In the modern world of college basketball, many people and organizations are making a lot of money off young athletes, but the return for those young people far too often is negligible. Experience is the best teacher, and there are a lot of good people at the great institutions of Syracuse, North Carolina, SMU and Louisville that have been involved in the recent headline-grabbing scandals. They are learning lessons the hard way, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Having been in this business the better part of 30 years, I am not naïve to the fact that there are some bad apples. There certainly are, but for far too long we have become numb in our response when we should instead be proactive.
If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then it’s time for new measures to be taken. If your team is going to face full-court pressure then you’re going to work on breaking the press as you prepare. The same concept applies off the court. For NCAA schools, it means doing more of what you were put there to do originally: educate. Our institutions of higher education, from the president to administrators, to athletic directors and coaches, must begin to take the responsibility of educating as seriously as “Game Day” and “March Madness.”
The behavior that has riddled the headlines in scandals has infiltrated the pros and trickled down to the high school level, a concerning trend. Assault, domestic violence, shortcutting and cheating — just some of the behaviors behind college athletics’ recent negative publicity — are condemned at every level. Yet, we do not take the time at the lower levels to teach techniques to deal with such things in the same way we teach a press-break offense, although that could be the solution to ridding the problem in the pros.
There must be a plan to account for the development of coaches and support staff who are responsible for educating college basketball players on and off of the court. NCAA rules restrict how “hands on” we can be with young people undergoing such a dramatic lifestyle change. For example, at the beginning of the school year, a strength coach can spend six to eight hours with a student-athlete a week, opposed to two for coaches. Until recently, coaches were limited in how often we could talk on the telephone to a prospect; strict limitations are still in place for in-person conversations as well.
The point is: coaches are not trusted enough to do the right things for our players, yet we feel a sense of responsibility to be there for them. Both coaches and the NCAA have to re-evaluate how we work with young people.
Here is a four-point plan for change:
- Require three to five days of annual professional development for all coaches and staff with sports-specific responsibilities taught by professors, industry professionals, NCAA staff and Master Coaches (a certified coach with more than 20 years of experience). Create a set of industry standards to aspire toward and help with decision-making. Provide information ranging from sports psychology to nutrition, theory, strategy, ethics, relationship building and teaching strategies. Also provide instruction on NCAA rules and procedures along with industry discussion topics. This will make it clear to coaches what our responsibilities are.
- Two-day retreat for first-time head coaches and seminars for first-time assistants. Head coaches are hired because they know the game, but a first-time head coach usually does not have experience in dealing with presidents, boosters, academic program development, media, parents, etc. Having required information sessions early in the new hire’s tenure with experienced individuals to address and provide strategies on how to deal with such things is an investment every university should make. Similarly, first-time assistants should be armed with equally pertinent information when becoming a full-time coach.
III. Consult industry experts who have the greatest insight into identifying qualified potential ADs and head coaches. Only recently has the media begun to question the validity of search-firm hires. More important than outside assistance, a school has to really know itself to hire who they need. Good decision makers know that the athletic portion of the program is paramount. The industry has become too much about ascetics, and end results, and not enough about the process of building/maintaining a winner while educating. Having an AD who can coach coaches, lead administrators and teach support staff can be accomplished by putting people in place with industry knowledge and experience. Fundraising and business knowledge does not trump all. The best leaders work at helping their coaches succeed first. Their staff is there for ancillary support. A successful department is run as a franchise, not just a business.
- Create a curriculum for student-athletes comprised of college-level courses that have a practical application to their sports experience, as well as collegiate, is the most significant thing schools can do. This coursework would be designed to promote healthy behaviors and avoid detrimental behaviors. Truth be told, there are an unlimited number of courses that would be beneficial in a variety of ways. Providing student-athletes the opportunity to learn subject matters that directly pertain to their current experience will engage them to be more focused as both students and athletes and stimulate their desire to learn more. A liberal arts education with classes that fall under psychology, sociology, business, kinesiology, history, criminal justice and more. The list of beneficial course work would include but not be limited to: learning styles/competitive styles, intimate relationships and professional relationships, finance, nutrition, sport history, ethics and public speaking.
Addressing the issues in college athletics is no easy chore that I don’t have all the answers to, especially given then ever-changing landscape. What I do have is a strong belief in what educating can accomplish. Ultimately, leadership involves having the ability to teach people, create a vision, share the vision and putting a plan in place to achieve our goals.
Questions we should ask are: Who and how are our coaches being developed? Do they know what the university expects from them? What are the coaches conscientiously teaching our players to prepare them for life beyond basketball? Do we all know where the line is between competition and education?
Everyone’s ultimate goal should be the prevention of poor decision-making that produces bad behavior, the placement of real-time focus on overall development and becoming more engaged in education. It may not eliminate every scandal, but it just might arm everyone to make better decisions and prevent their mistakes from negatively effecting innocent members of the program. After all, we are each living and striving at a place of higher education.
Willis Wilson is the head coach of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi men’s basketball program and Rice basketball’s all-time leader in wins whose experience in college athletics spans over the course of nearly four decades in a variety of roles from player to assistant and head coach of more than 580 games at the Division I level.