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January 9, 2003


I take a fair amount of interest in Pitt athletics. I have served for a number of years on the Senate athletics committee and currently also serve as the liaison to it for the executive committee of the University Senate.

For a number of years I also served on the advisory committee for the admission of student athletes, which reviewed the qualifications for admission of recruited athletes whose secondary school and test score performance was below Pitt’s standards. I recall the committee’s consideration of one recruited athlete whose high school record was very poor and who either had scored low on the SAT, or had not even taken it. Some of us on the committee were not inclined to recommend him for admission. A committee member asked the coach what gave him hope for the athlete to succeed at Pitt academically. The coach noted, among other things, that the young man was driving 50 miles each way every Saturday to take an SAT preparation course. I was among those who considered this a positive indicator. Given his athletic prowess, there was no question he would be admitted to some Division I school, even with his poor record. The picture I had was that this young man wanted an education, as well as an athletic career. He took the SAT, came to Pitt, and earned his bachelor’s degree in four years, while performing well in his sport.

My attention to intercollegiate athletics is prompted largely by my interest in the relationship between a coach and the team members, and how it compares with the relationship of a faculty member to students in a course. For many years I have run on the Field House track or at the stadium, when we had one. I have observed many more athletes in their relationships with each other and the coaches than most faculty, and I want to share some thoughts prompted by these experiences.

One thing that struck me about coaches, compared with faculty members, is that the success of a Division I basketball coach depends a dozen or so young men, some of whom did not meet regular admission standards. The performance of a faculty member as an instructor is not rated in as simplistic and public a manner as a coach — counting team wins and losses and, occasionally, graduation rates of team members.

NCAA rules limit the amount of team practice time. Additional time is allowed for coaches to work with individuals and small groups of team members to improve their skills. I remember former men’s basketball Coach Ralph Willard working one day with Isaac Hawkins on his positioning and moves from a particular spot on the floor. Willard showed exceptional patience as he had Hawkins repeat, time after time, the same move from a particular spot on the floor so that it would become almost automatic when a particular situation arose. I dare say few faculty have ever displayed as much patience as Willard did that day with Hawkins, who was a vastly better player when he left Pitt than when he arrived.

I have seen Coach Ben Howland show the same kind of patience during practice. The team members are expected to respond to a particular situation, each player having his specific action responsibility, and that play is repeated over and over again. I marvel at the patience shown by the coaches as instructors of individual performance and team activity. Not unexpectedly, once in a while the coach’s patience is exhausted and he/she erupts. I think some eruptions are planned as a way to improve player attention, and are not necessarily indications of great frustration with the team on the coach’s part.

In comparing the roles of the coach and the faculty member as instructors, I am struck by the great power of the coach. If a faculty member has a student he/she would like to remove from the class because of behavior that the faculty member believes may affect the instructional process, he/she cannot remove that student, absent a very strong reason that would have to be provided to a superior, if the student contests the removal. On the other hand, most team athletes have been recruited — sought out and encouraged by the coach to come to the University, often with scholarship support. If the coach is dissatisfied with the attitude, behavior or athletic performance of a team member, the coach may remove the athlete from the team. There may be circumstances where the coach is unable to withdraw the scholarship from the athlete, but coaches have no responsibility to keep a player on the team who no longer fits in with the coach’s plans.

While watching a basketball practice recently, the complete domination of the team’s activity by the coach was evident. Practice activity is not subject to player-coach discussion. The coach decides how practice time will be spent. Thus, from the coach’s perspective, he/she must have absolute control.

Many faculty members, as part of the instructional process, seek comments, suggestions and criticisms from students about the faculty member’s statements, the content of assigned readings, and the contributions of other students in the class. Player-coach discussion as part of a basketball team practice session is almost unimaginable, based on my experience.

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