Keeping Score

At Final Four, It’s Mike Rice On The Mind

Will coaches behave better after the fallout?

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KEVIN RIVOLI / AP

In this Jan. 2, 2013 file photo, Rutgers head coach Mike Rice reacts after Syracuse scored late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y.

Walking around Atlanta this week, it’s not hard to figure out that the Final Four doubles as a college coaching convention. Just look at all the sweatsuits in town.

And for all these men sporting school logos, one topic is at the top of the agenda: what do we do, post-Mike Rice?

Rice, who was caught on videotape throwing balls, and hurling homophobic slurs, at his players, embarrassed his profession. (One of his assistants, Jimmy Martelli, resigned after he too was seen shoving players; on Friday, Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti, who suspended Rice for just three games in December after seeing the tape, also resigned).  Are coaches worried that parents and fans who don’t pay regular attention to college hoops will think this type of behavior is typical? “Absolutely,” says Jeff Price, head coach at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. “That’s all people have been seeing.”

Coaches are now on the defensive. “I absolutely do not believe there’s that coaching style going on,” says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim; his team plays Michigan in today’s second national semifinal. “I’ll go out where you probably shouldn’t go. I don’t think there’s a coach in the country that does that.” Boeheim says he has “thrown a ball, and it’s usually up in the stands. And the last time I hurt my arm, so I don’t throw them anymore.”

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“This is an isolated incident that doesn’t happen in college basketball,” says Louisville coach Rick Pitino; Louisville plays Wichita St. in the first semifinal. “As a pro coach, I would go to every city and go see a college practice.  You know, I’ve seen some coaches that may use rough language.  But that just doesn’t go on.  It’s just an aberration that just doesn’t go on in college basketball.”

Many coaches, like Rice, do yell, curse, and put their hands on players while doing drills or demonstrating strategy. If you put their worst 30 minutes videotape, some people might be calling for their jobs – even if they aren’t abusive, like Rice was. So will coaches now dial things back, since every minute of practice is on film, and that footage could one day appear on a perpetual ESPN loop? “I don’t think that for the vast majority of coaches, it’s going to change anything,” says Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen, whose team won the Patriot League this season and appeared in the NCAA Tournament.  “I’m intense, and I think if you love your players and care about them, and they respect you, they know you’re sincere and honest, then they’ll let you coach them hard. And it can be productive for them.”

“For me personally, this is a reminder,” says University of Denver coach Joe Scott. “To make sure I’m always on guard, that it’s always about the student athlete. And I’m always trying to help them. And sometimes when you’re in the fight every day, you can curse or whatever. But you’ve got to make sure at all times you keep things in the proper perspective, so that you never go there. You don’t throw a ball at somebody. You don’t kick somebody. That’s not how you respond to adversity.”

For coaches who toe the line that Rice crossed, toning things down could pay off. “I open up my practices every day,” says University of Miami coach Jim Larranaga, whose team won the ACC tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. “I don’t use vulgarity in practice. I don’t let my players use vulgarity. I don’t let my coaches use vulgarity. As coaches, we’re teachers. We treat the basketball court like the classroom. I would never expect to see a teacher cursing at a student.” A few minutes earlier, Larranaga had snagged an award: AP Coach of the Year.

(MORE: After Horrific Injury, What Now For Louisville’s Kevin Ware?)

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