Rob Oller commentary: Rice showed that even coaches need coaching

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Dave Spiller never threw a basketball at Mike Rice then, and he isn’t going to throw the book at his former player now.

The former Ohio State assistant men’s basketball coach believes explanations serve a better purpose than executions. The lazy response is to criminalize Rice, fired by Rutgers on Wednesday for physically and verbally abusing his players. The harder, yet more constructive path, is to study Rice’s atrocious behavior so he and other coaches can learn to do better.

And, mostly, so other players never have to experience what happened at Rutgers.

Spiller was on the men’s basketball staff at Fordham in 1988 when he helped recruit Rice out of Boardman, near Youngstown.The scouting report on Rice: “Makes up for lack of talent with a high basketball IQ and strong willingness to work.”

Nowhere in that dossier was there anything to suggest that Rice, himself the son of a basketball coach, was so combustible that someday he would kick and shove his players, fire basketballs at them and demean them with offensive language.

Spiller could not have foreseen the deplorable conduct to come, not only because no scouting report is perfectly prophetic, but also because the line that distinguishes acceptable from unacceptable behavior has shifted as society has become more enlightened. Or lightened — soft — as older generations sometimes prefer to see it.

That’s where to begin, with the issue of right and wrong as it relates to coaching. Certainly, attitudes have changed. Coaches yelling at players is nothing new, but reaction to the criticism is.

“Now you can’t say to a kid ‘You suck,’ or you’re playing like you-know-what,’ ” said Spiller, who works with the Ohio Warrior AAU program. “Now, you have to monitor everything.”

Monitoring is good, Spiller said. But it’s difficult to adjust to standards that remain fluid because different kids and parents have different ideas about where the line of acceptable behavior should be drawn.

Kicking players and throwing balls at their heads should be prohibited. But what about obscene language? And should the sport matter? Should a football coach be able to grab a player’s facemask?

Then there is the public/political perception side of it. Does Rutgers fire Rice if the Scarlet Knights are playing in the Final Four?

“I’ll tell you right now, he’s not gone,” said Chris Stankovich, a professional athletic counselor in Columbus. “If you’re a winner … a lot of this goes away, even though it makes me cringe to say that.”

Despite working with athletes subjected to coaching abuse, Stankovich is careful not to overreact to anything he hears, even though that can be difficult.

“The culture in sports is still an incredibly emotional one,” he said, explaining that coaches and athletes must deal with “burst stress,” which is high pressure packed into tiny time frames.

Still, it falls upon the coach to be the adult. And that’s where education comes in, because even adults need help being adults.Stankovich said the key is teaching coaches early in their careers that relationship building is more important than X’s and O’s.

“It’s basic human relations. I’m a big believer in getting (athletes) to do what you want by building trust and being fair,” Stankovich said.

That works both ways. Spiller does not condone Rice’s behavior. Far from it. But rehabilitation is more important than retribution.

“Mike is a guy I coached, and now I’m saying to myself, ‘Even with all the positive things we taught him, even with that, he could not control his outbursts,’ ” Spiller said. “That’s why, to me, there needs to be a lot more counseling for coaches.”

Educate the coaches and we help the kids. Otherwise, what happened at Rutgers will continue to occur at other schools, in differing degrees. Place a video camera in every gym in America and in many cases parents would be shocked at what goes on.

Rice just happened to get caught. It’s time to turn his negatives into positives.

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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