The best NCAA coaches are teachers, so why shouldn’t they all have to try?


The lessons that Alabama Coach Nick Saban imparts shouldn’t be limited to the football field. (Butch Dill/GETTY IMAGES)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist October 13, 2011

The best college coaches are real teachers. The trick is to get rid of the clowns who think they’re paid seven figures to watch film and run slush funds. If an NCAA Division I coach isn’t capable of teaching a class to the general student body, they shouldn’t be employed.

Coaches are at once overpaid yet underappreciated as instructors. We should ask more of them — and in the process, make it harder for college presidents to rationalize hiring frauds.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

It doesn’t seem like too much to insist that Nick Saban, in return for his millions in yearly salary, be capable of devising an academically worthwhile and coherent lecture course, with a syllabus and reading list, that’s offered each semester to all Alabama undergraduates.

A few years ago, Duke asked the question, why should Mike Krzyzewski’s teaching on leadership be restricted to a handful of ballplayers? After all, corporations pay good money to hear Krzyzewski lecture. The result was the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics, a program at Duke’s business school through which Krzyzewski does some teaching and writing for MBA students each offseason. How about we export that concept throughout college athletics, and ask coaches to share their coaching with all students?

“I don’t think there’s any question that the principles they teach, whether leadership or organization, would be wildly popular and really useful to anyone,” says Jay Bilas, the former Duke player and ESPN broadcaster.

“Every coach will tell you, ‘Hey, I love to teach,’ ” says Kara Lawson, the former Tennessee basketball player who is an ESPN broadcaster and WNBA player. “That’s at the core of any coach, because you can’t be successful in that environment if you aren’t at heart a teacher.”

Last week in this space, I proposed that varsity athletes should be allowed to major in sport-performance, similar to kids who major in dance or music or theater, because we need to fundamentally shift how we think about college athletics, and treat them as intellectually worthwhile exercises. The NCAA’s stated “mission” of integrating athletics with academics doesn’t have to be a lip-service farce; let’s really do it. Let’s recognize the deep interest that athletes have in learning a craft. While we’re at it, let’s recognize that coaches — the good ones — teach subjects with valuable content. If we did, we’d feel a lot better about their presence on campus.

This doesn’t mean athletes should be absolved from core curriculum requirements in composition, literature, foreign language, history, economics, math and science. A major is simply an emphasis. It doesn’t mean letting coaches lead exaggerated gym classes, either, with multiple-choice exams that include questions on the definition of “offsides.” It means emphasizing the teaching content of athletics and making coaches — all varsity coaches, from lacrosse to tennis — answerable to academic deans and faculty senates.

People who like to refer to “the academy” will insist that sports has nothing to teach, that it’s an intellectually worthless recreation, and no argument will win them over. But ask any athlete who studied under a good coach, and they will tell you that some of the most effective and inspired teaching they received in four years came from their coaches.

Bilas and Lawson were pretty good models for student-athletes. Bilas majored in political science at Duke, and then received a law degree. He contends basketball was not only intellectually challenging but required as much immersion as law school did.

“I don’t see any difference in terms of the time and the focus and the mental energy,” Bilas said. “It’s not better because it’s athletics, but it’s certainly not worse either. And you don’t see people going through the library and saying, ‘You’re spending way too much time in here.’ It seems like the academy can live with that.”

Lawson majored in business and finance, but she credits Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt with teaching her more about communication than she learned in her public speaking classes. All of Summitt’s teams have to read books about organizational success and executive decision-making, and prepare weekly reports on them — and are responsible for a teaching a chapter to their teammates.

“The stuff you have to remember, the concepts that you have to get down, are difficult, and it’s actually harder than studying for a test,” Lawson says. “When you study for a test, we all used to cram and then dump it off 24 hours later, but you can’t do that in sports. . . . Your recall in sports at the collegiate level has to be instantaneous. And for that to happen, you can’t just study it; you have to freaking own it. And there’s a big difference between studying something and owning it.”

Isn’t that kind of ownership what all teachers wish they could embed in their students?

The best college coaches teach sport as a set of problems and how to tease out the solutions. They don’t just teach content and skill, but how to transfer it into real-world performance through study, organization and communication under pressure. They ask, what happens if you follow a strategy to its logical conclusion? What are the consequences of making things up as you go along? Why do things break down? What are effective fallback principles when skill or strategy breaks down? What are the traits of successful organizations across professional boundaries?

Not all college coaches are great teachers, of course, any more than every member of the English faculty is. Some coaches would no doubt mail in their lectures, or bore people, or dish off their teaching responsibilities to their assistants or to grad students.

Emphasizing the teaching aspect of coaching wouldn’t cure the ills of college sport or eradicate academic fraud. Cheating is a vice, like smoking, that won’t go away. But we can at least sharpen our mind-sets and identify what it is we really want from college athletics, and get the emphasis right.

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