Old-school coaches out-dated

PITTSBURGH – Mike Rice could have claimed he was teaching dodgeball to his basketball players.

Give him credit for taking responsibility for the horrendous behavior that got him fired as Rutgers’ head basketball coach last week. Rice, the former Robert Morris head coach and Pitt assistant, was dumped after ESPN ran footage of him raging at players during practice.

Rice threw basketballs at players, he grabbed them, and he berated them with homophobic slurs. It was inexcusable conduct, and Rutgers should have fired him last fall, when university officials first saw the tape. Instead, he was fined, suspended and sent to anger management classes.

Rice was completely out of control. He’s probably lucky that his players just took the abuse and didn’t fire back at him. Coaches need to maintain order, but the day of treating players like trash is long gone.

Underneath its multi-million dollar athletic programs, Rutgers is the state university of New Jersey. How long would an English professor last if he winged a textbook at a student who didn’t quite understand Chaucer? Yet in Rice’s world, failure to box out properly was met with a shove, a shouted insult and maybe a basketball aimed at the neck.

Athletics are different, but why? Aren’t athletes entitled to a basic level of respect as human beings? There’s a lot of aberrant behavior in sports that gets rationalized as “intensity.” Unfortunately, head coaches – even those with Rice’s limited accomplishments – tend to construct kingdoms where nobody dares to tell them they’re wrong.

For all the post-firing endorsements of Rice as a thoughtful coach who cares about his players, the man on the tape was an abusive maniac.

Rice apparently understands that now. His chances of applying that knowledge at another coaching job are understandably slim.

Wrestling reality

Pittsburgh’s own Bruno Sammartino has been inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame, a dubious entity that currently exists only on the WWE website. Past inductees include Pete Rose, William “Refrigerator” Perry and Drew Carey, all of whom played comedy roles on WWE Wrestlemania productions.

The induction ended a long-standing and bitter feud between Sammartino and the current version of the company he worked for as champion in the 1960s and ’70s. He had been a vociferous critic of WWE’s reliance on steroid-enhanced performers and risque content.

The rift has been healed with two standard tools of compromise: Diplomacy and money. WWE is now proudly touting Sammartino’s accomplishments, including the oft-repeated statistic that he headlined Madison Square Garden 211 times with 187 sellouts.

That’s pure fiction. Dave Meltzer, who has published the Wrestling Observer newsletter for 29 years, reports Sammartino actually headlined the Garden 130 times. The number of sellouts is harder to pin down because attendance wasn’t always accurately reported. It’s believed to be in the range of 50 to 60.

But that was always the beauty of the wrestling business: Reality was whatever promoters decided it should be.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.