Rutgers athletics mess offers window into murky world of teaching discipline


Julie Hermann, left, sits with Rutgers President Robert Barchi during a news conference where she was introduced earlier this month. Hermann was brought in on the heels of a scandal surrounding verbal abuse of players, but she too is under fire for similar actions when she coached. (Mel Evans/AP)
Mike Wise
Columnist May 28, 2013

I don’t know Mike Rice, the former Rutgers men’s basketball coach fired for throwing basketballs and lobbing ugly gay slurs at his players on a practice video or, for that matter, Tim Pernetti, the former athletic director who went down with him. I don’t know Julie Hermann, the new Rutgers AD who was vetted so well by the university that one of her former players at Tennessee, where she coached volleyball, gave the Newark Star-Ledger a copy of a letter signed by the entire 1996 team that claimed Hermann called them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.”

“How ironic,” another former player noted, “that Rutgers had an abusive coach and they’re bringing in someone who was an abusive coach.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

I do know that, if true, she probably doesn’t need to be the person hired to heal a program from the psychological scars of a coach who often governed by fear and intimidation. I do know that even the greatest motivators sometimes cross lines they can’t step back over.

But I also know I am nowhere today were it not for an f-bomb-dropping, verbally abusive, emotionally manipulative coach who — this is hard to admit — cared about me more than I cared about myself at one point in my life.

I know this is no great defense for the late Bob Nakagawa and some of the motivational “tactics” he implored.

I know when I was a sophomore in high school, playing on the varsity, four seniors walked straight from the bench right out of the gym — on Senior Night, moments after the game started — in protest of what they perceived as wrongs Nakagawa had done them.

Profane, crass, the word “Nakagawa” was echoed in the halls of Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, during the early 1980s with the same contempt befitting the evil warden in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

He got our attention more than a few times by violently slapping our knees in anger during timeouts, called us “mahu,” the Hawaiian word for gay. If I’m honest, I think he once slapped one of my knucklehead teammates across the face.

When I once asked privately after practice why I wasn’t getting much playing time my sophomore season, even though I was sure I was quicker than Matt Rodrigues, a senior, Nakagawa yelled across the gym in that instant: “Hey Matt, Wise thinks he’s faster than you. Line up. Now.” Humiliated after I lost a line drill by more than a few steps, I walked out of practice that day never wanting to play again.

And I know two years later — when I started on a state-ranked team and took my schooling seriously enough to earn a college scholarship — that Coach Nakagawa had instilled more purpose in me than I knew possible. I know that if it wasn’t for a coach such as that, I likely would have fallen in with the D-building losers crowd, one foot propped up against the wall, stoned out of my mind, hoping to work construction during the summer.

I also know if Nakagawa doesn’t cruelly dangle my high school career in front of me while I was late to another class one day — telling me to forget basketball and to go out for something else, that he doesn’t need slackers like me on his team — I coast instead of thrive. I get by. I don’t realize my potential as a person or a player.

I know there is a real reason why some grown adults pay upwards of $100 an hour to have someone push them physically and mentally in an athletic arena as inconsequential as a health club: because they know, deep down, they can’t do it by themselves. So they pay for a “trainer,” who often affects the personality of a heartless jerk to maximize results. These are often the same people who go on moralizing about bad-apple coaches, knowing if they only had Woody Hayes spotting them on the bench they could get that damn bar off their chest.

This doesn’t excuse the institutional wrong of a university that let an angry, abusive man be in charge of its student-athletes or let a tone-deaf President Robert Barchi off the hook for his bizarre, continued support of Hermann’s hire. But it does aim to broaden a discussion of whether the coach as hellish taskmaster still has relevant use today.

As a society, we now realize Bear Bryant’s refusal to grant his Texas A&M players water breaks despite 100-degree temperatures in 1954 was not harsh; it was plain inhumane. But I’ve never met a person from Alabama who brings up how badly the Bear treated “The Junction Boys” or how for a long time he refused to recruit black players to the Crimson Tide.

Indeed, the line between abusers and disciplinarians is not really a line; it’s a sliding-scale calculus in which winning percentage is a large part of the formula. Lou Holtz once led a Notre Dame freshman off the field by his facemask during a game. He also won a national championship two years earlier, so no one cared.

But sometimes it’s also a matter of perspective. Bela and Marta Karolyi were verbal abusers who called some of their pudgy pupils “pregnant goats” and transformed several teenaged Olympic hopefuls into budding bulimics — or they were master motivators, whose brutal honesty simply siphoned golden perfection out of Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci.

Bob Knight made sure his players graduated — but he also choked at least one.

For every kid who gave up the game because of an awful human being who obliterated the boundaries of language and used fear as a tool to bring out potential, what about the kids who needed to be pushed to the edge, who weren’t going any further until a seemingly deranged authority figure somehow touched a nerve that ignited something in them they never knew existed?

And do the taskmasters who crossed the abuse line rationalize in their own warped way that they helped more kids than they hurt, and that the ones they alienated weren’t going to succeed anyway?

I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t want my child talked to the way I was talked to as a teenager and I sure as hell wouldn’t want him playing basketball for Mike Rice or volleyball for Julie Hermann at Tennessee in the late 1990s.

But in my own conflicted way, I also know if Bob Nakagawa were alive today, I’d thank him for how hard he was on me at a time when I desperately needed it.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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