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.