UNC coach Roy Williams showing displeasure at a game in 2007. Photo via Flickr user kevin813
The NCAA basketball tournament isn’t quite the “One Shining Moment” montage CBS would have you believe it is, but as a television program you can watch that makes you feel stuff—happy, heartbroken, nervous as hell—it works about as well as any sporting event. The games have a squirrel-loose-in-the-dog-park franticness to them. Announcer Bill Raftery is there, ejaculating poetically. A bunch of teenagers from nowhere occasionally upset a bunch of teenagers from somewhere and do celebratory goofy-slash-gleeful dances. You’ve got an office pool going, and it turns out no one you work with knows anything about college basketball, but it also turns out no one really cares about not knowing. We are, nearly all of us, having a good time.
You know who's not having a good time? Rick Pitino, who's making a face best described as “angry about the orgasm he’s having.” On Friday, with five and a half minutes left to go in the game, Pitino’s Louisville team was beating Saint Louis by 13. It was pretty much over, but Pitino didn’t give a shit about the score—he began berating junior guard Wayne Blackshear like an Olive Garden waiter who has picked the wrong fucking Thursday to serve him room-temperature grilled chicken Toscano, all because Blackshear had just turned the ball over, apparently for the sole purpose of infuriating his coach. Once Pitino finished with Blackshear, he went on to harangue the various Newtonian forces that caused his player to fumble the ball out of bounds. Inertia’s playing with its head up its ass tonight.
That sort of scene is common enough that a casual viewer might wonder why all these old white guys are so pissed off all the time. College basketball coaches, as a general rule, could stand to tone it down. Their aggro flourishes are strange enough during relatively inconsequential mid-season rock fights, but the way their perma-peeved demeanors go to 11 during the tourney is particularly at odds with the giddy, carnivalesque atmosphere that pervades it. They are at a concert refusing to look up from the ground. They are at the zoo glaring at a giraffe. They are at the park and thinking about being at the office. They are with their wives and wishing they were dead. March Madness has a single sour note, and it’s Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s scowl.
The coaching profession is attractive to psychological Napoleons, the types of people who consider intimidation a management tactic. Some, like Bobby Knight—a chair-tosser and player-choker, a spitting lunatic—become beloved abusive paterfamiliases. In the myths sportscasters tell about them, their unchecked vindictiveness becomes part of what makes them great: Knight once made Steve Alford strip naked while the rest of the team was ordered to pelt him with maple-syrup-filled water balloons. That day, Alford learned a valuable lesson about questioning authority. Less skilled pricks, like former Rutgers coach Mike Rice—who struck his players and called them faggots—are banished to the Crazy Asshole bin of history. The difference between these two fates comes down to little more than success. You have permission to be a bully, so long as you recruit well and make a few final fours.
It takes a special kind of jerk to act like Bob Knight all the time, but March Madness has a way of bringing out every coach’s most virulent "I am not fucking around" tics. The result is a rainbow of dad rage. Florida’s Billy Donovan becomes an aggrieved eagle. Indiana’s Tom Crean transforms into an anguished ham. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim flails his arms and whines. North Carolina’s Roy Williams does this thing where he’s, like, pooping into an imaginary hole in the ground and also he’s furious about it. Kentucky’s John Calipari makes himself big, like a bear is approaching.
This is what happens when you put unfathomably competitive men in charge of powerless college kids during a tournament in which contract extensions and bonus money are up for grabs. (For the coaches, that is. The players get nothing—oh, sorry, they get an education.) There are occasionally gross overtones of paternalism in this arrangement; coaches are like parents who don’t fret about scarring their children in service of a greater good. They would tell you that greater good is making men out of boys, but pretty obviously their ultimate goal is beating Villanova.
Coaching is a peculiar job in that you’re like a superhero whose signature power is planning. You run the practices, you pick the lineup, you set the substitution patterns, you call the plays, and yet, as is painfully apparent when your team blows three straight defensive assignments, there are times when none of this affects the contest you’re hellbent on winning. You can’t will your point guard to stop making dumb passes, so naturally you curse and have third-graderish full-body meltdowns. (Keep in mind, you have a gigantic ego and the self-control of a relapsing addict.) You scream at your players. You scream at the refs. You scream at the concept of imperfect basketball. You simply—fist pounding on the scorer’s table—will not accept that your perfect game plan is being thwarted by some slapdick teenager who is unable to execute a proper half-court trap. Your life is a series of aneurysms.
All this animal fury should be deeply unpleasant. It probably is, for the players who are on the receiving end of it. James Naismith, who invented basketball, famously took pride in creating a game that, he thought, didn’t require a coach. Mike Krzyzewski drill-sergeanting his team, then petulantly whipping a pen at a chair for an assistant to pick up, makes a decent case for the long-dead Naismith being correct. But somehow, amid the spectacle of offenses careening like a shopping cart down an incline and Verne Lundquist chortling and the Harvard band making hilariously derpy excitement faces, Coach Anger is not the ugly or terrifying thing it otherwise would be. Instead, these human monuments to fury come off as transparently silly. They are trying to micromanage the apocalypse with a clipboard and a temper, and of course they’re failing.
The tourney is at its most enjoyable when the momentum of a game causes it to hop its rails. Players are losing their nerve and their shit and some are sprouting wings. Some until-now-anonymous sophomore with big balls—onions!—is drunk on himself and has ditched the plan. Fuck the offense: He pulls up from 25 feet and lets fly. The arena inhales. In the background, one blinkered man is performing an unintentional comedy routine. He’s beside himself, kneading his hands into his skull, and he doesn’t understand what’s obvious to everyone else: This is the best part.
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