Britton Johnsen didn’t know how to answer the question, the one about Rick Majerus and his sometimes extreme and eccentric behavior while he coached — and won — at Utah.
Looking back at it, Johnsen, now a full-grown adult who would never put up with that kind of treatment from anyone, was baffled that college athletes — himself included — subject themselves to being treated, at times, as though they are some kind of cattle to be herded, allow themselves to be screamed at, sworn at, belittled, verbally abused, treated in a manner that would never fly in any other setting, short of, perhaps, the military.
And yet, they do. He did.
For all the talk about modern athletes being softer these days, more focus should be pointed at coaches who go too far.
The alleged sordid and sad happenings in the University of Maryland’s football program are the latest example, according to a recent ESPN story, of coaches who allow things to spin out of control, who push too hard, and, in the case of the Terrapins, witness a young player, offensive lineman Jordan McNair, die earlier this summer of heat exhaustion. The school is investigating what happened and why. An attorney for McNair’s family has called for Maryland to fire head coach D.J. Durkin, who has been suspended.
That’s an extreme situation, but in college sports, various grades of similar demands and commands from dictatorial coaches range from cruel to comical. Some coaches are honorable. Some are honorable, 90 percent of the time. Some put on a good face, but in smaller spaces are egomaniacs and control freaks. As long as coaches win, their berth for how they comport themselves in relation to their players is wide.
Everybody knows this, and one of the most demanding coaches in all of college football, Urban Meyer, who has found himself under investigation at Ohio State for other missteps, straight admitted his sometimes extreme manner when he was lifting Utah’s program to new heights.
He said the following about his behavior as coach early in his career: “I came from a background where my high school coach would kick guys in the ass, or the nuts, when they jumped offsides. … That’s what I had learned. So I was a real mother———. I was bad. Off the field, I was OK, but on it, if you made a mistake, look out.”
Meyer said he evolved, but, really, not all that much.
When he took over at Bowling Green, he said, “I went nuts. I was all about doing things right. Twenty-two kids quit the team. If they made mistakes, I ran the whole team. If somebody got in a fight, I ran the whole team. Fortunately, the right guys quit.”
Some of that same methodology was used at Utah, where Meyer had trash cans set up in work-out areas in which distressed players could vomit. A good number of players hated Meyer, others learned to like him with the subsequent winning, all as the fan base adored him. He took the Utes to an undefeated season and the Fiesta Bowl.
Same with Majerus, who led Utah to an NCAA Tournament championship game, cracking jokes in front of the national media, and treating some of his players in an abhorrent manner during practices.
What is a young athlete supposed to do when his coach, who is generally revered by his university and its fans, calls him a “deaf, dumb f—-“ and a “disgrace to cripples”? How should he respond when that coach says, “If I was a cripple in a wheelchair and I saw [the way] you play basketball, I’d shoot myself”?
Lance Allred, who made those claims, claims that were substantiated by teammates, transferred, sitting on that abuse until a later date when he found the courage to speak out.
Johnsen, who was on that Majerus-coached team and witnessed — and sometimes was the target of — belittlement from a coach who used fear and intimidation to get more out of his players, shakes his head in wonder at what the players put up with. And what other players on other teams in other sports are subjected to — all in the name of winning, in the name of discipline, discipline that is required of the players, as the very coaches requiring it demand so little of it of themselves.
Johnsen never spoke out when he was a player at Utah. Why?
“I’ve asked myself what made me stay quiet when I went through things that I didn’t think were normal,” he said. “We had some teammates and players dealing with some pretty serious post-traumatic-stress situations from a verbal abusive coach Majerus. … Players who went though some serious periods of depression in their life that they can trace back to some verbal abuse.”
Johnsen settled on two reasons college players don’t speak up: first, concerns for future opportunities in their pro careers, and second, fear about ruining their reputations.
“You didn’t want to be blackballed and have your college coach speak ill [of you] to those he had relationships with. Majerus was loved by the NBA. … I held back a lot of things. I didn’t want my pro career to get sabotaged.”
He added: “I didn’t want to look like the whistleblowing wimpy guy … like I’m a whiner, like I’m not tough because I just complained about the coach. [You wonder], are people going to call me a liar? ‘Yeah, this coach just threw a ball at my face, or ‘this coach yelled at me so bad, when I was running sprints down the football field that I passed out.’ … You didn’t want to be that guy. You want to be the guy who is tough, who can handle it, who can get through it.”
All of which is ridiculous.
Again, we get it. College sports isn’t Sunday school. It isn’t all proper and sweet-faced. They’re playing football, not footsy. But it isn’t warfare, either. Coaches have to get their points across to their players, they have to be demanding, at times, on occasion use direct language. But pushing players to the point of absolute duress, be it verbal or physical, in old ways that are, in fact, abusive is too high a price to pay, even when winning is the result.
That’s certainly true in college sports, where the coach is the one making millions of dollars and the players get scholarships and stipends.
Meyer said back in the day: “You don’t need any one individual. You need a group. You need everyone to come together. We made it so hard for those guys that there was no way they were going to lose games in the fourth quarter, no chance they would give in. They found a way to win. It’s like, if you work hard for a dollar, you’re not going to go out and waste it. The only prize for athletes is winning. That’s what you’re in it for.”
And, for the coaches, an extended $5 million-a-year contract.
We’ve all seen coaches on the bench or on the sidelines during games going berserk because some 19-year-old goofed up. It happens in practices regularly, with certain coaches. Others do more teaching than yelling. They say the three greatest motivators are fear, hate and love. A little more of that last one should permeate college sports, starting with the people in positions of power.
As for the extraordinary cases, like what’s happened in too many programs, and what’s allegedly happened at Maryland, Johnsen’s correct advice for administrators at universities everywhere: “Pull your heads out and make sure this kind of garbage doesn’t happen anymore.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.