Opinion: Ignorance No Defense for College Coaches

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Anderson Independent-Mail (South Carolina)


College coaches wield immense power over personnel. They can control the daily schedules of 100 players. They can control what they eat and how long they sleep. They can control what they wear and what they study. Young players acquiesce to the commands, because coaches also control playing time.

However, coaches cannot control everything. The immaculate facilities they construct cannot keep players confined forever. They cannot order chaperones for every late-night car ride. They cannot plant spies at keg parties.

Yet, NCAA regulations presume omniscience. Coaches are held responsible for what happens under their watch, even if they do not see it. They are expected to know the indiscretions of every coach they have hired and every player they have signed. The assumption is "there is no way in the world they could not know."

How could University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino not know one of his assistants coordinated prostitutes for prospective players? How did Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno not know one of his assistants sexually assaulted multiple children? How did University of North Carolina coaches not know their players were awarded passing grades for classes they never attended?

How can coaches, the certified control freaks, be completely oblivious to such egregious offenses? Considering how much their reputations directly affect their occupation, most coaches are tediously vigilant. Some have followed scandals and dismissals with defamation suits to protect their public image, regardless of what they knew, did or ignored.

The NCAA has a higher standard than the court of public opinion and a lower threshold for reasonable doubt than the actual judicial system. Whether a coach was aware of an infraction or not is irrelevant. Whether the NCAA can prove it or not is apparently immaterial.

"The NCAA has already said that I'm responsible for everything our guys do, whether I know about it or not," Syracuse University coach Dino Babers said. "It doesn't matter how I feel about that topic. Anytime someone goes rogue and does their own deal, you've got to say he's one of your guys. It's really not fair, but you've got to take the hit."

Heavy is the head that wears the ball cap. The neck wearing the whistle could easily land under the guillotine, even when he had no hand in the crime. Coaches are judged by their subordinates' transgressions and evaluated by how they respond to them.

"You can bring a player into your office every day and talk to him and he can say, 'Oh, I'm doing perfectly fine, Coach," Wake Forest University senior defensive lineman Wendell Dunn said. "Then, he can go out there and do whatever he wants. He's a man at the end of the day. I don't think it's fair to the coach, because we're all men, and we make our own decisions."

Dunn's charge of personal accountability is certainly valid, but there is some merit to such a stringent standard of culpability. The NCAA rarely enforces its rules or prosecutes infractions efficiently, but encouraging coaches to promote integrity and honor is vital. Instilling those values is a duty, or at the very least, an equitable transaction in exchange for what players give to a program.

The elevated expectations explain why Clemson University coach Dabo Swinney emphasizes character and chemistry when assessing potential staff members or recruits. He certainly has not assembled a roster full of choirboys and bookworms. Yet, through Swinney's tenure, Clemson has posted exceptional academic progress rates and has not been sanctioned for any major NCAA violations.

All while pursuing a national championship.

A culture of accountability can extend past playbook assignments. When it spreads from the practice field to the classroom, from the stadium to the frat house, a coach no longer needs to serve as detective, therapist, dorm warden or chaperone. Players police themselves.

"That's where leadership has to take place," Dunn said. "If I'm out at a party and I see one of my teammates and he's taking a drunk girl home and I know she's too drunk to consent to do anything, I should step in and tell him, 'No, you're not doing that.'

"We're out there. Coach isn't out there. Coach can't be out there with us. As leaders on any team, it's your job to be accountable and hold your teammates accountable."

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July 17, 2017


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