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Musings on Mangino: Part II

A few more scattershot musings:

I always find these sorts of scandals particularly compelling - Bobby Knight at IU being the most public and notorious - as they aren't about booster payments, street agents, and leased Escalades. That's basic avarice and it's hardwired into the human condition since upright walking became the craze. This is far more important than that. It calls into question the very nature of the player/coach relationship and that's a sacred thing.

What rules govern the interactions between a career-focused coach and stubborn young men with their own ideas about what serves the team best? All played out in a multi-million dollar pressure cooker with jobs, futures, public ridicule, and pride on the line? There's a potential for conflict.

Some of this conflict has to do with generational differences. The young Bear Bryant was a certified son of a bitch who was one good country doctor in Junction away from killing a player. He'd be selling insurance and facing jail time if that had happened in 2009. Back then it was suppressed and the players who wouldn't submit to his abuse were viewed as yellow.

Granted, Generation Y is just a little too precious for their own good. Piling the tinder of the soccer trophy self-esteem movement on the bonfire of cocky 20 year old males who were the biggest deal to ever come out of Topeka or Arlington isn't always fun to flick the match of hard truths around, but that's not the fundamental issue. You can still get through to them and they'll adapt to the culture you provide.

The fundamental issue is based on values that haven't changed in a long time: respect, common decency, integrity, and caring. That's where Mangino failed. Young men hunger for role models and direction and when you betray that mentoring relationship - particularly with the most vulnerable of them - you have an enemy for life. The physical stuff was nothing if he hadn't betrayed so many of his players emotionally.

Players will respect and rally behind a strong disciplinarian who tells the harsh truth to them if they have a sense that he cares about them. See Tom Coughlin. However, Mangino's pettiness and vindictiveness precluded him from building real relationships with his players, except for the golden retriever personality type who still serve their master no matter how harshly you treat them. Every company and every team has them, and God bless them, these are the people Soviet Russia, Red China, and California state government depend on. For the rest of us, without the wins, there's nothing left binding loyalty to the head man except some misplaced fealty to team and basic fear. Break down that barrier and the cattle are out of the gate.

When you're raised in Texas football culture, the idea of a coach putting his hands on you, cussing you for being a lazy ass that won't scrape correctly on the dive play, dragging you by your facemask in practice to put you in position after you blow a play, or getting a wallop to the side of your head while you're staring at the drill team is totally unremarkable. Getting nailed with a clipboard or being kicked in the ass during wind sprints was regarded as funny. A player bent over vomiting elicited a cheer from everyone. I'm sure Mike Lupica would faint at the horror of that barbaric behavior, but it's usually fine. Often healthy.

It's all about context.

We're a society increasingly incapable of judging anything with context and good reason and so now we'll be barraged with various platitudes with the Mangino story just as we were with Bob Knight as if we're on some on sort of HR retreat: a coach should never touch a player, curse a player, berate a player. I say it depends. If a player knows that you'd kill for them, never fundamentally betray them, and that you care deeply about them as people, all of those things can take on a different slant. Indeed, they can become a badge of honor. There's a clear distinction between idiotic abuse and a Zen master swatting an impudent student with a stinging call to attention.

There's also a malleable morality at work here. Our high school baseball coach had a thing for high school girls. It was fairly well known. While we were playing for state championships, no one seemed to notice. Though there was no lack of chatter. When he had a .500 season, all of the parents and administration grew a conscience and he was drummed out. We like to pretend our morality is hard and fast. In truth, for most, it's a flexible calculus of pain/pleasure and risk/reward which is then used ex post facto like a Stretch Armstrong figure to rationalize your behavior.

Watch Tennessee go through this cycle with Lane Kiffin. If Kiffin ends up working out, there is no amount of sleaze they won't defend. If he struggles, exactly equivalent or lesser transgressions to what he's comitting now will be used as the rationale for his firing and it will be done with much moralistic posturing and solemn intonations. I'm not blaming Kansas as this is basic human nature, but winning is always a sweet cologne on the nastiest funk. If Kansas hadn't lost their last five games and the Jayhawks were rolling into Austin at 8-2 with a chance to win the North, would this be coming to a head?