads.

And now, shortly before its Jan. 2 Alamo Bowl game against Michigan State, Texas Tech has fired head coach Mike Leach for allegedly mistreating a player who received a concussion diagnosis. According to reports, Leach ordered that Adam James, son of former NFL player and current ESPN analyst Craig James, be sequestered in an equipment shed and electrical closet during Texas Tech practices in mid-December as punishment for allegedly faking the concussion.

The accusation, if true, is especially remarkable, given the recent scientific reports of the long-term damage to football players from concussions. In response, the NFL has taken steps to prevent players from re-entering games after suffering head injuries. "The bubble some of these coaches live in is amazing," says Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. "In the example of Leach, it seems the whole discussion about concussions has apparently passed him by." Leach's attorney has denied Adam James' characterization of the events and says Leach plans to file a lawsuit against Texas Tech.

Most coaches aren't tyrants. Indeed, few have forgotten the lessons of Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight and Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes — on-field dictators of the old school, whose bullying tactics tainted their otherwise remarkable athletic legacies. "It sounds like these guys were doing things the old-fashioned way and got busted," says Kenneth Shropshire, a Wharton School professor who is also a sports sociologist.

What's more, in today's media-saturated world — where big-time college football teams are covered as closely as the White House by newspapers, radio, TV and all manner of websites — it would seem shocking that any coach would think he could get away with abusing a player. But coaches are more powerful than ever, with seemingly recession-proof salaries. According to a USA Today study, the average pay for major-college football coaches has risen 28% over the past two years, to $1.36 million. In 2007, 12 coaches made at least $2 million. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 25. According to the USA Today study, Leach made at least $2.7 million this year, Mangino $2.3 million and Leavitt $1.6 million. With money comes clout and perhaps a warped sense of acceptable behavior. There's also extraordinary pressure to justify the payday — and to secure an even bigger one down the road. Just win, baby.

According to a recent survey by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group, 85% of the presidents of schools with major athletic programs feel that compensation for football and basketball coaches is excessive. "The commission is concerned that the commercial values attached to college sports programs are becoming more important than the educational values for the student athletes," says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission. "That can cause problems if 'win at all costs' becomes the dominant mentality."

Sperber, who was a vocal Bobby Knight critic when he taught at Indiana University, predicts that more players will come forward to report boorish behavior by coaches. "College coaches are going to be watched more closely," he says. The risk of long-term health damage from concussions, he adds, will likely spur more players to turn on coaches who put their health at risk.

So is there any place for the old fire-and-brimstone football coach who isn't afraid to cuss out his boys and even dole out a bit of corporal punishment in order to teach his team to man up? No, insists Shropshire, who recalls getting showered with unprintable verbal abuse by one assistant coach while he was an offensive lineman at Stanford in the 1970s. "Society has evolved," he says. "We shouldn't be longing for the good old days."