Holy Family: The School With “The Incident”

That's the real shame

A guy named John O’Connor is out of a job as the head basketball coach at Holy Family College in Northeast Philadelphia, and that’s a shame. But in the aftermath of this two week long soap opera, I’m still not sure everyone recognizes, including O’Connor himself, where the exact wrong was.

Caught on a video of practice—which O’Connor sanctioned himself on a daily basis to use as a teaching aid—the coach was seen tearing a basketball out of the hands of one of his players during a drill (I don’t want to mention the name of the kid because I’m not exactly on HIS side either, and I don’t want to add to his 40-second-shot-clock-worth of fame). In doing so, O’Connor inadvertently (?) bangs the kid in the face with either his forearm or elbow, knocking the kid to the ground and bloodying his nose. O’Connor then appears to either nudge the kid—or kick him—in sort of a tough-guy kind of way, in order to make the kid get up so the team could continue the drill. Then, hearing the kid talking to an assistant coach on his way back into the drill line, O’Connor chastises him and then kicks him out of practice.

Now let me make one thing clear: I’m not against tough coaching.

As a three-sport athlete in high school and a Division I athlete in college, I’ve had plenty of tough coaches. Tough coaches, in fact, are usually the ones from whom you learn the most. My high-school basketball coach was an absolute maniac and used to grab and pull us by the jerseys repeatedly to emphasize his points or put us into proper position. The mental abuse we had to endure was legendary.

I had an old-school baseball coach in college—an older gentleman, the type of guy who chewed tobacco and wore his uniform purposely baggy, with the pants pulled up to the knees to show high socks. I had a buddy who was a highly recruited pitcher who had decided to come to Penn State instead of going directly into pro ball after being drafted out of high school. The kid had so much natural talent, so much movement on his fastball, that he could never control it. Finally, the coach thought he had him straightened out and started him in an early scheduled spring game. My buddy walked the first three hitters on 12 pitches. Our coach, steam coming from his ears, yanked him right there. And for the next nine innings, he ripped into him as he paced back and forth in the dugout, barely paying attention to what was going on on the field.

“You stink,” my coach screamed at the pitcher. “We bring you up here, we give you everything you need, you’re a big man on campus, and this? You’re horseshit!”

Now, if my coach had done that, while carrying a bat, and he accidentally clipped the pitcher on the nose, who would have been at fault?

And that’s the rub. Whether you think John O’Connor was merely being a tough coach and the whole issue is simply a reflection of what Ed Rendell famously called the “wussification of America,” or not, there is one, solitary, singular wrong here: The coach hit the kid in the nose. And what should have happened is this: After the coach hit the kid in the mose, he should have stopped what he was doing, bent down on one knee to help the kid, pull him up, called for a trainer with a bag of ice, and apologized to the kid, telling him that he never meant to make contact with him. End of story. The fact that John O’Connor saw the kid lying on the court, his nose bleeding from a blow delivered by O’Connor himself, should not have prompted the coach to get tougher and kick him into further submission. I mean, what is this guy, an animal?

It’s now the year 2011. A line was drawn many years ago that you can’t handle your players physically. Thirty years ago, for Christ’s sake, Woody Hayes got fired for punching a player in the stomach. Frank Kush of Arizona State got hooked for grabbing the face masks of his players and twisting their heads. Bob Knight raised national awareness against this type of activity when he choked a player named Neil Reed. You just can’t do things like that anymore, intentionally or not.

I’m appalled that John O’Connor then went on “Good Morning America,” and in response to George Stephanopoulos’s question, “You do know you went over the line, no?”, O’Connor said, “Not really.” Once you say something like that, anything you say after, including apologizing to the kid on national television, comes off as weak and diluted.

I’m sorry that John O’Connor lost a job. But the wrong here was clear. All he had to do was stop practice momentarily, help the kid up, get help for his bloody nose, apologize to the kid and tell him that he didn’t mean to make contact with him, and then continue practice. And the fact that Holy Family didn’t nip this situation in the bud, well, they’re forever going to be known as the school that had “the incident.”

And that’s a real shame.