(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Friday, November 24, 2006

Coker Caned, Err Canned

Miami ended the suspense and fired Larry Coker today, after a season which saw one of his captains fire a gun in defense of teammates who were shot at and, also, stomp a Florida International player in the well-publicized donneybrook from earlier this season.

Guess who is the leading favorite to replace Coker?

Hopefully someone who makes sure that no kids who own guns or have an arm's length rap sheet are on his team.

I've been reading Dean Smith's book, The Carolina Way, and what strikes me throughout the book is the earnestness of Coach Smith and his caring about the whole person, not just about the basketball player who could him the school win games. I always admired Coach Smith's teams, both for the way they played and for the way the team and the players conducted themselves. I would hope that Coach Smith's example has inspired many coaches, basketball or not, but I fear that there is a considerable group of coaches (but certainly less than half) who are more toward the Bob Huggins end of the continuum than the Coach Smith end of it.

That said, I don't know much about Coach Coker, and the respected Bill Curry of ESPN came to his defense after the controversy surrounding the recruitment of Willie Williams. Still, it seems clear that Coach Coker lost control of his team prior to or during the season, and the team's record reflected its overall lack of something, well, call it character if you can't call it anything else.

It's hard to say what the Miami administration and alumni want. For starters, they should want a coach who will set the best example for the school and be a great representative of it. This isn't, after all, Pimp My School, where, instead of taking a dilapidated car and turning it into a work of art, a renegade coach arrives at a school with a flailing athletic team, bends a few rules and turns it into a well-oiled, if not overly oily, machine. That type of stuff shouldn't happen, period. What should happen is that the administration should assert itself over its football program and insist upon a coach who recruits players of character and who can control his team. Honestly, I'd rather have my alma mater have a losing record that have scary incidents besmirch its academic reputation, which some alums forget is why the school exists in the first place.

If I were a Miami alum, I'd write or e-mail President Donna Shalala and insist upon her taking a stand for integrity here. She whiffed big-time in her handling of the Florida International disaster and made things worse with her public comments about the paltry suspensions Miami players received. Shalala didn't stand up well to those who questioned her on it. Mike Golic of ESPN Radio, a thoughtful and fair former football player, grilled her on her conduct. Sure, he went to Notre Dame, and, yes, there was bad blood in that rivalry, but Golic can guarantee of one thing -- this type of junk wouldn't have happened at Notre Dame. Players with guns? One-game suspensions for exacerbating an on-field riot? The Board of Trustees should have stepped in and chastised Shalala for her handling of the incident. One public goof up after another has tarnished the brand name of Miami of Florida.

Butch Davis is no longer available, having opted to succeed John Bunting at North Carolina. Greg Schiano, the former Miami defensive coordinator, who recruits actively in Florida for this year's feel-good story, Rutgers, is perhaps the leading candidate. A friend who is a Rutgers alum isn't so sure that Schiano will return to Coral Gables. He's building a big house near the Rutgers campus, he has a great contract, and he's atop the world. Returning to Miami right now as a potential savior into a program which will be in a fishbowl for a while isn't exactly the dream job he might think he's entitled to. There are other big-time programs that could have vacancies, and the guess here is that were Schiano to take one of them, he won't have some of the problems to deal with that he would at Miami.

But he also wouldn't have, in all likelihood, the tradition of winning a national title, either, and it seems that the Miami administration wants to be in the conversation for a national football title year after year. If that's the case, than Schiano might want to return to the place where he came of age as a coach. And that would be good for Miami's football program, generally.

The University of Miami faces bigger issues than its performance on the field. Hopefully the administration will recognize that and stand up to the boosters in the process. Sometimes, in order to fortify your institution, you have to take short-term stands that might cost you publicity and money. This might be one of those times for President Shalala.

She should consider a relatively recent and prominent "outlaw" program in college sports, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels under Jerry Tarkanian. No one talks of UNLV in the national hoops conversation these days, and there is little mention of Tark, either. Yet, UNLV still exists, and my guess is that it's doing fine despite not having a perennial nationally contending hoops team. Las Vegas itself is a booming city, too, and it has plenty of main events other than Runnin' Rebel hoops. Miami, too, has enough entertainment without the 'Canes being a dominant team. The point is that UNLV has survived, and so will Miami.

Take a stand, President Shalala, and honor the large majority of alumni who did not play for the football team. Fortify your trademark and honor their degrees, and, in the process, do the right thing.

And remember this, any booster who cares only about the sport and not the university is a booster who is not worth having. Pick the person who will restore credibility to your program. And that person could be the same person your boosters want, but if it isn't, this is gut-check time for you.

And if you have any doubts, remember that in the term "college athletics", the term college comes first.


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