Most coaches ‘afraid’ of their players


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On the eve of his 20th appearance at the Women’s Final Four, UConn’s Geno Auriemma said many coaches have become “afraid” of upsetting players because they might transfer and/or report the coach for verbal abuse.

“The majority of coaches in America are afraid of their players,” Auriemma said. “The NCAA, the athletic directors and society has made them afraid of their players. Every article you read: ‘This guy’s a bully. This woman’s a bully. This guy went over the line. This woman was inappropriate.’

“Yet the players get off scot-free in everything. They can do whatever they want. They don’t like something you say to them, they transfer. Coaches, they have to coach with one hand behind their back. Why? Because some people have abused the role of a coach.”

Auriemma spoke on a teleconference Tuesday, as did the other three coaches in the Women’s Final Four: Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw, Baylor’s Kim Mulkey and Oregon’s Kelly Graves. All agreed that coaches have to be more aware now of the tone of their message to players and the language they use.

But Auriemma said the so-called “line” between what is passionate and what is abusive can be hard to distinguish.

“People gave [Michigan State men’s coach] Tom Izzo a lot of grief for something he did on the sideline,” Auriemma said. “His players loved that. He doesn’t have to care what you think of it. He just has to care what his players think of it. If his players all transferred, if his players all quit on him, then he went over the line. If his players play really hard for him, they keep winning, they love him, they keep coming back to the program, then that’s passion.”

On March 26, Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph was fired after a month-long independent investigation of the program; she had been placed on administrative leave Feb. 27. Georgia Tech players said Joseph, who spent 18 seasons running the program, created a “toxic” and “hostile” environment.

On Tuesday, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell and her staff were placed on administrative leave, pending an independent investigation, for “issues raised by student-athletes and others,” the school said in a news release. Hatchell, who has guided the Tar Heels women’s program since 1986, won the 1994 NCAA title and is in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

In recent years, other women’s basketball coaches — such as Connie Yori at Nebraska and Sheryl Swoopes at Loyola Chicago, both in 2016 — have been fired or resigned after investigations into allegations from players of verbal abuse and mistreatment.

The Women’s Final Four coaches did not address any specific cases Tuesday, but talked instead about the challenges of getting across their message.

“It’s an emotional moment when you’re in a game. Even in practice,” said McGraw, whose Irish won the NCAA title last year. “I think the emotions get the best of us.

“I think this generation is not tolerant. That’s not a bad thing. But back in the day, coaches could pretty much do anything, say anything. Nobody really complained. Now they know better. They’re demanding to be treated better. [But] kids are going to get yelled at. They need to be able to take a little bit of that.”

Mulkey, who played on the Louisiana Tech team that won the first NCAA tournament for women in 1982, also has coached two national championship squads. She said she’s grateful for tough coaches who challenged her as a player, but knows things have changed to a degree in terms of what is deemed acceptable.

Both of her children were Division I athletes; her daughter, Makenzie, played for her at Baylor and is now on her coaching staff, while her son, Kramer, played baseball at LSU and is now in the minor leagues.

“I think they have probably taught me what motivates the new generation,” Mulkey said of her children. “When I go into a recruit’s home, they know everything about me. What they don’t know, I make sure they know. No coach is perfect. No coach is going to make all the right decisions through the course of the game.

“If you have an understanding, and you have the best interest of those kids, then they will feel it.”

Graves, who is taking part in his first Final Four, echoed Mulkey in saying coaches have to evolve.

“Players can misconstrue what you say. They read into tone maybe more than they should,” Graves said. “You have to adapt a little bit to this generation. They are different. They are wired differently. They think differently. I think the best coaches figure out how they can communicate differently with their players as they change.”

Auriemma has acknowledged that as well.

“Everybody’s got to coach to their personality,” Auriemma said. “It’s harder today than it’s ever been to motivate players. I mean, I get we have to keep an eye on things. We don’t want people to abuse the system. I get that. I’m all in favor of that.

“I just find it a little bit disconcerting that more and more coaches are being told, ‘This is inappropriate; you’re not acting the right way.’ What is the right way, and who is going to decide what the right way is? I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

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