Keeping Score

Unnecessary Excess: Urban Meyer and the Cult of Coach

By giving coaches an honorific, we elevate their status. If we stopped, maybe college sports wouldn't be so out of control

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Reading through the terms of employment in the outsize contract for Ohio State’s new $24 million football coach, Urban Meyer, is pretty nauseating. Ohio State president Gordon Gee, who leads a public university in a recession-wracked country and once positioned himself as a college-sports reformer who abolished the athletic department at Vanderbilt University, might just as well pour mountains of cash at Meyer’s feet. Aside from its all-too-predictable excess — the $2.4 million in retention bonuses, the private plane and country-club membership — one particular aspect of this contract seems especially galling. You might find it nitpicky and misguided, but I’d argue it’s telling or at least a reminder of a bad habit in college sports: the reference to Meyer as “Coach” throughout the document.

The contract doesn’t say “Ohio State shall pay Meyer” on six different occasions or “Ohio State shall provide Meyer” five different times. It’s always “Coach,” with a capital c. But even more absurd is that it’s “Coach,” not “the coach.”

(Read about Meyer’s decision to leave University of Florida football.)

Meyer is, after all, the coach of Ohio State, just as I am the writer of this story. But no one walks around the office calling me “Writer.” They shouldn’t. Why do we address college coaches with such an honorific?

The Ohio State contract sets the terms between employer and employee, between the respected institution Ohio State, which serves almost 65,000 students and has an annual budget of $4.95 billion, and Meyer. Yet it’s Ohio State University — the Ohio State University, actually — Meyer’s boss, that is using a term of acquiescence typically reserved for 18-year-old freshmen dying to impress the man with the whistle, or even Little Leaguers learning to respect adults. Who is bigger than whom here?

(Ohio State says “Coach” was used for simplicity. Repeating “Urban F. Meyer” throughout the agreement, a spokesman insisted, would have been onerous. “Nothing ‘honorific’ or ‘deferential’ was intended — just a shorter word,” wrote a university spokesman in an e-mail. “This method of shortening longer words into shorter defined terms is seen in nearly all contracts.” The spokesman noted that Ohio State “easily could’ve chosen” Meyer as the “shorter, defined term.” To which I would ask, Why didn’t you?)

To my mind, the use of the honorific “Coach” contributes to the cult of personality that surrounds coaches, an exalted status that drives their lavish contracts and too often makes them think they’re above the rules, if not the law. And sadly, there’s no shortage of examples of that lately: Joe Paterno’s possibly enabling the child-sex crimes of a former assistant by failing to report a particularly heinous allegation to the police (Paterno did meet his legal obligation by alerting a superior of the accusations but may face civil suits for not reacting more aggressively) and on a different occasion allegedly thwarting institutional efforts to discipline the criminal behavior of football players, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Meanwhile, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim initially dismissed as liars men who accused his longtime assistant Bernie Fine of abusing them when they were boys, only to backtrack after Fine’s wife seemed to implicate her husband on an audiotape.

(See five scandal-free stories for the college-football season.)

We grant honorifics to doctors, who save lives after toiling for years in medical school; military personnel, who make life-and-death decisions that can shape the fate of the country; politicians, not so worthy of esteem these days but men and women who open their lives to extreme scrutiny, win grueling elections and run governmental entities that affect people by the thousands or even millions. In some restaurants, the chief cook is called “Chef” — well deserved, I would argue, after all that culinary training and slaving over stoves.

These professions have a common thread: specialization. A man or woman can’t walk off the street and perform surgery, prepare a five-star meal or give a lecture on 12th century Bavarian literature. You generally wouldn’t want a complete novice running an army or a country. (Even politics, which has produced the likes of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, requires that a politician have some essential skills as a great communicator.)

I don’t want to demean the coaching profession, which requires an outrageous work ethic, split-second decisionmaking and strong leadership skills. I admire and respect many pros in this high-pressure trade. Lose a few games and you can suddenly lose your livelihood. But let’s be honest. If a casual basketball fan replaced Erik Spoelstra on the Miami Heat bench tomorrow or took over for Roy Williams with the University of North Carolina basketball team, that fan would win a fair share of games. Athletic talent can trump tactical ignorance. Surrounded by skilled assistants, even a clueless observer will score some wins. Sure, football is a more complex game. But you, as head coach of Ohio State, would still beat the pants off Akron. You might not win against Michigan. But the stakes aren’t really all that high. You’re not botching surgery or war.

I also think the coach honorific is appropriate in its proper place. A high school athlete should call his coach “Coach Smith,” just as he calls his chemistry teacher “Mr. Smith.” It’s a sign of respect for a professional elder and an authority figure. Kids don’t need to be first-name chums with their teachers, and coaches, at their very best, are wonderful teachers. A college athlete should still say “Coach,” just as he says “Professor.”

(See photos of Paterno’s career.)

I’ll admit that I still call the coaches who impacted my life as a young person “Coach” and always will. But that’s a deeply personal decision based on a relationship forged in my formative years. And it’s also true that many journalists, myself included, are guilty of bowing before the cult of coaches, bestowing the title on them during press conferences and interviews.

But when the working adults who supervise coaches start calling those same coaches “Coach” — that’s just strange.

If coaches and college officials can begin to talk as equals, maybe the campus power structure can start changing. And it sorely needs changing. Over the past 25 years, according to research from Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter, the salaries of football coaches at 44 major public universities have jumped 750%, inflation-adjusted, while professors’ salaries are up 32%. USA Today says the average salary of a major college head coach spiked nearly 55% in the past six seasons, to $1.47 million this year from $950,000 in 2006.

Clipping “Coach” out of the vernacular won’t cure the ills that plague college sports. But speaking on a first-name basis can help in a small way to reset the rules and, perhaps eventually, the mixed-up priorities. If we reserve the honorifics for those who truly deserve them, maybe Ohio State will pay the next Urban Meyer — Urban, Urban, Urban, there I said it! — less outrageous piles of cash.