In Defense of John O’Connor
Last spring, while researching an article on why Big 12 Conference football teams recruit the state of Texas so aggressively, I spoke with Oklahoma State coach Mike “I’m a man! I’m 40!” Gundy. Among the topics we covered was how prepared Lone Star prospects were for the high-pressure atmosphere of big-time college sports, in comparison to players from other states. They take their ball seriously down there, and kids practice in the spring, play in 7-on-7 leagues in the summer and have 45-minute “athletic periods” built into their school schedules each fall—in addition to two or three hours of daily practice. Some days, the kids are even exposed to math and science, too.
The year-round workout schedule is one way Texas recruits are made ready for the next level, but there is another component, and Gundy referred to it when he said players there are used to being “coached.” He didn’t mean they are familiar with receiving top-flight instruction and expert preparation. Gundy was referring to the high-decibel, in-your-face style that is favored by coaches who are trying to build winners at the highest level. In high school sports, Texas football is at the top. In college, schools like Oklahoma State, with their eight- and nine-figure athletic budgets and rabid fan bases, are the elite. Any player who signs up for the chance to play in front of 50,000 fans and millions more on TV must be ready for aggressive, sometimes confrontational, coaching methods that challenge his manhood and push him beyond any self-imposed limits he might have. It’s loud. It’s angry. It’s often profane. And it would shock someone who wasn’t used to the current athletic culture in this country.
Philadelphia residents (and many around the country) received a startling introduction to that environment last week when video surfaced of Holy Family University men’s basketball coach John O’Connor’s “combat rebounding” drill and his subsequent abusive treatment of team member Matt Kravchuk. When Fox 29 first aired the footage of a practice from late January, the response was quick and visceral. Watching O’Connor slam into Kravchuk and kick him when the player fell made some people angry and others ill. Many were outraged by O’Connor’s behavior.
Within a week of the video’s debut, O’Connor was out of a job, and Holy Family had become known—for most people solely—as the place where a basketball coach stepped over the line. For the record, I think O’Connor’s actions were wrong. I think he lost his cool during a heated drill and went over the line, something that no one in authority should do. I do not, however, think he should have lost his job. If school AD Sandra Michael and other Holy Family administrators had shown better leadership, few outside of the school community would have learned about the incident, and O’Connor would still be working, albeit after receiving some form of discipline.
The easy topic of conversation in the aftermath concerns how coaches, teachers and other leaders of young men and women must remain in control of their emotions at all times and keep their missions in perspective. In this cautionary tale, failure to do so can result in some serious consequences.
The much more difficult issue to confront is how O’Connor’s actions represent the current state of athletics in this country and how those with an understanding of what goes on behind the curtain are far more likely to forgive O’Connor than those for whom the video provided a first glimpse. Athletics at almost every level today are more about winning than ever before. When parents of fifth-grade basketball players are employing specialty coaches to help improve their children’s skill levels, strength and conditioning, you know the climate is intensifying. Teams are expected to be successful, and to satisfy that obligation, coaches encourage, cajole, and yes, push players to produce maximum effort and performance.
Watching O’Connor angrily grab the ball from Kravchuk and then kick him was an introduction to high-intensity coaching that many couldn’t handle. And Holy Family isn’t even the big time. If O’Connor was doing that on the Division II level, what must people at bigger schools be doing? Does Jay Wright use a paddle? Does Phil Martelli employ a taser? (Note to the dim: The previous questions were asked to make a point. I do not in any way think Wright or Martelli has ever abused or will abuse players in the future.) For every person who was appalled by O’Connor’s behavior, there was an athlete who could recount an experience in which an angry coach was harsh in his treatment and may have even used some form of physical discipline to make a point. It may not have been “right” in the purest application of the coaching manual, but it was certainly not unique.
O’Connor’s treatment of Kravchuk was instructional on many levels, not the least of which was to show us that, like most things in life, the finished project often requires some extreme techniques in preparation. Because coaches at the high school and collegiate levels are working with young people, any aggressive behavior on their part stirs up our outrage. At the same time, it reflects the expectations of a society that has become more demanding of those who can be judged by the bottom line. Many of the same people who directed their fury at O’Connor can be found at games screaming for a coach’s hide when his or her team doesn’t win. As the pressure mounts, so do the lengths to which those responsible for results go to squeeze the most out of their charges. O’Connor went too far, and we saw it. While other coaches heed the lesson, we should not be so quick to judge, especially when our fervor for excellence is often what leads them to approach that line in the first place.
- Phillies fans shouldn’t panic yet, but yet another Chase Utley injury is not good news. Let’s hope his bum knee doesn’t progress beyond tendinitis stage, but we should also be ready for a prolonged period of inactivity. Better that now than trouble in June or July.
- Villanova needs a win now. The Wildcats are struggling mightily, and opponents have figured out that crowding Corey Fisher is the way to beat this team. If the other ’Cats don’t pick up their scoring, an ugly March could follow a depressing February.
- Congratulations to the Sixers for getting above the .500 mark for the first time this season. It’s a stretch to think that this team is capable of winning more than 45 games, but that’s about 20 more than people expected back in November. Kudos to Doug Collins for the great job he has done.