- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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March Madness is upon us again, and you know what that means, don't you? Another high-decibel reminder that only in coaching can you peel off some clothes, stomp your feet and pull on your hair, even lose your mind in a game or press conference that's viewed by thousands of people, and still have dozens of fans and colleagues say "Way to go, pal!" and "I wish I'd thought of that."
Does this strike you as odd? Is it really necessary, or just a scene-stealing bad habit?
Is not the coaching id a terrible thing to watch?
Nobody ever knows for sure who will win the NCAA tournament when it starts. But every year, what's always certain is that when March Madness ends three weeks later, someone with a sore throat wearing a sport coat will be declared best in show, and 67 other breeds of Old Yeller will have been sent home with a hang-dog look and no net slung around their necks.
Normally, we get only the visuals of this anguish, not the uncensored in-game soundtrack that goes with it.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski often covers his mouth so no one can lip-read the unthinkables he's tempted to scream. Michigan State's Tom Izzo often runs up and down the sideline like some worried man hurrying passengers off a sinking ship while yelling, "This way to the lifeboats! THIS WAY!" Gene Keady, in his heyday at Purdue, used to toss his sports jacket and once cracked his Rolex when he slammed the court with a clenched fist.
And did you catch Marshall coach Tom Herrion over the weekend? During his team's blowout loss to Memphis in the Conference USA title game -- which meant that Marshall missed the NCAA tournament -- poor Herrion spent very large and frustrating swaths of the game talking to some invisible friend under his armpit, when what he clearly wanted was to reach out and trip the referee who was running by him just then. Why, you may ask? I feel confident I can channel exactly what Herrion was thinking: "FOR RUINING WHAT STARTED AS A DAY BRIMMING WITH HOPE, EXCITEMENT AND PROMISE, THAT'S WHY!
"WHAT GAME WERE YOU WATCHING?"
But every once in awhile, something else happens right out in the open, like the sight of Lamar coach Pat Knight -- son of Bob Knight -- publicly excoriating his team after a loss Feb. 22. And everything is laid bare. It was one of the more extraordinarily frank upbraids of any team you'll ever see.
Pat, not surprisingly, has some strong opinions on the coaching id -- all of them straightforward as a punch in the nose, many of them brutally honest and funny.
Take that rant about his team.
Hell, yes, Pat admits with a laugh, he most certainly did "throw my players under the bus." And you're damn right, the 41-year-old Knight agrees, what happened at Lamar since his outburst just proves what a nutty, unpredictable, hothouse job coaching is.
"Sick is what we are," Knight sighs. "We're all adrenaline junkies."
Lamar won its last six games, including the Southland Conference championship game Saturday that gave the Cardinals their automatic NCAA tournament berth. This came after Knight launched into what he admits was a fully premeditated rip job on his players following a 62-52 loss to Stephen F. Austin. The team seemed headed nowhere, and as Knight, who's in his first year at Lamar, told his staff before he did it, "I've tried everything but calling them out publicly."
In a session that quickly became a YouTube sensation, Knight seethed about players "stealing money being on scholarship" and lamented he had problems with some of them "on the court, off the court, classroom, drugs, being late for stuff You can't do all that B.S. and expect to be good and win games I came here to clean something up, and that's the bottom line We have a bunch of tin men."
In the ensuing days Knight says he received more than 50 messages saying, "Thanks for telling it like it is" or "I wish I had the guts to hold folks accountable like that." He says one high school athletic director told him he made his teams watch the whole rant. Numerous coaches told him they showed the same clip during team pregame meetings or at special get-togethers they held.
How many calls did Knight field from his own players' parents?
"None," Knight insists.
"I'm not the type that calls players' parents all the time, because I feel like I'm their parent while they're with me anyway," Knight explains. "But the other thing I've said about this is, players can talk about coaches, the media can say anything they want about coaches. Anybody in this country can say or write anything they want to about even the president of the United States. But a coach getting on a bunch of 18- to 21-year-olds is taboo? Why?"
