Behind the Lines: Good coach…bad coach

It’s a common theme on police shows, the concept of “good cop/bad cop.” On television, and perhaps in real life, one cop buddies up with a suspect, and the other comes across as a hardliner, hammering away, insulting, threatening, and otherwise defying the rules of interrogation that actual law enforcement officers follow.

Coaches do it too.

My assistant Bret Evans and I mastered the art in our three years working together, but sometimes the lines between the good and bad roles blurred a bit. It isn’t easy to always be the positive one or to always play the negative role.

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One practice, a talented, but volatile senior was in the coaches’ office again.

Jon Picard, nicknamed “Johnny Ballgame” for his love of all things basketball was at it again with us. As Bret and I worked Jon a bit, trying to “get his mind right” he stopped us.

Almost in tears, Jon asked, “Can I say something?”

“Sure,” I said. “What do you have to say, Jon?”

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Jon started one of the best heated dialogues I’ve ever had with an athlete, and Jon was an athlete, at 6-2 he could drop step and cross over better than any player I ever coached. It carried him to Casper College as Thunderbird guard, before he joined the Navy and learned all things nuclear, eventually running a power plant in Missouri.

“There’s a fine line between being a coach, and being an A-%$#%,” Jon said. “Coach Tucker goes right up to the edge of that line, but he doesn’t cross it.”

Jon looked at Bret and continued, “But, you cross that line all the time, you jump on that line.”

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“You finished?” Bret asked Jon, “You feel better? Then quit whining and get in the gym.”

They played one-on-one for almost an hour. Another good exchange between coach and player.

An exchange that sadly can’t happen these days in the era of ultra-sensitive parenting.

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I relayed this story to my longtime friend and former coaching adversary Ernie Mecca, and to Laramie boy’s head coach, and Bret’s nephew, Drew Evans.

Ernie came out of semi-retirement to coach the Laramie junior varsity and they were in town for the Strannigan tournament last weekend.

The three of us had a great conversation in the lobby of the Holiday Inn as old coaches always do when they meet.

“You can’t do good coach, bad coach anymore,” Ernie said. “It has to be all good coach, all the time, or you’re in trouble.”

I thought about that for a bit, and sadly realized he was right. All those kids that I and thousands of other coaches were able to reach by a little tough love, epitomized by the bad cop technique are no longer available in the modern era of litigation and parental micromanagement.

I got a taste of it in my final years as a head basketball coach when a couple of moms would drop by the school after game stories were printed in the paper, and their sons weren’t mentioned.

One afternoon, as I walked from my classroom to the gym one of these moms intercepted me in the hall.

“Didn’t you forget to mention someone in your interview?” she said.

She was fishing for compliments for her son, the boy who had over 10 turnovers, didn’t score, and played baseline defense like he was a matador. (Ole’ came to mind as his man repeatedly scored layups on his flat-footed defense)

I couldn’t keep a straight face. “No, I don’t think I missed anyone, why?” I said.

She stomped off.

Today a coach saying that would be on the board agenda at the next meeting. Such is the misguided, modern world of child rearing, education, and athletics.

I think of the drills my coaches had us do in practice and realize some of them would be up on charges today for what was considered just another day on the field a few decades ago.

The kids aren’t softer today than we were, but the system is surely trying to make them that way.

It’s not limited to the world of athletics.

Imagine films like Airplane, Blazing Saddles or the Groove Tube made today. You can’t, they’d never make it off the cutting room floor, they’re just too “insensitive.”

Just a couple of years ago I ran smack dab into the fragile psyche of the “woke” world one day at work.

I came across a Spanish word I wasn’t familiar with and asked a co-worker whose parents had immigrated from Mexico and asked her how to pronounce it.

Quickly, a sensitive, politically correct, early 20-something ran across the office.

“You can’t ask her that,” she cried. “It’s so insensitive.”

Was I annoyed, you bet, nothing annoys me quite as much as political correctness and its inherent limitation on free speech.

“You don’t think she knows she’s Hispanic?” I asked the woke princess.

She didn’t respond, just broke into tears, and ran out of the office.

I guessed I learned my lesson on being politically correct. You can’t, there’s always someone who will be offended, no matter what you do, how hard you try, or how carefully you choose your words. So, punt, don’t worry about it, you’ll be wrong no matter what you do, so you might as well be yourself.

Coaching is the same way.

No matter what a coach does, what play he or she calls, who they play, or how they plan practice, someone will be offended.

My mentor coaches, the guys I learned from in my formative years, didn’t worry much about political correctness. They were fair, firm, and hard on every kid equally. But that of course isn’t politically correct since it works in developing young men and women.

Back to another memory of Ernie and the competition we enjoyed with each other.

I had a great junior high girls’ track team at Shoshoni one season. Just seven little blond girls, and one brunette.

Ernie came up to me at the conference meet and said, “How is your little Barbie track team going to do today?”

I don’t remember what I said to him, but I called the girls together and let them know (without mentioning Ernie’s name) that other coaches thought of them as a “Little Barbie” track team.

These were tough farm and ranch girls from Missouri Valley, Hidden Valley, and Lysite, they didn’t appreciate being compared to Barbie dolls.

We won the conference that day. They all ran their best times of the season and had their best distances and heights in the field events.

It was political correctness in reverse, and all I had to do was put the onus of “bad coach” on someone else. As the “good coach” the kids outdid themselves.

There is a lesson in this.

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