THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 26, Spring 2004

William A. McEachern, Editor

Teaching and Coaching

I write this as the college basketball season heads down the road to another final four. Teaching and coaching have some similar goals, but differences in delivery and motivation are worth discussing. The coach I have observed most over the years is Jim Calhoun, men's basketball coach at the University of Connecticut. He may have mellowed some, but he still sometimes will seem furious with his players during games. As one press account this season noted, "UConn trailed the plucky Wolf Pack by 18-11, and Calhoun loosened his tie and lit into his team." (New York Times, 20 November 2003). On rare occasions he appears so enraged, he can't speak, or won't speak, to them during time-outs—he just glares.

According to Calhoun's coaching memoir, Dare to Dream, (Broadway Books, 1999, 228 pages), the UConn athletic department once complained that they had no photo of him to put on press guides and programs. Photographers had never snapped a picture of him smiling during the game (p. 185). And this is just his public display of affection. One can only guess what happens during practices and in the locker room at halftime.

This behavior is not confined to men's teams. Geno Auriemma, the women's basketball coach at UConn, can also seem angry and sarcastic. After one game this past January, he told the press, "Our big guys are girly-girls, you know? They play girl's basketball. We've got to get them to play college women's basketball." (Hartford Courant, 27 January 2004).

Calhoun and Auriemma are the most successful coaches in UConn history and among the most successful in the country based on their winning records, tournament results, and pay (Calhoun makes about $900,000 a year and Auriemma, about $600,000). So their behavior appears well within accepted bounds. These coaches are not alone, or even the most demonstrative (think Bob Knight).

Here's my question: Why can a coach berate players publicly, even on national television, yet a teacher who questions a student's discipline and drive, even in the privacy of the office, might be considered insensitive? I have discussed this double standard with the coach of a major college program (not UConn), and he claims that a coach can push players harder because they realize that the coach just wants them to live up to their potential.

That sentiment is echoed in Calhoun's book: "The players, I push them and prod them, beg them and scream at them. There are times, driving home in your car, sitting up in bed late at night, you question yourself: Have I gone too far? Am I too tough? Do they understand what I'm doing? Do I have the right to put the burden on them?...I do it because I like you, I want you to be better, the best you can be." (pp. 186-187, emphasis in the original). At least one current player sounds like a believer: "[Calhoun] still wants you to compete on every play. He still wants you to become the best basketball player, and the best person, you can be" (St. Petersburg Times, 20 March 2003).

I believe two reasons college coaches get more emotional than teachers are (1) coaches can get away with it and (2) coaches have more at stake. The coach has more riding on each game and the practices that lead up to it than a teacher has riding on each exam and the classes that lead up to it. A coach carries a won-loss record for life, and that metric determines the coach's career. What if we were judged after each exam based on how well our students performed against students in a competing class taught by someone else? And what if we carried that record with us till kingdom come? Our record would appear in parenthesis after our name. Journalists might write about teachers with the best or worst record, the largest winning percentage, or the most improved since the last academic year. If this were the case, we might become more animated if we found students were dogging it in a way that would end our teaching careers.

Coaches perform for a variety of audiences. One of the most important is potential recruits. Even the best coaches need talent to compete. Since Calhoun, Auriemma, and other hotheads manage to recruit some of the best player in the world, we must conclude that recruits are not turned off by these sideline fits. Top recruits are likely looking for someone who will push them enough to make the National Basketball Association, where the annual pay now averages $4 million.

Why don't our students accept such prodding? First, students perceive the stakes as smaller. Few believe their success upon graduation depends on how much they learn in a particular course. What many really want is the college degree (and the grades) without the discipline. As M. Scott Peck wrote: "The tendency to avoid challenge is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature." We would all rather avoid being pushed, but we prefer being pushed to pushing ourselves, particularly if the stakes are high enough. We are willing to limit our personal freedom by playing for a tough coach, hiring a personal trainer, agreeing to a submission deadline we know will be tight, attending alcoholics anonymous meetings, asking a casino manager to bar us from gambling, joining weight-watchers, or undergoing gastric bypass surgery.

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