It was 1999, almost 20 fast years ago, and I was a Western Kentucky University student who, if you could smell past the bourbon, still carried scents of innocence. Senioritis persuaded me to take Basketball Coaching, figuring it was an easy elective. The teacher was a dignified man named John Oldham, a charming old coach who won with class and human empathy and left the profession before it could invade his morals.
When I registered for his class, I couldn’t envision that Oldham’s lessons and discussions would spark vivid memories two decades later. But they do, partly because his coaching career at Tennessee Tech and Western Kentucky (1955-71) coincided with the civil rights movement. Oldham, who turned 95 in June, had the intelligence and compassion to choose equality, and his forward-thinking methods led to integrated teams that both made his career and left him on a prouder side of history.
But he was a coach, not a humanitarian, and he would let you know that. He was fortunate to have made the right decisions, but the coaching portion of his life was rooted in the same primary goal as his colleagues: winning. He just knew how to turn off the obsession.
Right now, I’m thinking of Oldham daily. It’s my way of processing the recent wave of scandal involving major college athletic programs, most of them led by coaches who have too much power and too few principles. I’m talking about Urban Meyer’s shameful leadership at Ohio State; about the role that DJ Durkin and others at Maryland played in creating a draconian football culture that killed Jordan McNair; about the ongoing FBI investigation that rocked college basketball last season; about the aftershocks still being felt at Michigan State because it enabled Larry Nassar to be a sexual predator. We could go on, but let’s stop the depressing rundown to make a broader point.
No matter the frequency of scandal, no matter the cautionary tales of misplaced perspective and selective leadership that have ruined legacies of former coaching giants such as Joe Paterno and Rick Pitino, no matter how often history ties absolute authority to treachery, colleges continue to make gods out of men whose only mandate is to win. And as long as the mercenary has power without effective oversight, he will go too far eventually and bring shame to the institution he intends to uplift.
In 1999, Oldham was adamant about teaching me to open my eyes. We had a lively conversation before the entire class one day about discipline. He had asked us to set our rules and policies for punishment. Now he was going through scenarios and questioning how we would react. When I spoke, Oldham had concluded my policies were too rigid and punitive.
For example, I had a mandatory one-game suspension for a third instance of tardiness. Oldham folded his arms.
“And what if your star player is late for practice for a third time, and it’s the day before the championship game?” he asked.
“I guess we’d have to win without him,” I replied.
“Or lose and get fired for being inflexible,” Oldham shot back.
He told us it was best to limit the offenses we would suspend or dismiss a player for to a very short list. He told us it was important to prove who’s boss, but it was even more important to create pathways for offending players and even staff to make amends for their mistakes. I asked about integrity and the need for coaches to help their players grow.
“All of that matters, Jerry,” Coach Oldham said, according to my journal notes from back then. “But don’t pretend you’re there to save the world through basketball. Most places, you have to win, win, win — and then get to your agenda. Recognize the business you’re in. The W’s and L’s don’t have to consume you, but that’s how you’re judged. No way around it. If you want to win, you never box yourself in on anything.”
Throughout the semester and over the years, we continued the conversation about winning vs. teaching, about coaching vs. leading. Oldham made me understand what’s in the DNA of just about every major college and pro coach. “It’s survival,” he would say. “And there’s always something competing against what you want to do, whether it’s a great player who makes you change your offense or a personality that needs to be managed in a different way or a rule that you have to choose to live with or get around.”
To his credit, Oldham never lost himself in all the contradictory decisions. When he chose to start the first all-black collegiate lineup in state history in 1970, he was pressured to change his mind during a meeting with the president and two Board of Regents members. He told them no and said, “That’s the best five players I’ve got.” By the end of that season, he had led the Hilltoppers to the 1971 Final Four.
But he wasn’t some sports civil rights leader. He was a coach who happened to get it right.
“I’m glad I did,” he once told me. “What if I had gotten it wrong? Do you know how easy that is in coaching?”
That’s especially true during this time of outrageous money, fame and authority for college coaches. The contemporary coaches aren’t fundamentally different from the likes of Oldham. However, their mission to win is complicated by many more competing evils. Their pedestals are too high, and even though some of them are being knocked down, colleges fall into the same destructive pattern of letting coaches do whatever they want.
Meyer has a 73-8 record at Ohio State. He’s one of the greatest football coaches in history, and people think he can do no wrong because of that. So, as despicable as it sounds, he’s predisposed to losing perspective and being callous and secretive about accusations that his former assistant Zach Smith was abusing his wife. What did the truth mean to Meyer’s bottom line? What did doing what’s right mean to Meyer? In his narrow world, they meant absolutely nothing. He cared only about protecting his .901 winning percentage at Ohio State and maintaining the facade that he runs a flawless ship. That is the beast created when his .901 winning percentage and national title at Ohio State are the only things people tend to celebrate.
And when Meyer was forced to face punishment Wednesday night — merely a soft, three-game suspension from Ohio State’s feckless leadership — for his actions, he coldly apologized to “Buckeye Nation.” It’s worth noting that he waited nearly 48 hours after his ban was handed down — as criticism mounted — to address Courtney Smith, the alleged victim. And his initial apology came via tweet.
As sanctimonious as Meyer has been throughout his career, he looks like a fraud now. But, oh well, at least the Buckeyes remain a national title contender.
The crazy part is that these scandals still shock us. We know the deal. It makes us angry for a while. Then we doze off again. All the while, coaches remain coaches. And winning remains everything. And until public outrage reaches the level it did with Nassar and his multitude of victims, there’s always some acceptable, lame excuse to subvert reality, disregard justice and keep letting the misguided good times roll.
The embarrassing cycle will continue until we stop praising the obsessive mentality of a winning coach, start fearing the dangers of it and react by demanding that schools manage these people responsibly, say no to them more often and force them to do their jobs with transparency. The highest-paid state employees shouldn’t be allowed to do so much of their work in secret, not when their decisions can influence the perception of universities and entire states.
Oldham’s coaching career ended after that 1970-71 season. He was 47 when he retired. He became the school’s athletic director for 15 years and later served three terms as a city commissioner in Bowling Green, Ky. But he was in his professional prime when he announced his retirement to his players after a loss to Villanova in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament. He thought that was the best team he would ever coach, and he wanted to go out with that squad, which included star big man Jim McDaniels. So the Hilltoppers played in the third-place game and won knowing it was Oldham’s finale. (Later, that third-place finish was vacated because an NCAA investigation found McDaniels had signed a pro contract and taken money during the college season. Oldham was not implicated in the investigation.)
In seven years at Western, Oldham won 78.1 percent of his games, and he kept his alma mater consistently in the top 15. He had been the perfect replacement for Hall of Fame coach Ed Diddle, and he had thrived in his own, historic way, accepting black players before many programs in the South were willing to consider them.
In our conversations, he never would go this far, but I think a part of him left coaching so early because he could sense where it was headed. If he had coached 20 more years, he might have found that college basketball had become way too popular and lucrative for his liking. And as he taught me, coaches are coaches. He would have been trying to compete in an environment that seems to get dirtier by the year. Winners adapt, even when it competes against what they want to do. Losers stay rigid.
John Oldham won and escaped the mud. Or you could say he won and quit before he had to consider stepping in the mud. He’s kind enough to admit that doesn’t make him better than any of the current, blundering coaches. But for certain, he’s a lot wiser.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.