Who Moved My Cheese?
Brian Phillips [ARCHIVE]
February 18, 2013
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It's a complicated thing, the sports fan's relationship with a coach. You don't simply wake up on the morning of your ninth birthday primed for some solemn-faced geezer to give you life advice via starkly lit flood-insurance commercial. You don't, the first time you see your basketball idol peel off for some earthshaking dunk, think to yourself, You know what that was about? That was about the guy in the suit and how his 10 keys to leadership apply in a business situation. You need seasoning first. You have to rack up some miles. A kid just wants to fly like LeBron. But one day you get luggage with wheels, and the coach zone claims you too.

I've been thinking a lot about coaches lately, I'm not sure why — probably partly because of the recent explosion in the subprime Harbaugh GIF market and partly because the college basketball season is ramping up again, and with it the annual outbreak of Rick Pitino–passion–sweat reaction shots. No game makes more of its coaches than NCAA basketball, which, on TV, is a cross between a very, very slow version of the NBA and a very, very dumb version of chess. Fifteen thousand cuts to Mike Krzyzewski slouched in his chair, his face electrically dead, his lower lip bulging with thought, conspire to create the impression that the coaches are the real stars here, their brains the real athletes. If only we could see them — and not their flawed, comm-major avatars — operate!

Anyway, I've been thinking about coaches, and what I've been thinking is that there's a moment, for many of us, when we stop seeing the game mostly through the eyes of the players and start seeing it mostly through the eyes of the coaches, and that this, while inevitable, is also kind of a shame, and that I at least would have a happier relationship with sports if I cared less about what the guy on the sideline was doing. This moment probably occurs at some point in your 20s, probably around the time you notice that, oh wow, most of the players in the game are younger than you are. That weird mind-flip. It's not that you stop loving, hating, or marveling over players. It's that by the time you're, say, 27, the open-horizon feeling of childhood has started to dwindle. You're beginning to lose that glimmery deep-down belief that everything is possible. You're playing sports less seriously than you used to, if you ever played sports seriously. You knew when you were 16 that you were never going to be Michael Jordan — of course you did — but a future in which you had become Michael Jordan was still available to your imagination; it was impossible but not irrelevant. Now it's both. You hit 30, 35, 40, and the life of a professional athlete seems more and more remote. It's one of a million pasts that never happened rather than a future you can dream about.

And the experience of the coach is simply much more accessible to almost every grown-up fan than the experience of any high-level player. And not just because so many fans go on to coach their kid's T-ball team or whatever; think of it as a lifestyle question. The coach doesn't have to be able to score from an overhead kick or throw a football 80 yards; he has to run meetings, make plans, juggle lists, and justify himself, same as anybody. He does paperwork. Maybe hops on the treadmill when he can. He's still connected to the magic of sports, but with him it takes the form of inspired halftime speeches and brilliant late-game stratagems — basically work e-mail lifted to a spiritual plane. More than anything, he has to watch a ton of games: obsess about what's not working, get mad at players who screw up, praise players who do well. When something good happens, he runs around and celebrates. When something bad happens, he flails his arms like an idiot. Sound like anyone you know?

For all the coach's technical expertise, he's a surrogate for fans because, totally by coincidence, his job involves pantomiming being a fan. Just look at him, in his sloppy shirt, yelling about every trivial injustice he faces, emotionally gone on something pointless, fighting to control what he can't control. He's a schlub like the rest of us! Only somehow, he's also part of the game.

I used to watch more college basketball than I do now. I'm friends with a disproportionate number of hard-core NBA fans, and you know how NBA diehards are about the college game; I was forever having to defend my love of the ACC–Big 10 Challenge from perfectly reasonable, utterly infuriating objections like, "Uhh … you know the level of play is pretty terrible, right?" I would respond to these critiques not by evoking the purity of the NCAA athlete or whatever line the revanchist-fundamentals crowd is peddling these days; mostly I would talk about how college basketball foregrounds coaches.

"It's a different experience," I would say. "The arenas are tiny, and the best players don't stick around very long. The coaches are the only faces that repeat from year to year, and you see them a lot. And in the era of fantasy sports and Football Manager, we're all thinking like coaches anyway; we just don't realize it. So why not have one sport that celebrates team building and, like, prudent squad management? Why not make Tom Izzo yelling his throat raw on the sideline your marquee highlight?

"If the players aren't that good," I would add, "doesn't that underscore the point?"

My favorite sport, soccer, is kind of the same way, in that massive cults of personality form around the top coaches, and they're on TV a lot, there being many good reasons to cut away from the action of the average soccer game. But the human-reason-defeating popularity of high-level soccer imposes its own distortion field around everything that happens on the pitch — the best soccer coaches are unapproachably deranged and larger than life. College basketball is intimate. John Calipari could be someone in your life. Jose Mourinho is a cartoon character; Jay Wright is just overdressed.

So I used to defend college basketball that way — not that it ever persuaded any NBA fans (just the opposite), but it made sense to me. I liked the emphasis on generals over soldiers; I liked seeing the game as a melodrama of static, overpaid, stressed-out adults. To the extent that I thought about it at all, I thought that the bogus commercial mythos of American coaching — I mean the "makers of men, molders of virtue" stuff, the bullshit hardcovers about "the boardroom … and beyond," John Wooden's 12 Hexagons of Integrity, the whole corporate-remora existence these guys have in the offseason — was a side effect, a trivial cash-in, not part of the basic reason we identified with coaches. Sports are astonishing; if some junior partner somewhere wants a stocking-stuffer that tells him that astonishment has something to do with his life ("leadership"), who...
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