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Opinion: Stop Putting College Coaches on Pedestals

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USA TODAY

 

There is a certain way coaches like to talk about one another, about the things that have to happen to secure top recruits for their program, about the gray areas they have to navigate in the NCAA rulebook. Often the details are left to the imagination. Sometimes the stories come with a punch line.

In the end, there's an omertà in recruiting: If the other guy did something you couldn't or wouldn't do, best to tip your cap and try to get the next one.

But with Hugh Freeze, it was different. It was always different.

Whatever Freeze was doing to make enemies across the Southeast, it was often hard to distinguish what rival coaches saw as the greater transgression — the program's loose relationship with the NCAA rulebook or his in-your-face piety.

Coaches who recruited against Freeze didn't merely roll their eyes at him, and they certainly didn't laugh, except when it came to the nickname a few called him behind his back: Jimmy Swag.

That his tenure actually ended in a Jimmy Swaggart-esque scandal, with Mississippi discovering a pattern of embarrassing personal conduct, came as little surprise to those who long suspected that his act was disingenuous.

But just like the defrocking of Baylor's Art Briles, Penn State's Joe Paterno, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and countless others, the lesson doesn't seem to get learned by the adoring masses until they're forced to confront it through scandal and embarrassment.

At some point, can we please stop turning these guys into demigods and treat them like what they actually are?

There's nothing we can do about the insane money big-time college coaches make. There's no changing the fundamental truth that, unlike the pros, the success of college programs largely revolves around the ability of the coach and the carefully cultivated brand they present to recruits.

But we can stop fawning over their supposed virtuousness and ability to quote-unquote be a leader of men. We can stop talking about their religion and what terrific husbands and fathers they are when all we have to go on is the snapshot they want the public to see. We can stop giving them the benefit of the doubt that they "do it they right way" or "recruit a different kind of kid."

How about we stop wanting them to be anything more than good coaches whose primary goals are winning games, getting rich and doing whatever they need to do to keep their jobs?

Sure, there are plenty of good people and terrific role models in college coaching. But what qualifies any of us to distinguish them from the frauds?

Is it their ability to turn on the charm in front of television cameras? Is it because they tweet Bible verses? Of course not.

At the height of their success, Freeze and Briles were exceptionally talented at cultivating positive media coverage that helped them project images as devout Christians who ran programs that were about more than football.

With Briles, well, we know how that turned out.

With Freeze, the signs were there that the cult of personality around him at Ole Miss didn't match the reality of how he ran his program. In October 2013, a group of his players allegedly disrupted and heckled fellow students with anti-gay slurs at a production of The Laramie Project. Freeze made his players apologize, but he never projected much of a sentiment that he viewed it as a serious offense.

During and shortly after the 2015 season, both Nkemdiche brothers ended their Ole Miss careers in the headlines -- Denzel being hospitalized after significant drug use, Robert for falling out of a window at an Atlanta hotel under mysterious circumstances. Freeze says he disciplined them sufficiently, but they were never held out of games and obviously never got the message.

Then there was the Laremy Tunsil draft night fiasco, which turned the NCAA's initial investigation into a mushroom cloud of violations that established how Freeze and his staff cut corners in large and small ways to land recruits.

Still, it took until Thursday's revelation of a phone call to an escort service for Ole Miss to abandon its complete support for Freeze and for most fans to realize that Freeze might not have been the person he purported to be.

This was aided and abetted by a complicit, sycophantic media that traded objectivity for easy access to a high-profile coach, helping to craft the narrative of Freeze as something bigger than a football coach. Fans bought it because it's not enough in college sports to just have a guy who wins, but someone of purity and higher purpose -- and in Freeze's case, who made the latter a core part of his brand. In the end, they were taken in by a skilled con man who would do anything to advance his career.

Plenty of people in college football looked at Freeze and saw Jimmy Swag, but because he had beaten Alabama twice and made the program relevant in a way it had never been, an entire university lined up to defend him. Just last week, athletics director Ross Bjork was on camera talking about the terrific culture Freeze had built for the program. On Thursday, he all but threw him under the bus.

They're just football coaches. Some are better men than others, better teachers, better disciplinarians, better husbands. But when we embrace them, all we can really know is the part we see for three hours every Saturday.

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July 24, 2017
 
 
 

 

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