I’ve spent the better part of the past two months interviewing old-timers for a piece about the Big East conference.
The coaches -- Rollie Massimino, John Thompson and the like -- spun more than a few yarns about coaching disagreements that included salty language, pointed insults and some flat-out name-calling.
And now, with the benefit of 20-plus years of water under the bridge, they laugh when they tell the stories and we laugh when we hear them. We call them characters for it.
So really, in some sense what happened between Indiana coach Tom Crean and Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer in the postgame handshake Sunday night isn’t new. Some coaches flat-out don’t like one another, some simply blow their tops after a heated game. It has been that way ever since we learned how to split up into teams.
Except what’s new is the age we live in, the combo platter of 24-hour television coverage and social media. What was OK 20 years ago isn’t anymore -- and while that may seem unfair, well, life is unfair.
Certainly the endless scrutiny has robbed us all of some of the game’s entertainment value. After Thompson poked Louie Carnesecca by wearing a sweater to a game, Carnesecca responded by carrying a gigantic towel over his shoulder.
The Internet might blow up were that to happen today.
So sure, some of what we’ve lost is sad -- the harmless fun part. But the verbal spat that not only didn’t end but escalated between Meyer and Crean isn’t harmless fun. It’s poor taste and bad form, a kerfuffle that not only marred the end of an incredible game but also has robbed the Hoosiers of their deserved day-after attention for capturing their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years.
Instead of the tantalizing and endless path the ball took around the rim for Jordan Morgan and the Wolverines, instead of Cody Zeller's game winner, here we are -- with a tempest in a made-to-order 2013 teapot.
It’s a shame, but it’s our reality. Coaches constantly tell their players to be careful when they’re out and about, that if they are in a bar with a beer in their hands or acting like a fool (or even a college student) someone will surely take a picture with a camera phone and post it somewhere.
Well guess what? The same rules apply to the grown-ups.
You can’t tell your athletes to behave out in the world, to walk away from arguments and toe the line of decorum and then go running around acting like a testosterone-laced bull while the television cameras are whirring.
The Indiana Twitter posse has rushed to Crean’s defense, saying that Meyer may have said something to the IU coach first -- the old "he started it" argument.
But that doesn’t fly for high-paid coaches any more than it flies for my kids.
Is it hard to walk away if someone calls you a name? Absolutely. But you do anyway. You do if you’re a kid because your mother told you to. You do if you’re an adult because you know it’s the right thing. And you most certainly do if you’re a head coach charged with "molding young men," as coaches like to say they do.
Here’s the thing: Crean has done an incredible job at Indiana, not only rebuilding the program into a winner but restoring what had been a fractured fan base after Bob Knight’s departure. The Hoosiers are the Hoosiers again: good, relevant and solid from the inside out.
The road to get there was arduous and if he holds Meyer, who was an assistant under Kelvin Sampson, partially responsible, that’s his prerogative. No matter how specific Crean is in explaining what he and the Hoosiers have had to endure to get back to this spot, only they really know how bad it was at the beginning and exactly how much of the Bloomington earth lay scorched beneath them.
Anger, simmering under the surface for so many years, can boil over.
Except it just can’t.
Not like that. Not in today’s world.