Friday, December 29, 2023

The Character Test

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 2009, then University of Connecticut men’s basketball head coach Jim Calhoun had a moment – at least his ego did.  With the state of Connecticut running a budget deficit, Calhoun, then making over $1.5 million per year, was pressed about being the state’s highest paid employee.  The question didn’t make it out of the reporter’s mouth before Calhoun launched into a holier-than-thou tirade where he cited the $12 million in revenue his team generated for the university and boasted that the state would see “not a dime back” of his salary.  The performance was indicative of a man who felt so untouchable that he had complete comfort being a horse’s backside and letting his prodigious ego roam.  It was distasteful, but at that point in time, with two national championships on his resume, Calhoun was not incorrect.   

Calhoun’s situation – his psychological perch and his salary – were not and are not unique.  I suspect back then in 2009, and today, nearly 15 years later, the highest paid state employee is the men’s basketball coach or football coach of the state’s athletic crown jewel public institution.  Whatever you think of that, it is a reflection of capitalism and the dominance of sports as an entertainment entity in America.  Derrieres in seats directly fill university coffers.  More importantly, eyes on the television screen generate advertisement revenue, which creates lucrative television contracts and stupid money for institutions, especially those in the power conferences.

The pressure to financially keep up with the Joneses is enormous.  It led to Maryland’s departure from the ACC (still getting over that) and all sorts of other conference alignment chaos and cannibalism (USC and UCLA are headed to the B1G Conference for crying out loud).  The money is so obnoxious that the NCAA finally broke down and permitted athletes to profit via NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) agreements. 

For a long time, a powerful, charismatic head coach - a person who can turn adolescents into adults, who can establish a talent pipeline, produce professional athletes and appease university donors – has been the key to collegiate athletic relevance.  The formula has evolved over time, but it is an environment that created Paul “Bear” Bryant, Bobby Knight, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Pete Carroll, Mike Krzyzewski, Gary Williams, Urban Meyer, John Thompson and Rick Pitino.  Current coaches like Nick Saban, John Calipari, Bill Self, Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney have inherited college sports’ thrones and ruled even larger kingdoms. 

Those names…several make you cringe, right?  Nothing needs to be said about Knight and Paterno.  Carroll left USC in flames.  Meyer, Pitino…sheesh.  Bowden has had wins stripped from his record.  Self was suspended last season due to an on-going FBI investigation.  Smart is embroiled in controversy.  The price of winning is steep and the ethical risk is high, but universities are consistently willing to write big checks and roll the dice.  Money rules the day.

Northwestern is the latest institution to fall on its sword.  And this one cut deep.  In the second half of the 20th century, Northwestern was a football wasteland.  Then Pat Fitzgerald arrived in the mid-1990s, and the star linebacker led the Wildcats to prominence and a Rose Bowl win in 1996.  Fitzgerald returned to Northwestern as an assistant coach in 2001 and became head coach in 2006.  Fairy tale stuff, right?  Yeah, until it wasn’t…until it was discovered that Fitzgerald, at best, turned a blind eye to alleged sexually violent hazing of underperforming players.  In a typical grasp to save the iconic coach, Northwestern first suspended Fitzgerald for only two weeks, only to fire him days later, presumably after the transgressions transcended the bubble of major college sports and were subjected to common sense.

Whether it be the Catholic Church or politicians who often leave constituents longing for better representation (the great unfortunate political unifier), power, combined with little fear of consequence, often undercuts the most basic ethical and moral standards.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Fitzgerald is just the latest to reinforce the wisdom of those old words.   

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