Mike Leach gets fired, or how not to handle injured prima donnas
Texas Tech fired Mike Leach as its football coach on Dec. 30, ostensibly because he sent wide receiver Adam James to solitary confinement in a shed and electrical closet (says James’ father Craig, a former NFL running back and current ESPN college football analyst) or in a garage and a media room (says Leach and his attorney) after James was diagnosed with a mild concussion.
Of course, as clear by the argument over what to call where James was stashed, the situation is more complicated than that, with Leach accusing James of being a prima donna and malingerer, and his father of being overbearing like a “Little League parent,” players coming out pro and con on how Leach treated them, and the specter of Leach’s past, very contentious contract negotiations providing some insight as to why the Texas Tech athletic department thought him more pain in the ass than their previous feeling, savior of a generally hidebound program. (He’s the second Big 12 coach to make that fall in a month, following Kansas’ Mark Mangino, fired after players and parents alleged various mental and physical abuse.)
Mike Leach shouldn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
As a youth coach, I look at a situation like Leach’s and wonder, is there something I and other coaches can learn from this? Why, yes indeedy there is. While I am never going be fired before I get an $800,000 bonus (because I never will be getting an $800,000 bonus), I can see some lessons here on the relationship between a coach and a player who, for the sake of argument, was a prima donna and malingerer with an overbearing, Little League parent. There are three main lessons I see coming out of this, for youth coaches on any level — even (or especially) the college level:
1. You can’t magically turn a prima donna into a model citizen.
The speculation in the Leach case is that if James wasn’t being punished for being hurt, this was a chance for Leach to punish him for being an asshole. After all, what doctor recommends a concussion patient be sent to solitary confinement in a shed, garage, electrical closet, media room or Windsor Castle? Leach and other Texas Tech coaches portray James as being a prima donna, and apparently tried to hard-ass the prima donna right out of him.
My experience — at the kindergarten- to eighth-grade level — is that if a kid has a lousy attitude, you can’t yell it out of them. You can’t run it out of them. You can’t lock them in a closet out of them. One of the traits of a prima donna is a disrespect and distrust for authority, and you getting all Sgt. Hartman on them is not going to change that. Particularly at the youth level. You only have players for a short amount of time, and it’s not like you can threaten to take away their scholarship.
I’ve found the first step to dealing with a prima donna is to accept that the player is a prima donna. That way, you don’t overreact to everything and end up creating friction on the team. For example, on a basketball team I coached, I kicked one particular pain-in-the-ass to the sideline. Not only did that have no effect on him, but it also had his teammates wondering why they had to keep working when they were following the rules. I tried running the kid — same problem. It didn’t work on him, and his teammates were distracted because one of their own wasn’t doing drills with them.
The best I can do now is try to impress upon him the importance of being part of the team, and point out (which is true) that we win when his attitude is good, and we lose when it’s bad. I do this because I know his mood swings are subject to whether he thinks his team is good enough to be around him, and whether we’re winning or losing. You might find other ways to motivate a prima donna. But I don’t expect miracles, and neither should you. Your best hope is that, eventually, the prima donna gets to trust you and see it your way. Whatever I do with prima donnas, I tell them, whether they believe or not, that I like and respect them. Then I hope for the best.
I am a coach, not a magician, no matter how much I might like to think I have an incredible life force that turns children into the greatest human beings of all-time.
2. You’re a coach, not a doctor.
In Leach’s case, he had a team doctor to advise him on what to do, although team doctors are notorious for bending to the wishes of coaches to get players back on the field right away rather than their long-term health. Generally, unless you are a doctor also serving as a youth coach, it’s not up to you to judge whether someone is capable of playing. If they say they’re hurt, you have to lean toward taking them at their word.
That doesn’t mean you can’t teach them how to push through small amounts of pain. When my coed fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team had only five players show last week, I told them there wasn’t going to be any rest, so they would have to save being tired until game’s end. I also once had a kid tell me he couldn’t do a passing drill because his arm hurt. I said, OK, take a rest. When he went back out onto the court to shoot three-pointers, I told him he lost the argument about his arm. I’m no doctor, but if your arm hurts, you’re not shooting long bombs.
On the other hand, I have two asthmatics on my team. Even if they were among the five that had showed up on the day we only had five (and neither did), I would have never told them to work through the pain of being tired and losing your breath. I tell those kids to raise their hands immediately when they need a rest. I tell the referees to please stop the game when they do so. I also tell their parents to feel free to run onto the court if something looks wrong. They know better than I do.
3. You have to deal with parents.
It is every coach’s dream to have parents who drop their kids off at practice and games, and never make a peep. Every coach lives in fear of the overbearing parents who questions everything they do. Well, every coach has to get over that. You’re the coach, but you’re being trusted with somebody’s child. You will have many children under your watch for a short time. The parent has only that one child, or a few more, under their watch forever. Any parent who feels like a coach is risking their child’s well-being should speak up. That’s a good parent.
The problem with most parent-coach confrontations is that they’re confrontations. The parent comes flying in upset about something, and the coach gets defensive and tells them to pound sand. As a coach, you have to have this attitude: on first blush, the parents has every right to be unreasonable. It is your job as a coach to explain why you do what you do, and why you feel like that is in the child’s best interests. I’ve had a parent pull his kids off a team I’ve coached because he didn’t like what we were doing (he thought we weren’t intense enough). My reaction: I’m sorry to hear that, but they are your children, and you know best.
I’m not sure Mike Leach could make any reasonable explanation for locking a player in solitary confinement for any reason. But as a coach, you have to accept that parents have the right to ask you anything. You have the job of giving an even-keeled response. That might not help. The parent might not always be right. You might have to get others in your league involved. It’s a pain in the ass. But when you’re dealing with children, you’re also dealing with parents, so you had best accept it.