Friday, April 02, 2010

A Paean to Bob Huggins

Kudos to Jason Zengerle for that rarest of pieces: a defense of Bob Huggins. OK, I'll admit to being drawn to the piece because Zengerle (a UNC grad) attacks Coach K's pretentious claims to being a great leader with pearls of wisdom for all walks of life, rather than just a good basketball coach:

And yet, despite all of this—or, rather, because of it—Huggins is a surprisingly refreshing figure* in the world of big-time college basketball, which is currently filled with coaches who are constantly pretending to be so much more than just coaches. Krzyzewski, of course, is the most egregious example of this—with his whole “leader of men” schtick that, in addition to his lucrative endorsement career, has led to the creation of an actual Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke’s business school. But pretty much every successful college coach these days now considers himself a guru who has valuable lessons to impart about not just how to beat a 2-3 zone but how to have a successful business and successful life. To pull a couple titles from the ever growing bookshelf of coach lit, consider Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s A Passion to Lead: Seven Leadership Secrets for Success in Business, Sports, and Life, which, presumably, offers a slightly quicker path to success than Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s Lead to Succeed: Ten Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life. Even a rogue like Kentucky’s John Calipari—the only coach in college basketball history to have Final Fours vacated at two different schools due to rules violations—has recast himself as a philanthropist , starting his own charitable foundation for children and organizing a “Hoops for Haiti” telethon that earned him a congratulatory call from President Obama.

I think it's fair to say that if a coach "writes" a book about leadership skills designed for a middle manager to consume on an airplane, then that creates a rebuttable presumption that I am not going to like that coach. Put another way, I can ask myself this question about coaches and their commercial ventures: would Woody Hayes or Bear Bryant do this? Can anyone see the Bear writing a piece of treacly nonsense like "Lead to Succeed?" F*** you and buy a Ford!

My only complaint about Zengerle's argument is that his reference to John Calipari at the end seems forced. There is a big distinction to be made between coaches who put out vapid tomes on business skills in order to make a buck and/or massage their egos and coaches who spend time on philanthropic ventures. The description of Calipari fits into the latter category. (This is not to say that Coach K, Calhoun, and Pitino don't do charitable activities.)

Fundamenally, most of us want to find something genuine in the world of sports. So much of what we are supposed to consume as sports fans is sanitized, pre-packaged, and massaged to remove any interesting content. Tiger Woods is the best example of this phenomenon, but there are countless examples. I liked Bob Knight from a young age because he seemed like that rarest of college basketball coaches without a filter. I liked Steve Spurrier during his Florida years for the same reason. I never liked Huggins because of the zero percent graduation rate at Cincinnati (and I probably never will), but Zengerle's article makes me think of him in a slightly different light.

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