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When Coaches and Players Clash - A Story From My Past

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No, this isn't going to be a downer story about the whole Cutler / McDaniels war.  Denver fans have had enough of that.  I've been getting a few questions in my email and a few comments at MHR asking about my thoughts on the whole mess, and I'd rather take a positive look at the issue by sharing a personal story.

First, the current crisis hits us as fans because of our loyalties.  Like a dog transfers his loyalty to a new owner, we as fans are willing to transfer our loyalty to a key player after our trust has been fulfilled.  As the franchise QB for our team, Jay Cutler has earned our loyalty, and it would take a lot to shake it.  The arrival of McDaniels is a little shaky, in part because he replaced the face of Denver football (Shanahan) and because there was a near immediate "attack" on the franchise QB.

However, as can be read in Styg50's brilliant piece about Bus Cook, it is reasonable to assume that Cutler and McDaniels are being played against each other to benefit the player's agent.  Given the history of Cook, and given that the "source" that the media wants to protect sounds like Cook (a player's agent leaking meetings? NO!), it sounds like Denver fans can actually keep on appreciating Cutler while trusting the coach to do the right thing.  It sounds like the trade talk came from Cook, not the coaching staff.  Ultimately, if Cutler listens to a zealous agent instead of thinking for himself, the coach may have to move on.  If this happens, it would be unfortunate.  But when players and coaches clash, the coach has the team's best interests in mind.

This is as true in the pros as it is in high school.

Read on...

There are times in HS ball when player and coach collide.  Sometimes the problem is the fault of the player, as when the player has a "me-first" attitude, doesn't apply himself, or gets in trouble off the field and jeopardizes the team. 

Coaches can be the problem, too.  But in an era of oversight (athletic directors, principals, screenings done before a person can join the faculty, being reviewed constantly by the administration and school board) it's rare that a coach gets away with being a problem for too long.

But sometimes (often) the problem lies with a third party.  Often the instigator is really a parent, a girlfriend, or sometimes even another player.  The coach is now in a tough spot.  The guiding principle is "What is best for the team?", and sometimes this means benching or even cutting a player who is being influenced from another source.  Is it fair to the player?  Yes and no.  No, because the player is being manipulated.  Yes, because the player also needs to think for himself.

Some might say, "What is best for the 'child' is what is important".  To some extent this is true.  At the HS level of play, coaches go out of their way (or should) to care for players as individuals.  I used to tutor struggling players, write letters to colleges, make arrangements for college scouts, counsel players with problems, and even talk to parents about referring players for more intensive help (mental health, drug and alcohol, spiritual, etc).  In fact, one way to help a struggling athlete was to encourage faculty NOT to cut a star player slack in the classroom.  Cheating a student's education does him a disservice for a short-term illusory crutch.

However, on the field of play I was being paid to win ballgames (at least on the defensive side of the ball).  One player, no matter how troubled, and no matter how manipulated by others, could not bring down the team.  Even if the kid was the star.

We had a kicker one year who could consistently kick FGs from a long range.  I don't mean to say that he was just good; he was "legendary" good.  We had colleges knocking down the door for this kid.  A kicker!  And the kid was only a freshman.  We could count on three points on almost any drive because this kid was so far ahead of his age when it came to his leg.  But he had a problem.  He had a girlfriend, and he had an abusive personality.  We worked with the guidance department to get the kid the help he needed, but the parents weren't supportive of getting him into counseling.  I had suspicions that the parents didn't want clinical intervention for the boy because some of the behavior was coming from home, but that was just my opinion.

At any rate, the day rolled around that the girlfriend ended up with a cast on her arm.  Word got to the coaching staff that our kicker was involved (he had pushed her into a counter at a party at someone's house).  As a student, he was suspended.  While the matter was off campus, the school was within legal boundaries because the safety of the girlfriend was being evaluated in case criminal charges were going to be made.  The AD (athletic director) informed us that the student was banned from the team during the duration of the suspension (pending what the prosecutor's office decided).  Beyond that, the school's corporate attorney said we were free to determine the player's status as it affected our team.

The senior coaches met (the HC, the OC, the DC [me], the ST coach, and the K/P position coach - who was also the team's trainer).  There was nothing to discuss.  I believe we were either undefeated or had lost only one game that year, and on track for another excellent season.  Our young kicker was garnering collegiate attention only partway through his first season.  It was an easy call.  We cut him.

On the one hand, it was easy.  The guy had a reputation for beating his girlfriends, and this time it had been proven.  The potential risk to our team's reputation (and that of the school) made it simple to keep him off the field.  What made the decision difficult was the consensus among us coaches that the boy was probably being abused at home (In accordance with the law, this suspicion of abuse had been reported.  This is a legal requirement for educators).  The only issue that was briefly raised in defense of the kid was that his expulsion from the team might lead to more abuse.  This wasn't our problem, though.  One of the few things this kid had going for him was the social and emotional support from being a part of the team, and we were going to take it from him.

The HC made the decision, but he had brought us in to discuss it.  We were unanimous.  The HC was right.  We couldn't use the kid on our team.

The local folks went ballistic.  Half of the town thought we were cutting a star in the making, and many of them pointed out that the kid hadn't been convicted of anything yet.  (I should point out that case law lays out that expelling an athlete from a school's athletic program does not require a finding of guilt in a courtroom).  A few people even blamed the girlfriend.  The other half felt that the kid should be dragged down Main Street and stoned.  No one came out of this looking good.

The player ended up in juvenile court.  Because of his age, nobody was allowed to know the final disposition of the case.  In the end, it didn't matter.

It was either later that year or the following year that this young man robbed a convenience store at gunpoint in a nearby town.  One could say that this validated our decision.  Others might say that a continued role with our team could have perhaps helped the boy.  I'm not wise enough to know what the truth is.

But after we made the decision to cut the kicker from our team, I spoke to the young men at our next practice.  I think they were richer for it.  I told them that our kicker wasn't going to be back on the team.  I told them to respect their girlfriends, their teammates, and their school.  I told them that perhaps somebody could have tried to prevent what happened (it wasn't clear who was or wasn't at the party).  I told them that we would move on.

One smart aleck pointed out that this guy was worse than a girl beater, he was just a kicker.  We had a good laugh at that, and then we went on with practice.

About a month later, the school's student council started a date-rape awareness program.  They passed out whistles for the girls at the school, got some guest speakers (a counselor and a female police officer), and handed out reading materials.  The push for the program came from two of the council members (one of our linebackers and a defensive end).  Go figure.


Okay.  Jay Cutler is not an abuser of women.  In fact, I love the guy.  In my mind, he is the future QB of our Super Bowl dreams.  And Coach McDaniels is not my old HC.  The story really isn't that germane anyway.  Here is my point, though.  As a fan, you can love Cutler.  But, you can also respect the coach at the same time.  Both are trying to do what they can to move in a direction that they think is best.  Nobody is trying to hurt the team.

This is just like when parents fight - a child can love both parents at the same time.  So here's my take: let the story unfold however it will.  Wish both parties the best of luck, whatever happens.  And in the end, stick with the team and cheer for the blue and orange.  Taking sides cannot change what will or will not happen.  I'm hoping Jay decides to stick around and play hard to prove himself to the new coach.  I'm hoping the coach redoubles his efforts to reach out.  I'm hoping that Bus Cook loses a client.

We've got some hope for the future.  I love that Brian Dawkins is pushing both sides to meet face-to-face to settle things.  I also love that other players are stepping up and not taking sides.  They're wishing for the best for the coach and the player.  I hope we can learn a thing or two from some of our terrific Broncos.