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Original Issue

Epitaph for Epithets

From personal experience, the author asserts that he who cusses least coaches best

When my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, fired basketball coach Lou Campanelli on Feb. 8 for using profane and abusive language in the apparently routine course of chastising his players, she certainly opened a can of worms. The National Association of Basketball Coaches, which includes in its membership such champions of profane and abusive language as Indiana coach Bob Knight, instantly rose to Campanelli's defense, protesting that he deserved better than a midseason canning.

After all, Campanelli had restored Cat's melancholy basketball program to a measure of respectability in his nearly eight seasons there. He had even taken the Bears as far as the NCAA tournament a few years back, and that is an event decades of Cal players had experienced only on TV. He also ran a clean program, admirably free of NCAA violations, and the graduation rate of his players (12 of 16 recruits who reached their senior year graduated or are on track to do so) was commendable. So what if the man cussed a bit?

Cal athletic director Bob Bockrath responded that Campanelli cussed more than a bit and that he, Bockrath, was frankly appalled when he heard firsthand, and purely by accident, one of the coach's postgame tirades. In fact, said Bockrath, some of the best players had become so demoralized by such crass insensitivity that they were threatening to quit the team and maybe even—horrors!—transfer to schools where coaches better observed the civilities. And, he said, players' parents were complaining that they hadn't sent their offspring to Cal with the expectation they would be treated like recruits at a Marine boot camp.

Campanelli, it seems, had become an embarrassment to a university that boasted of academic superiority and of a freedom-loving and often rebellious student body. How could such an institution send into the world basketball players capable of responding only to four-letter epithets? The coach had to go.

Of course, the larger issue here is the changing role of the collegiate coach, for the plain fact is athletes nowadays just won't put up with the guff their predecessors accepted with such servility. The Campanellis and Knights of the coaching fraternity were reared at a time when vituperation was considered a motivational tool. According to that school of behavioral science, players either win the game or are prepared to absorb a tongue-lashing that would shame Fatso Judson. And winning is all that matters. Life is just like that.

Paradoxically, the tyrant-coach cloaks himself in the robes of the educator. After all, it is he, the coach insists, who spends more time in the company of the student-athlete than any professor. And it is he who actually prepares his charges for the nasty challenges of the Real World by toughening them to the point where anything less than a bellow sounds sotto voce and anything short of a personal insult seems a kindness.

Actually, there may be some truth in that theory. Exposing oneself to the lunatic ravings of a sadistic megalomaniac may, in fact, be the best preparation for life as we know it. The Campanellis and Knights are not confined exclusively to the basketball arena. They can be found in corporate boardrooms, in newspaper city rooms, even in the halls of Congress. I've known some theater ushers and bank tellers who fit the description. I've had landlords who had at least the verbal virtuosity to take Indiana to the Final Four.

Maybe Cal's players missed the point in griping that their coach was making life miserable for them. Come on, fellas, it's a jungle out there, and you can't learn that soon enough.

But how should I know? I haven't had a coach to speak of since high school, and that was back in the Truman administration. Joe O'Neill—predictably called Tip—was the football coach my senior year at San Leandro (Calif.) High, and though he had the squint-eyed mien of a prison warden in the movies, he was one of the least menacing human beings I've ever encountered.

Coach O'Neill would react to a botched play with little more than a mournful sigh and a silent comedy slap to the forehead. He fancied himself an orator in the Rockne manner, and his pregame and halftime messages were meant to inspire and transport us rather than reduce us, as they invariably did, to paroxysms of adolescent giggling.

I vividly recall one halftime oration when he held aloft the taped paws of a giant tackle and solemnly advised the rest of us that "with these hands we shall win the day." The poor tackle's face reddened and swelled as if it would burst, and tears streamed down his cheeks as he fought vainly to hold back an onset of uncontrollable guffawing.

In one of my infrequent appearances on the field before the fourth quarter, I somehow intercepted an opponent's pass and then, when trapped, tried a lateral to a teammate. That ill-advised toss was intercepted, in turn, by the original intended receiver and returned 40 yards against us. When I resumed my rightful place on the bench, Coach O'Neill looked at me as if I had just debouched from one of those flying saucers we had been hearing so much about. If ever a coach had cause to curse, it was he at that moment, but he never said a word. He didn't have to.

None of us, in my memory, ever felt the lash of this man's silver tongue. We didn't fear him. In our own way, we loved him. And we never lost a game.