For several years now, Washington State University has been blessed with something it has often lacked throughout its history; an exciting, contending basketball team, led by a successful head coach who not only won games, but was coveted by other, less successful schools. Some might say that Tony Bennett was too successful, as he has now been lured away from the Palouse by big money from the University of Virginia. For a fantastic perspective on the situation, I refer you to Nuss from CougCenter, who whips through the five stages of grief in under 750 words. Some selected highlights:
Tony Bennett is just like every other coach.
And Washington State always will be a place where successful coaches come to build a resume and move on.
There's really no other way to explain what happened today. We gave Tony everything he asked for -- and even some things he didn't -- and it still wasn't enough to keep a guy we wanted to keep, a guy who professed wanting to be here. We thought we could escape our history, convincing ourselves this was a different era in Cougar athletics as we bought Tony's schtick hook, line and sinker.
Yes, he lied to us, but it's our fault for believing him. You might find that language harsh or too strong, but he's the one who said all those things about Pullman, about Sterk, about the program ... and then bolted today with only a short players' meeting. Those were his words, not ours.
We've all heard this story before; it's one of the most tired storylines in college sports. The knee-jerk response might be to demonize Tony Bennett for using WSU and lying to everyone about his intentions, or to bemoan the slanted college athletics playing field where big money (and the donors who provide it) rules everything, but I have another, broader target.
What particularly struck me about this story was that while it is an unfortunate situation for many of those involved (the players who came to Wazzu to play for Bennett, the administration that worked hard to support and stand behind him, the fans who believed Bennett when he said he was in it for the long haul), there is no one person who can really be labeled an 'antagonist' here. Everybody involved acted in their own best interest; indeed, I will argue that if Tony Bennett misled the Washington State Basketball family about his long-term intentions, it was because it was in both his and their immediate interest that he do so.
For the vast majority of us, our work agreement with our employer is a temporary one; at some point, we will have outgrown the job, it will be time to move on, a better opportunity will come along, et cetera. Everyone understands this, and no one expects a lifetime commitment. To ask 99.9% of us if we still intended to hold the same job we have today five or seven years from now, and to moreover expect some sort of commitment as such, would be frankly quite absurd. The honest answer from those of us who have yet to attain our dream job is almost always "Not likely -- hopefully I'll have been promoted/moved up by then," or, at the least, "Maybe, unless something better comes along."
But college head coaches aren't allowed to give the honest answer. The system won't allow for it. A successful coach who says that he's 'happy where he is' and 'isn't looking for another job right now' all but but posts his résumé in newspapers across America. An honest, plausible 'out' just isn't good enough, as opposing college coaches will invariably use this as evidence against that coach when speaking to potential recruits. Hitting up donors for the funds to build a fancy new training facility? They'll want to know that they're giving to a winning team, now and in the future, and if a coach is less than 100% committed for the long haul, that pitch becomes that much more difficult.
So what's a head coach to do in this morally hazardous situation? If you tell the truth (that you're committed for now, and if a better job comes along next year, well, you'll see how much money they pile at your feet), you do yourself and your employer a disservice. You seem somewhat noncommittal, even perhaps disloyal. You hurt the program, making recruiting and fundraising both needlessly tougher. The truth serves neither interest. So you lie, and the only ones who believe you are the young and the naïve, and no one else is surprised when you jump for greener pastures two years from now. A regrettable situation, but it doesn't have to be that way.
The real cause of this situation is the savior-like importance put on a successful head coach, to the virtual exclusion of just about everything else that goes on at a successful Division I program. Assistant coaches, facilities, academics, alumni connections; these are all paid lip service, but without the genius head coach, they are virtually worthless. It is a tenuous situation, one that makes ADs across the country squirm in their seats.
Why do we let this happen? Why do we allow the fortunes of our beloved sporting programs to rest with one person? If Harvard or MIT were to steal away the head of one of our highly successful academic departments, would anyone panic that the program would then slide into mediocrity? No, of course not. It would be a blow, sure, but plenty of highly-prized professors would remain, as would the world class facilities and the extensive and valuable alumni network. A search committee would look for a suitable replacement, and someone plenty capable would be found. Perhaps the program would suffer a slight dip, but no more than that.
The key here is to build a program, and sell that to recruits, fans, and donors. Sell the assistant coaches and the academics and the facilities and the location and all those other things that won't change a bit should a pile of money lure away the head man. But don't just say it, build that reality. Build a wider foundation so that even if that dreaded day of "I'm truly grateful for the opportunity I've had here, but it's time for me to move on to bigger challenges" comes, it won't spell disaster so much as a minor speed bump.
And when coaches sell their program, they don't have to say that they're committed to it forever. They can actually tell the truth! "I love it here now, and while I'm not looking for other jobs, if I do ever leave, this program has so much going for it, it will go right on winning long after I'm gone." Not an easy place to get to, but a truthful one. One that players will appreciate even after the coach they signed to play for has left for greener pastures.
A great example of this is the Boise State football program. In 2006, Chris Petersen led the Broncos to a perfect 12-0 record and a berth in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, where they knocked off heavily-favored Oklahoma. But Petersen wasn't a program-changing savior. While a good head coach, Petersen built Boise's success off the groundwork laid by his predecessors: the three previous head coaches at Boise are all guys I'm sure you've heard of: Houston Nutt (went on to success at Arkansas, now at Ole Miss), Dirk Koetter (had some success at Arizona State), and Dan Hawkins (now at Colorado). Additionally, both Hawkins and Petersen were Boise assistants that were promoted to the top job after the head man left, and Boise's dominance of the WAC didn't skip a beat in either case. However talented a coach Chris Petersen might be, does anyone honestly think Boise will immediately fall into football obscurity should Petersen leave for more money somewhere else?
Of course, it will always remain in the best interest of college head coaches to promote themselves as program-changing saviors; how else could they begin to justify their exorbitant salaries, often becoming a university's highest-paid employee? Building a strong program and a lasting legacy may also fall under the coaches' purview, but sharing the credit probably won't. This is why at least some of the program-building responsibility must necessarily fall to the Athletic Director and other university officials. As controlling and ego-centric as some college head coaches can be, the AD must ensure that the program could survive the loss of the head man. Some have already begun doing this, paying top assistants to stay and be head-coaches-in-waiting, though it is often only the richest, most successful schools who can afford this, and most of the head-coaches-in-waiting that I can think of are waiting for the Head Coach to retire, not to leave for more money.
Maybe it's just me, but I find lying and hypocrisy to be a much bigger sins than forthrightly chasing one's money-grubbing self-interest. If a coach wants to leave for what he considers a better job, that's his right, but he best have prepared his players for that eventuality. I would hope that the members of Washington State's basketball team are just as excited and proud to be there as there were three weeks ago, when Tony Bennett was still their head coach, as they are now, and would further hope that their decision regarding which college to attend rested on much more than the presence of one man. I wish them the best of luck in the future -- except against my Cal Bears, of course, when I hope they fail and fail miserably.
Maybe it's part of growing up to have one's illusions shattered by those you thought you could trust, but I'd just as soon as the players affected, as well as all of us fans, would wait and become jaded by politicians instead.