If that were the only dynamic in play here, the answer would be easy: It's not taboo, of course.
But let's be real. All of that shouting and foot-stomping and working the referees that coaches do is not just for The Good of The Children no matter how often the greater good of The Children gets invoked.
The reasons coaches behave the way they do are myriad. A scene-stealing ego is one. But here are two more: Coaches can get away with it. And quite often, the antics do seem to work.
"Part of it is you're so in the moment things are just flying 100 miles per hour during a game," Knight says. "You're just trying to motivate guys and push every button to get them going. Or, if you got the lead, you're begging them to keep it. So win or lose, it's the biggest roller-coaster ride you can imagine. Sometimes I'll stand up too fast during a game and I'll get a head rush -- I'll actually see stars and get dizzy. Sometimes I can't remember what I said I talk out loud to myself."
Knight also holds his oft-heated timeout huddles out by the foul line rather than the Lamar bench because "women and children come to games."
When all the planning and effort doesn't pan out after all that? When your best-laid plans explode because of vagaries like a ref who can't get a block/charge call right to save his life, or a shot that hangs on the rim and falls the wrong way?
Steve Lavin, the former UCLA coach who's now at St. John's, and ESPN TV analyst Dan Dakich, who played and coached for Bob Knight at Indiana, fall on different gradients on the behavior scale than either Bob or Pat Knight. Yet they say many of the same things about the in-game experience of coaching that Pat Knight says.
The 47-year-old Lavin had surgery and treatment for prostate cancer this offseason, but his doctors shut him down from coaching just 33 days after he returned because, "As one of my doctors said to me, 'You blew out the engine. You took the car out on the Autobahn and you didn't just go from zero to 260. You didn't even bother to warm up the engine.'"
The physical toll is tough. But there's the emotional whitewater to ride out, too.
"Sometimes you really have no idea what you say [during a game], and sometimes -- I'll be honest with you -- sometimes you lose it because you just get sooo fed up," chuckles Dakich, who also served as interim head coach at Indiana in 2008 after a 10-year run at Bowling Green that included a few kicked water coolers. "Quite often, you've already tried every different way there is to reach your kids. You've tried yelling to light them up. You've made 'em run. And sometimes it just feels good to get in a press conference and air it out, you know?
"The only problem," Dakich adds, "is once you're in there, it's just you and the microphone and cameras. And that's forever."
Coaching is madness, all right. And that's true all season long, not just during March.
Knight, Dakich and Lavin all agree that you have to know your team before you act. Knight says what he guessed right about this Lamar team is, "They're tough, boy. They are tough. All credit for all this season goes to them. Because for some reason when you get on these guys, they just get mad. And then they play better. After I said what I said, three of the seniors came and apologized to me."
As Knight was saying all this on his cellphone Monday, it was possible to overhear a flight attendant's voice telling everyone the plane door was about to close so they could begin their flight from Beaumont, Texas, to Dayton, Ohio. The previous night, said Knight, the team was at his house reliving their season and telling stories all night long -- some of them making fun of his temper or incoherent ramblings.
"When he did what he did, we could have curled up in a ball in a corner and quit," Lamar senior guard Anthony Miles told reporters after arriving in Dayton on Tuesday, "but we never did. It just forced us to come together stronger."
Lamar, now 23-11, is scheduled to face fellow No. 16 seed Vermont on Wednesday. And win or lose, whether the Cardinals stay alive in this NCAA tournament or blaze out right away, Knight insists, "This team will be part of my folklore."
"I don't think I'll ever be able to do what I did with them again," Knight says. "But whenever I have a team that isn't doing things right, or maybe I have my own kids and one of them complains about something, I can look at them and say, 'Oh?
"'Let me tell you about this team I had once upon a time '"
Every year someone with a sore throat wearing a sport coat will be declared best in show, and 67 other breeds of Old Yeller will have been sent home with a hang-dog look and no net slung around their necks.