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Coaches are defenseless against spoiled athletes

In 1964, when I was a naive young scribe with dark hair, I sheepishly interviewed Vince Lombardi, the venerable, taskmaster icon coach of the Green Bay Packers after a preseason game in Dallas.
The interview ended almost as soon as it began because I asked Lombardi what he perceived to be a stupid question and he proceeded to jump down my throat. Intimidated and embarrassed, I slinked away.
Lombardi came to mind this week when I heard the news that Paul Westphal was fired as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics because he couldn’t get along with the Sonics’ star player, guard Gary Payton.
Payton and Westphal exchanged unpleasantries again last week and Westphal reportedly told Payton: “You play; I’ll coach.” Payton was suspended for one game for arguing with Westphal and then publicly criticizing him. They subsequently met for more than an hour and the suspension was lifted. It wasn’t enough to save Westphal’s job.
And Vince Lombardi must’ve been doing cartwheels in his grave.
In his book “Instant Replay,” about life as a Green Bay player under Lombardi, offensive guard Jerry Kramer recalled the time he and his family were in an ice cream parlor during training camp and Lombardi came in. Instinctively, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Kramer quickly hid his ice cream cone behind his back.
And there’s the story about former Buffalo Bills coach Jim Ringo, the Packers’ center from 1953 to 1963. Ringo’s agent told Lombardi’s secretary something to the effect of, “I’m here to negotiate Mr. Ringo’s contract.” The secretary passed the message along to Lombardi, who instructed the agent to wait in the reception area.
Legend has it that when Lombardi finally invited the agent into his office and the fellow explained why he was there, Lombardi said, “You’ll have to call the Philadelphia Eagles. Mr. Ringo doesn’t work here anymore.” In the few minutes while the agent was waiting to see the coach, Lombardi, apparently insulted that Ringo had sent an agent to represent him, had traded Ringo to the Eagles. Ringo has denied the story, and who can blame him?
In those days, the coach was in charge. One of his players once said of Lombardi: “He treats us all the same-like dirt.”
You didn’t play the “star” card on coaches from “the old school.” They were paid to win games, not pamper spoiled brats. They figured the best way to make their players feel good about themselves was to win. Players were expected to command respect, not demand it.
Well, that’s no longer where we’re at, folks. Nowadays, the tails wag the dogs. The inmates, as they say, are running the asylum. The coach’s job is to keep the two-legged, multimillion-dollar corporations happy, presumably so they don’t get a hangnail and call in sick. Or, in the case of Paul Westphal, get him fired.
The dumping of, and on, Westphal by the StuporSonics makes one wonder where all this is headed. Are all pro coaches, especially NBA coaches, merely powerless figureheads? Are they nothing more than buffers between the players and the nasty ol’ media? Is the modern coach’s main function to be sure the millionaires have clean jocks and socks every day?
I mean, where would New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy be today if he had turned off Patrick Ewing three or four years ago? If Michael Jordan couldn’t stomach Phil Jackson, how many championships would Jackson have won in Chicago?
What if Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal suddenly decides Jackson is a louse and playing for him is unbearable? You think Jerry West would call O’Neal in and say, “Sorry, Shaq, your relationship with Coach Jackson has deteriorated beyond repair, so we’re trading you to Vancouver.”
This ugly situation isn’t confined to basketball locker rooms. How long would Joe Torre last as manager of the New York Yankees if Derek Jeter suddenly turned on him and gave George Steinbrenner this ultimatum: “Either he goes, or I go.”
There is no telling how many offensive coordinators in the National Football League have been sent packing because a star quarterback or running back turned on them.
We definitely have a quandary here. Coaches, who are mostly defenseless in this arena, don’t score any points, gain any yards, get any rebounds or throw any touchdown passes; and, therefore, they don’t sell any tickets.
And all those delicate, wealthy egos in pro sports don’t get it: You can’t run a team by committee. It’s not a democracy. The buck has to stop somewhere. Unfortunately for Westphal, in Seattle it stopped at Gary Payton’s locker.
I get the feeling that if Payton were in the military and his company commander yelled at him, “Payton! Duck! Now!” Payton would stand up indignantly and say, right before they tagged his toe, “You can’t talk to me like that!”
Rick Woodson’s column appears each Thursday in the Rochester Business Journal’s Daily Edition at www.rbjdaily.com.

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