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They’re coaches, not gods

Updated: January 1, 2012 8:21AM

Could it be that within the span of a few weeks, two of the most accomplished coaches in NCAA history will be sidelined in the winter of their careers because of sex abuse scandals?

First Joe Paterno was fired by Penn State, now there are calls for Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim to be ousted.

Paterno won 409 games as head coach — the most in Division I history. He coached five undefeated teams, two national champions and won a record 24 bowl games.

Yet the first line of his obituary will also include reference to the scandal that rocked Penn State and shocked the country in the fall of 2011.

Already in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Boeheim has coached Syracuse to 862 wins, placing him eighth on the all-time list. Under his leadership, the Orange have won eight regular season Big East championships, appeared in three NCAA title games and claimed the national championship in 2003.

onYet if Boeheim is forced out or retires, his obituary will also include a reference to the scandal that rocked Syracuse and shocked the country in the fall of 2011.

Coaches, not gods

In Paterno’s case, it was that JoePa was unwilling to do more than follow the chain of command when he was made aware that something very, very wrong was going on with his defensive coordinator.

With Boeheim, it was the rush to judgment. The adamant defense of his assistant, and (much more problematic) statements about the alleged victims making up “a thousand lies” in hopes of a payoff.

By the time Boeheim issued a statement apologizing for being “insensitive” and saying the most important thing is for the allegations to be fully investigated, it smacked of spin control and an effort to keep his job.

Should we be stunned by the allegations involving trusted assistant coaches at big-time universities? Yes. Let’s hope we don’t get so cynical and jaded that we’re not nauseated by these cases.

But the reaction of the head coaching legends in these respective cases, while beyond disappointing, is hardly a shocker given the way our culture reveres such figures. The All-American athletes play for a year or two and then move on to the pros. But the head coaches, they’re on the sidelines year after year, decade after decade, getting more TV face time than any player, making millions upon millions of dollars, getting streets named after them and statues erected in their likenesses while they’re still active.

The big-time, successful head coach at a major college program can live in a world of his own making. He can yell and scream at his players; he can be rude and dismissive when dealing with the media; he can break promises and leave for greener (as in greenback) pastures; he can be utterly consumed with his work to the point where he’s barely aware of the outside world. And all of those traits will be conveniently ignored or even praised — as long as he keeps winning.

I love watching college football, but you can’t help but roll your eyes sometimes when you see how CBS and NBC and ESPN lionize these head coaches as if they were generals leading troops into a just war. And even when the cameras are gone and it’s just another weekday on campus, the head coach is ruling his fiefdom, more powerful than any athletic director or university president, let alone some lowly professor.

We often talk about the superstar athlete who has been treated like a rock star since he was 11 and becomes a millionaire at 21. Little wonder he’s not exactly versed in the social graces and he thinks the world owes him 24/7 adoration.

But what about the 60-year-old man who has been obsessed with coaching a child’s game his entire life and has been worshipped by students, alumni and the sporting world for decades? Doesn’t it stand to reason that he, too, will have a skewed sense of self-importance and entitlement?

They’re coaches. They should be leaders and role models, and indeed many coaches at all levels welcome and live up to that responsibility. But they’re not heroes or gods, and we need to stop treating them as such.

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