Two Head Coaches Prove Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last
Football purists might cringe when they hear Texas players talk about dancing to rap music with their coach. Or when a USC linebacker says he would not want to play for a man who screams and curses all the time.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable,” Oscar Lua said. “I prefer the laid-back, California-beach style.”
The archetypal football coach comes in two forms, stone-faced or caustic, both decidedly autocratic. The standard was established by the likes of Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes.
But tonight, when the No. 1 Trojans meet the No. 2 Longhorns for the national championship at the Rose Bowl, a different breed will pace the sidelines.
Pete Carroll of USC is known as personable, a prankster even, conducting practices as upbeat as they are competitive. Mack Brown of Texas says he has tried to loosen up and better understand his players, which includes lending an ear to their music.
“For too many years, you had to scream and shout and beat a table to be a coach,” Brown said. “That’s not right.”
During their careers, Carroll and Brown have been characterized as too soft. Now, with USC and Texas sitting atop college football, observers of the game wonder whether their “humanistic” style will gain respect.
Some experts say it might even be better suited to the changing youth culture. It is an argument Carroll has made for years.
“There is a way to have great discipline and great intensity ... and enjoy every minute of it,” he said. “I know it’s hard for people to understand.”
Many fans grew up with icons such as Hayes, the volatile former Ohio State coach, and Bryant who, with a houndstooth hat and stoic manner, ruled over Alabama for a quarter century.
From the start, Carroll took a different path.
There is a story from his early days as a graduate assistant working with defensive backs at University of the Pacific.
The defense was struggling, so he gathered his players and asked them which coverages felt most comfortable and which techniques they wanted to practice. The meeting seemed to go well, the unit rejuvenated, but an older coach on the staff later grumbled, “Don’t you ever ask them what they want. You tell them what they need.”
Carroll refused to waver. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, with the emergence of sports psychology, he continued to blend traditional coaching with concepts of performance enhancement and humanistic psychology.
This approach drew fire during his stints as head coach of the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s. With his teams going a mediocre 34-33 over four seasons, the media frowned upon his riding a bike at training camp and arranging team bowling nights.
“They ran him out of town,” said Leonard Zaichkowsky, head of Boston University’s sports psychology program, who watched Carroll closely with the Patriots. “They didn’t feel he was tough enough.”
Fans were equally wary when he arrived at USC. He talked to players about their classes and girlfriends and pulled Halloween pranks. He was often cheery, even laughing, at practice.
Two consecutive national championships later, many in the game say his style was misinterpreted.
“Don’t mistake authoritarian conduct with discipline,” said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Assn. “Check the number of penalties that USC commits, the turnovers -- that’s a very disciplined team.”
For all the fun they have, the Trojans are known for the intensity of their practices and off-season conditioning. And Carroll has balanced his staff with assistants who more closely fit the traditional mold.
“We have coaches who will yell at us and another coach who will calmly tell us what to do,” safety Scott Ware said. “Different guys respond to different things.... It’s a good mix.”
So-called “players’ coaches” have been around for years, and this isn’t the first time experts have suggested that they are on the rise. It can be an uphill battle.
“Football is macho and tough, and a lot of people feel the only way to get that is to be really authoritarian,” Zaichkowsky said. “That’s why the vast majority of coaches adopt that style.”
Count Brown among them, at least early in his career.
As an offensive coordinator for Oklahoma in 1984, he was known to ride players mercilessly. That season, Coach Barry Switzer pulled Brown aside and suggested he reconsider his methods. If it wasn’t an epiphany, at least it started a learning process.
Over the years, Brown said, “I’ve talked to five or six [coaches]. More than anything else, it was a combination of people saying, ‘You’ve got to smile.’ I never thought about smiling. I thought about preparing and working hard.”
Darrell Royal, the former Texas coach, showed Brown that self-preservation was part of the equation.
“Here’s a guy who was 50 years old or so, who after 20 years quit because he wasn’t enjoying it,” Brown said. “I’ve got a job coaching Texas and I’m in the top five.... If I can’t enjoy that, I’d better get out.”
Brown is convinced that his continued efforts to lighten up have helped his team overcome a reputation for faltering in big games.
Last season, the Longhorns defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl. This fall, they beat rival Oklahoma for the first time in five years and finally won a conference championship for their coach.
“We’re just having a good time,” quarterback Vince Young said. “It helps everybody play better, keeps everybody loose.”
The results have made an unlikely fan of Frank Kush.
During his 22 years at Arizona State, Kush was the ultimate authoritarian, loud and abrasive, running his team in the midday sun. In 1979, he was dismissed after reports that he had punched a player, an allegation he has denied.
Talking about Carroll and Brown, Kush said, “I would call them soft in comparison to me, but I don’t think either one of them is truly soft.
“It comes down to teaching,” he said. “The way to evaluate a coach is, are the players improving?”
Michael Connor, a psychology professor at Long Beach State who specializes in sports and parenting, has seen a shift in the way young people respond to coaching.
“Our kids are a lot more aware now,” he said. “They have a higher degree of expectation than what we had a generation ago.”
Today’s youth is less likely to be motivated by -- or put up with -- the “blood-and-guts, militaristic” approach, Connor said.
But he and other experts said coaching is slow to change, and what happens in big-time football continues to influence high schools and youth leagues.
Each weekend, Zaichkowsky said, television reinforces the stereotype, especially with Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys and Bill Belichick, who succeeded Carroll at New England, so prominent in the NFL.
“That’s what young coaches see,” said Zaichkowsky, who offers clinics for them in Boston. “That’s why it is so great that [Carroll and Brown] are getting this exposure. People will see there is another way.”
Former USC coach John Robinson says that a variety of styles can be successful because players will respond to anyone who helps them improve and win. He wonders whether traditional coaches are better suited to the South and Midwest.
“That’s the way kids are in those regions -- yes sir, no sir, wear a tie to breakfast,” he said. “Part of the culture of the West Coast is more casual.”
Certainly Carroll has found success out West -- and away from the businesslike grind of professional football. Since a 2-5 start in his first season, the Trojans have rolled to victories in 52 of 56 games. They have a 34-game winning streak.
USC’s coach talks about “teachable moments” and motivating through encouragement -- the kind of language experts like to hear.
“You see a team that practices, and prepares in the off-season, because they want to, rather than [because] they’re coerced and they feel they have to,” Carroll said. “They do what we ask them to do, anything we ask them to do, so they deserve to have a great time doing it.”
So the term “laid-back,” Lua said, should not be construed as a lack of work ethic.
If anything, the USC linebacker says, Carroll and Brown have guided their teams to the Rose Bowl game tonight because of their progressive styles.
“It makes you feel that much more comfortable,” he said. “You’re that much more willing to sacrifice for the program.”