Football season is here and I’m loving it. The kickoffs during that first week of College football are the first harbingers of my favorite season of the year, fall. I’m definitely a bigger fan of fall than of football. But I do love to watch football. Its not that I’m a rabid football fan; I never played organized football. Most of the football I played as a kid was “unorganized.” Among my most treasured childhood memories are the “unorganized” Sunday afternoon football games I played with my brothers and cousins in the front yard of Granny and Grandad’s Magnolia Street home.
This past Thursday night, I was really excited to be able to watch the prime time, “organized” match up of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Louisville Cardinals. Leslie and I have spent a number of memorable vacations in Gulf Shores, Alabama (actually, Fort Morgan for those of you familiar with the area). As a result, I’ve become somewhat of an Alabama football fan. So I was particularly looking forward to this game. And it didn’t hurt that they would be playing – and most likely annihilating – UK’s in-state rival, the University of Louisville.
As I watched the game unfold, once again I was in awe of the talent that Coach Nick Saban has been able to recruit and develop. That’s why, like our own University of Kentucky basketball team, the Crimson Tide football team is always in the hunt for a national championship. So with each set of plays during the season-opening game, I became more excited about having a whole season of football ahead during which I could follow this impressive Alabama team. And then came Saban’s interview at the end of the game.
You’ve probably heard about it but in case you haven’t, let me briefly recap the incident. The big question leading up to Alabama’s opener was which quarterback would start. Would it be Jalen Hurts, the returning quarterback? He led Alabama to national title games each of the last two years and a championship only last year. Or would it be Hurt’s 2017 backup quarterback, sophomore Tua Tagovailoa? Saban had actually benched Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa in the second half of the 2017 national championship game.
So in the weeks leading up to Alabama’s 2018 season opener, sports talk shows were filled with endless banter about which athlete would win the starting position. And Saban was determined to keep the answer out of the press. He even refused to provide the answer to a reporter as the team came out on the field. As it turned out, Tagovailoa took the first snap.
While Hurts did make an appearance during the Louisville game, it was Tagovailoa who got the lion’s share of minutes and led the team to a convincing 51-14 win. As the victorious Alabama team left the field, ESPN reporter Maria Taylor asked the question everyone wanted to ask: what had Saban learned about the two quarterbacks during the course of the opening game? With arrogance and disdain in his voice, Saban gruffly responded:
“Both guys are good players. Both guys can help our team alright. So why do you continually try to get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of them? I’m not going to, so quit asking.”
Saban’s beet-red face and his angry, husky voice communicated disrespect and outright hostility. USA Today aptly described his response as a “temper tantrum.”
Now here’s a 66 year old man being paid nearly $10 million a year as head coach of the preeminent team in college football treating an ESPN reporter with a degree of contempt and disrespect that wouldn’t be acceptable even if the reporter had asked a highly inappropriate or personal question. I was dumb-founded and totally disappointed! And excuse me for being old-fashioned, but this was a young woman he was responding to. Give me a break! His team had just won the first game of the season and the best Saban could do was to try to humiliate the female reporter who asked the question everyone wanted to ask? I mean, where is the gratitude for being the guy fortunate enough to coach such a stellar team? Where is the respect for not only the reporter but also the thousands of fans and viewers who were legitimately interested in Coach Saban’s response?
I know this incident is relatively minor when compared to some of the shameful behavior we’ve witnessed from both college and professional coaches. But it brought all those back to mind. Do coaches no longer see themselves as role models for our young people? It seems I ask myself that question every time I watch a college or professional game. As the head coaches pace up and down the sidelines, it doesn’t take a professional lip reader to see that many are spewing an endless stream of curse words from their lips. What a terrible example that gives our young people. It says, “Its okay if you are a successful coach to verbally berate and degrade referees, assistant coaches, players and reporters.” How can these coaches sleep at night? Why do owners and athletic directors put up with this behavior? Why do WE put up with this behavior?
Now Saban did personally call ESPN’s Maria Taylor to apologize for his behavior. He also made a public apology (although, in my opinion, a quite tepid one) during a press conference. So I give Coach Saban credit for owning up to his error and making both private and public apologies. I’ve always told my kids, “Everyone makes mistakes. Your character is defined more by what you do AFTER the mistake than by the mistake itself.” At least Saban went through the motions of apologizing for his behavior.
Its tempting for me to recount and comment on other recent examples of despicable behavior by coaches. Urban Meyer and Rick Pitino come to mind. But I will resist. Rather than placing the spotlight on these bad apples, perhaps it would be more productive to look at the kind of behavior we should be looking for, not only in coaches, but in all those adults whose behavior our children are likely to emulate. Plus, this reminds me of a great story…..
