Apparently Coach Todd Graham, who left the University of Pittsburgh suddenly this week to become the Head Coach at Arizona State, had a promotional video on the Pitt website while he was still the Head Coach. In it he said that what he loved most about coaching at Pitt was his relationships with the players.
Word has it that Graham didn’t tell his players face to face when he left to take the ASU job. Instead he had an assistant forward a text telling them he had to leave right that minute for his dream job and God bless. The players who have responded in kind have generally not been kind to their erstwhile coach, choosing words like “liar” and “Judas” to express their hurt.
True to form, the Internet chatter has turned white hot with accusations about Todd Graham and others like him. They are hypocrites, the chatter chastises. He only cares about himself, others accuse.
I do not personally know Todd Graham. He may be exactly what people are saying about him. If he is, he isn’t the only football coach with a hyperactive ego and attachment issues. If he is not, he’s not the first football coach to be distorted by the Internet, media outlets, and the general public. I remember hearing one sports radio host in Chicago explain that John was too distracted by the four kids that he had to do a good job for the Bears. We had one 3 year old at the time. But because that was said on the airwaves, all of the sudden everyone believed that we had four kids.
The more interesting dynamic to dig into here, however, is not about media distortion or Internet hyperbole; it is about the nature of coaches’ relationships that matter in big time college football.
A quick list of relationships that matter would include relationships coaches have with their families, with their players, with university administrators, with boosters, with fans, and with the community at large. These are all the relationships that form the bonds that create a strong football program. Ironically, all of these relationships are causalities of many of the normal operating procedures in big time football.
Consider for a moment a player like Nelson Hurst, tight end for the UNC Tar Heels. Nelson went to Mississippi State his first year only for his coach to get fired at the end of the season. The next coach that came in did not really see much of a place for Nelson, so Nelson decided to transfer to UNC where his brother James was being recruited and thought highly of the coaching staff. Nelson redshirted his sophomore year due to NCAA rules for transfers. In 2010 Nelson got to play for Butch Davis and his staff. Then before his junior year Coach Davis got fired. His junior year he played for a different Head Coach in Everett Withers, even though he had the same Offensive Coordinator and the same Tight Ends Coach (Allen Mogridge). Nelson caught a touchdown pass and was an asset to the offense this past season. Now his senior year he will have his fifth Head Coach of his college career and an all new staff. By the way, he’s also had four Athletic Directors during his college career so far, too.
Can such fluid and volatile conditions create and support relationships that matter?
To say that it is difficult is an understatement. To say that it is frustrating and even heartbreaking sometimes is also only a superficial description of a dysfunctional dynamic. Todd Graham’s abrupt departure from the University of Pittsburgh is just a symptom of deep and abiding habits in big time football. Habits like impatience, grasping, short sightedness, and breaking promises are par for the course. These habits are not confined to football by any means. Football embodies much of what American society is like—for good and for ill. In America we often rush to decisions and judgments at the same time we love instant gratification. In football, this leads to decisions made without ample time and without ample and inclusive conversations to take into account the deeper and wider effects of our choices.
Todd Graham is not the only one who has broken promises to people. Presidents and Chancellors do it, too. Athletic directors do it. Recruits do it. Colleagues do it. The way big time college football works, the engines are fueled by such contingencies. Who knows what can happen at any given time? Some would say the pressure and tension created by these dynamics is what motivates the over the top hours that coaches work.
But in the best-case scenarios, the motivation for that kind of work comes from a place other than fear of losing one’s job or grasping for the next best thing. Hopefully more people involved in big time football than not are in it with more noble intentions than what is in it for them. Some passion, some love at the core of all this effort and expense must have a redeeming purpose. For me, it gets back to what is most basic about this work that my husband does—building relationships that matter. Relationships that matter can inspire people to be their best selves. Relationships that matter can inspire people to work for a shared goal and put their own needs aside. Relationships that matter can make a bunch of individuals become a winning team that does things together that no one expected.
I can testify first hand that coaches who really do care about their players do build and maintain relationships that matter. Many times, however, despite their best efforts the relationships are fractured and trivialized by the way this business works.
My seven-year-old daughter is trying to sort out what it means that her Dad will not be coaching at UNC for the Tar Heels next year. She keeps asking where we will go and who will go with us. “Will Bryn go with us?” “What about Gio and Marquise?” She goes down the list of all the players that she knows and loves wondering how these young men fit into our lives now. I tell her that they’ll still be here playing for the Tar Heels. We’ll always love and care about them, Dad just won’t be coaching them the same way anymore.
I wonder what the audible could be in big time football when it comes to how much these habits conspire against relationships that matter. Why is it so difficult for people to believe that football programs are only as strong as the relationships that make them up? Maybe this audible is about not calling an audible at all. Maybe we should get back to something so basic that we’ve forgotten how potent it can be. How about running the play you called? After all, a man is only as good as his word.