There's a new era of sideline scrutiny for college basketball coaches. So where's the line between motivation and mistreatment?
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There's a new era of sideline scrutiny for college basketball coaches. So where's the line between motivation and mistreatment?

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Michigan State Spartans coach Tom Izzo in the first half against Michigan Sunday, March 17, 2019 in the Big Ten tournament championship game at the United Center in Chicago.

Michigan State Spartans coach Tom Izzo in the first half against Michigan Sunday, March 17, 2019 in the Big Ten tournament championship game at the United Center in Chicago. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The scene was played over and over. It became a trending topic on social media and a hot take on sports talk shows.

During a first-round victory against Bradley in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo marched onto the court during a timeout, reached for forward Aaron Henry's wrist for a moment and repeatedly pointed at him while yelling. In the huddle, Izzo hopped up to yell in Henry's face before another player intervened to calm Izzo down.

The public reaction surprised Izzo.

"Will I ever shake my finger in front of a kid again? No, I won't," he recently told the Tribune. "I can change that. But I know this: I won't quit holding players accountable. I won't quit disciplining them."

He received support from colleagues, former players and most of the college basketball community, while Henry and his father defended Izzo and shrugged off the exchange as welcomed and deserved discipline. But others criticized and dissected Izzo's temperament on ESPN roundtables, in newspaper columns and on sports talk radio.

For many, the incident highlighted a new landscape for college basketball coaches, who must figure out how to toe the line instead of crossing it.

Right or wrong, some coaches say - and many seem to think it's wrong - increased public scrutiny of their sideline demeanors and in-game interactions with players is making the job more challenging.

With more player autonomy, more smartphone cameras and more places for fans to voice outrage on social media, every steely glare or finger wag by a coach is analyzed as much as his rotations.

Illinois' Brad Underwood is another coach having to adjust to the changing landscape. An anonymous allegation of player mistreatment led the university to open an internal investigation of Underwood, who often appears during games as if his top is ready to blow.

The university said last month that the investigation found no wrongdoing, though athletic director Josh Whitman said in a news release that he spoke with Underwood about his language and player interactions.

Underwood said he "self-evaluates all the time" and said a coach must understand how to motivate players differently.

"Most every player wants discipline in their life and wants to be challenged," Underwood said. "Most of the problems come from outside. Most of the problems don't involve your own locker room. That's where social media has put that onus out there.

"We try very hard to recruit guys who want to be challenged. They know when they come to a certain program what's going to be demanded."

Coaches are ever more cognizant of their actions and the public perception that shapes their reputations and their university's.

"A lot of coaches are conscious of it," said Temple's Aaron McKie, 46, hired last month to coach his alma mater. "Just like you watch tape of the teams, there's coaches who watch film of themselves and might say, 'I've got to change that.' "

"Too many young coaches, they're scared to coach," said fiery South Carolina coach Frank Martin, 53. "People are so consumed with keeping their paycheck, they're scared of being who they are. It's not about being an old dog learning new tricks. You're always learning and evolving. But we can't sell out who we are because of people who don't know (the sport) trying to move the line and trying to keep those people happy rather than people who are relevant."

Most coaches agree what constitutes crossing a line - in particular, physical force toward a player.

Bob Knight's hardcore methods with Indiana players - including a video that showed Knight grabbing Neil Reed around the neck during practice in 1997 - eventually came to be considered abusive, and he was fired in 2000. In 2013, Rutgers fired coach Mike Rice after video emerged of him throwing basketballs at players and shoving them during practice.

Those were clearer violations.

But what about red-faced coaches cursing at players who screwed up the game plan? What about grabbing a player's jersey? Where's the line between motivation and mistreatment?

It's hard to imagine a 2019 version of former Temple coach John Chaney getting only a one-game suspension, as he did in 1994, for bursting into a news conference and threatening to "kill" and beat up then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari.

Current coaches have faced criticism for far less egregious displays of anger.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is well-known for his sideline blowups, mostly aimed at officials. He was suspended two games last season for berating a referee in the hallway after a game.

In 2010 at Kansas State, Martin hit senior Chris Merriewether's arm with the back of his hand. He quickly apologized after the game, saying then: "I'm an old-school guy, but I understand the times are real sensitive now. I love him. I don't know what to tell you. It's wrong on my part and is completely out of line and has no part in the game."

Women's basketball is far from exempt.

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell resigned last month after 33 years following an independent investigation into player and staff complaints that she made racially insensitive comments and pressured injured players to compete.

Georgia Tech fired MaChelle Joseph in March after 16 years when an independent investigation found that she bullied players. Multiple players alleged Northern Kentucky coach Camryn Whitaker emotionally abused them.

Loyola ousted Sheryl Swoopes in 2016 in part for harshly berating players and exhibiting erratic behavior in practice.

The line of acceptability seems to have shifted.

"Who changed the line?" Martin said. "The people who have given in to the phoniness of the business. I tell people all the time, I am who I am. If I'm going to be phony when cameras are on, I'm not being true to players and their expectations of me. Nobody forces them to pick the school they go to. They sign up, they know what they are walking into."

Many coaches recalled their playing days, when coaches kept relationships with players at arm's length. Now coaches are expected to build deep personal bonds with players, which most agree is a positive.

There's a dialogue rather than a dictatorship. Players have more options too.

"Kids have a voice now," said McKie, who played at Temple for the strict Chaney, who held infamous 5 a.m. practices. "Look at the transfer rate. That's them speaking out about their coaching. They can go on social media and say subliminal things like: 'Be careful of the choices you make. I'm having a tough time here.'

"Then it just takes a crowd of people to say that coach is a bad guy. It takes one game of you throwing a clipboard down and it's: 'Oh, look at him. How can you play for a guy like that?' It just snowballs. It can be unfair."

Loyola coach Porter Moser was working as a CBS studio analyst during the NCAA Tournament when Izzo's episode with Henry became a national kerfuffle.

"The scrutiny that comes, people don't know the relationship that comes with players and what takes place (behind the scenes)," Moser told the Tribune. "I worked with coach Rick Majerus, who was very tough on kids. They asked me what I thought (about Izzo). This is what I've said many times: You can be hard on them. They just want to know you love them and you care about them."

Good or bad, coaches have had to adapt to new expectations as the public holds them more accountable.

"I think it is going to change coaches," Izzo said. "It's sad that one little five-second snippet can determine who a person is or what they're about without doing any homework.

"On the other side, do you know how many coaches also get fired for not having control of their team? 'Look how undisciplined; they're not tough enough.' The haters are going to hate. As long as the players know where I'm coming from, that's fine."


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