Football coaches walk fine line between discipline and abuse

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Football, by design, ranks among the most intensely physical of sports, and as such, its coaches typically are required to be unyielding in their management approach -- tough love to build tough players. Nonetheless, coaches must remain conscious of the fine line that separates discipline from abuse. The complicating factor, several former players and coaches said, is that the line is established not by the authoritarian coaches doing the leading, but by the many personalities being led.

The events of the past month reaffirmed that reality to Mark Mangino, who on Dec. 3 resigned under duress as coach at Kansas, which he guided two seasons ago to a 12-1 record and a Bowl Championship Series berth. This season, the Jayhawks went 5-7, and even as examples of his mistreatment of players multiplied, Mangino insisted repeatedly that his coaching practices would not change. Consequently, his job status did.

"I will say this: What success we've had here in recent years, you have to have an amount of intensity, structure and discipline to the program," Mangino said in a news conference four days before he resigned. "It's not easy, and you just have to have it."

That much has never been in debate. Fred Akers coached at Texas from 1977 to '86, directing the Longhorns to bowl games in all but one of those seasons. Akers acknowledged the importance of being strict with and instilling order in a team, but he said it is equally vital for a coach to demonstrate a considerable measure of self-restraint, as well.

Akers and several other former coaches contacted for this story agreed that coaching and parenting are not all that different in that regard.

"I think it's almost comical, if it weren't so serious, that too many parents and too many coaches kind of treat players and children like dirt during the week and then on the weekend when the game comes up, they tell them, 'Okay, now go out and be great,' " Akers said.

Gerry DiNardo, who coached at Louisiana State and Vanderbilt in the 1990s, said coaches say so many different things to so many different players that it can be easy to lose track of how uniquely one message can be interpreted. Former Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2001, said that if a survey on what constitutes verbal or physical abuse was conducted on any given team, "you're going to get 105 different responses."

Crouch's first season at Nebraska was the final one for Tom Osborne, the legendary coach who led the Cornhuskers to 13 conference championships and three national titles during his 25 years at the helm. Crouch described Osborne as firm and disciplined, though never one to swear at a player.

"But by the time I got to Nebraska, Tom Osborne was already the legendary Tom Osborne," Crouch said. "I'm sure that it was a little bit different when he first started in the early '70s as the coach."

The length of time a coach has been at a program can make a critical difference, DiNardo said, in the approach he takes with his players.

"When you take over a team and you haven't been in the homes of those players and you don't know the parents and you haven't built the relationships through the recruiting process, when you don't have all those things, there's times you go in there and you're pretty aggressive in what you say and what you do," DiNardo said. "It doesn't mean that you can be abusive, but you are more aggressive in your tone, you're more aggressive with the rules, the punishments and so on."

As Mangino pointed out, though, there are some coaches whose styles do not change regardless of circumstance. In the weeks before Mangino's resignation, several of his current and former players -- both at Kansas and at previous coaching jobs -- came forth with allegations of physical and verbal abuse during practices.

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