When our son, Ben, was five years old, he started showing an interest in the UK basketball team. So one snowy winter evening, I took him out to Ruby Tuesdays in Lexington Green where the local radio station was hosting a weekly call-in show with UK basketball head coach Tubby Smith. The normal bustling crowd these evenings typically generate didn’t materialize that night due to the inclement weather. As a result, we were able to sit very close to Coach Smith and the radio crew.
Another consequence of the low turnout was a lack of questions from the live audience. So at one of the first commercial breaks, a member of the radio crew came over to our table and asked Ben, “Hey, young man, would you like to ask Coach Smith a question after the break?” Ben’s eyes immediately lit up, a big smile came on his face and he replied, ” Yeah! Yeah! I want to ask Coach Smith a question!” Before I could say anything, the gentleman was gone but not before he quickly informed me that he would come to Ben immediately after the break.
Turning to Ben, I asked, “So Ben, what question do you have for Coach Smith?”
Of course, I knew what his response would be and he didn’t disappoint. Still sporting the big smile, he responded with an excited giggle, “I don’t know, Dad. What should I ask?”
After working through several possibilities we settled on “What do I need to do to become a Kentucky basketball player?” It was the best I could do with the 30 seconds we had.
So, sure enough, right after the break, with a microphone in his face, Ben proudly queried the coach.
Now I was already a “Tubby fan.” And while I was under no illusion that Coach Smith was infallible, his words and actions as a coach indicated to me that he was a man of some character. Nonetheless, I was still surprised at his response to Ben’s question. The coach’s answer was immediate and without hesitation.
“Son, is that your dad you are with?” With a nod of his head, Ben claimed me as his father.
“Well, son, that tells me that your dad loves to spend time with you and is likely a good father. The most important thing for you to do to prepare yourself to be a Kentucky basketball player is to obey your parents. It may not seem like it sometimes, but they know what’s best for you.”
In the twinkling of an eye, I was instantaneously transformed from a Tubby fan to a Tubby SUPER fan. And I remain so today. Now the radio guy had not prepared me for what happened next. As soon as Coach Smith finished answering Ben’s question, the gentleman stuck the mic in my face and said, “So Dad, what would you like to ask Coach Smith?”
I said exactly what was on my mind: “I don’t have a question but I would like to thank Coach Smith for the character he displays while on the court. There are very few coaches left these days who I would encourage my son to imitate but you are one of those. Thank you for being that kind of coach.”
And I meant it. I was sure the advice the coach had given would stick with my young son for some time to come. And it was particularly exciting over the next several weeks to sit in front of the TV with my son and watch Tubby lead his 1998 team to win Kentucky’s 7th NCAA national championship.
This interaction with Coach Smith brought to mind a coach I looked up to as a kid. Somehow, I grew up cheering on the Dallas Cowboys. I’m not sure how I came to like the cowboys but I remember idolizing Roger Staubach and his coach, Tom Landry. Even though I was quite young, I came to understand that Coach Landry was a man of integrity. And I wanted to be like him. I also began to recall more recently how our daughter, Bailey, developed a similar level of respect for another admirable quarterback and his equally admirable coach: Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy. It was a joy to spend a Sunday evening with Bailey watching the Colts led by Manning and Dungy. We had fun watching together and I felt good about her observing the way these men handled themselves on the field. We need more of these kinds of players and coaches on the field. And we need them in all walks of life.
I’ll wrap this blog up with a more recent example of highly commendable behavior by a college coach. In August, Kentucky fans were treated to a unique opportunity to watch our basketball Wildcats play in a summer event in the Bahama’s. I was stunned when on the morning of August 7, I saw a tweet that the team was at that moment washing the feet of some needy children and providing the children with new shoes. Wow! Serving is one thing; washing feet is quite another. I grew up as a foot-washing Baptist and appreciate the deeply humbling and moving experience of washing someone’s feet. Coach John Calipari apparently understood the same thing. Here is what the coach tweeted about the experience:
“To wash the feet and put shoes on someone who may not have any with @Samaritans_Feet today was the ultimate lesson in servant leadership for our guys. How do you make a difference in other people’s lives and bring true joy? Incredibly powerful morning.”
I can’t claim to know much about Coach Calipari other than what I see in media coverage. But the fact that he provided an opportunity for his players to serve in such a meaningful way gives me a clue that he understands the spotlight he and his team are in and that he is attempting to provide good role models for young Kentucky fans. For that I am grateful.
It would be great to hear from you if you could identify coaches that have provided great role models for you or your kids. Coaches have such an impact on our children. Thanks for reading.
Featured Image courtesy of US Air Force.