After Further Review
by Nick Lowery
Pete Koch, former #1 pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, a six year veteran of the NFL and personal trainer to Hollywood stars like Tobey Maguire, tells a story about coaches and rules that captures the one consistent theme about coaches and referees in sport, and their impact on young athletes: respect.
It was the era of All Pro Mark Gastineau, the record-setting pass-rushing star for the New York Jets (one of my former teams) during the famous “New York Sack Exchange” days. Sam Wyche, the Bengals’ head coach, had been telling his offensive line all week to do everything they could get away with to block Gastineau, “pushing it right to the edge. We really went after him, and here I was a rookie, and I hated it,” Koch remembers, with high/low double team blocks (illegal today) that would effectively cut the Jets All-World Defensive end down at (and to) his knees. The Bengals were cut blocking Gastineau all game, when a sweep took Gastineau near the Bengals’ sideline. “As he got up, Gastineau gets right up in Sam’s face and says loud and clear, ‘Listen to me, Sam, you %^&*?!$!! Quit that chicken s--- blocking or I’m going to come over and personally kick your butt in front of your whole team.’”
Koch says he never forgot how in that moment he lost respect for his coach’s cavalier attitude toward the rules. The same can be true for every coach who loses his cool in front of a referee.
“Youth Sports is about education and behavior”, says Dr John Eliot, Professor of Sports Ethics at Rice University. “Kids are more apt to model the behavior toward authority and referees that they see in their coaches. Yelling at umpires is not performance enhancing; it reinforces an improper response to a tough situation. (If you lose your cool) “you as the coach are demonstrating your inability to perform in a difficult situation. You have a teaching opportunity: one of the prime lessons of sport,” says Eliot, “by modeling how you handle disagreements and incorrect calls.” Because they happen. We all know that.
Hall of Fame NFL coach Marv Levy says, “Officials make mistakes. So do coaches. So do players.” Levy says he made it a point to know the names of the referees. “Know who they are, meet them before the game, and treat them with respect. If you have a discussion before the game with that respectful manner, you are more likely to be able to have a respectful discussion during the game.” But it’s not easy. The refs always knew that Marv respected them even when he had, like we all do, his more colorful moments (watch NFL Highlights some time!).
Tri City Christian’s Baseball coach Ken Bouchard says, “I treat refs as human beings. I usually don’t question the small stuff. The biggest thing is you are an ambassador for your team. The umpire can be your best friend if you treat them with respect.”
Brooks Clark, a veteran youth coach in Tennessee and former writer for Sports Illustrated, says, “Yelling at referees is like yelling at waiters…they can’t yell back, and they’re paid to take it. Its really about development for all of us, not just our kids.“ Clark mentioned David Cutcliffe, who coached both Eli and Peyton Manning in college, about the role his father, NFL legend Archie Manning, played in their development. “He’s the parent who knew the most, and said the least.” Silence sometimes teaches more than words.
Dr Eliot gave three things to do when the ref makes a questionable call:
Take a pause: collect your thoughts and take a breath. If you are walking to the mound, take your time!
Be diplomatic and deliberate with your questions: plan ahead so your questions help create the right tone of respect.
Take time to help your players refocus on the next play: explain “here’s what we will do to handle this.”
As legendary NFL Referee Jim Tunney says, “I didn’t mind them disagreeing with my calls: the coach’s job is to be biased. From Lombardi, to Landry, to Shula, to Walsh, to Madden, the great coaches all understood that the officials are there to do the best job they can.”
It’s ok for coaches to question calls. Just remember that your players will do nothing at that moment but watch what you do.