- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

Look at the pent-up bundle of fury roaming the sidelines.

Look at him, the coach, frothing at the mouth, berating his players, barking at the officials, playing to the television cameras, behaving like a spoiled adolescent when things don't go as planned.

This is a college basketball game?

This is fun?

This looks like Armageddon. This looks like a root canal. This looks like the moment with the proctologist just as he snaps the rubber glove.

Where have you gone, John Wooden?

Wooden used to sit on the bench, with a program rolled up in his hand, and instruct his players in an unobtrusive manner. He wanted to win as much as the next guy, and as it turned out, he won a whole lot more than the next guy.

Wooden did not treat each game as if it were his last, as if the outcome of each game determined the quality of his existence. He did not put on a show. He did not impose his ego on the game. He did not let all the twists and turns in a game overwhelm him and his players.

He was smart that way. He knew his players wanted to win. He knew he wanted to win. He figured the best way to reach that end would be not to increase the stress level.

That is one of the paradoxes of the coach-player dynamic. The environment is stressful enough without a coach adding his frustrations to the mix.

You believe in the fundamental proposition of each game. You believe the coaches and players want to win.

Yet all too many coaches apparently go into a game believing otherwise. They start having a meltdown with the opening tip. They find fault with their players' intensity level. Or they find fault with their players' decision-making ability.

It seems if they just scream a little louder and let everyone in the building know how stupid the preceding play was, then the player who committed the blunder won't let it happen again. He won't ever take another bad shot. He won't ever make another bad pass. He'll dive into the 10th row to grab a loose ball.

That must be the thinking, the logic. But it is funny. It never seems to work that way. If anything, the better players tend to tune out the screamers in suits, if only to cope. The marginal players tend to play with a pronounced tentativeness. The marginal players aren't really trying to make a play. They are only trying not to make a bad play, which is no way to play.

Of course, not all college basketball coaches are serial screamers in need of a good therapist and couch. But their numbers seem to be growing. Perhaps that's because the pressure to win has grown exponentially since the days of Wooden.

No good team or bad team escapes the media's mind-bending microscope in the information age. Patience is the first casualty.

However understandable, the din of unchecked emotion seems counterproductive to the larger goal, which in college basketball is March. The trick, at least for the major-conference programs, is to have a team ready, emotionally and physically, to make the sprint to the Final Four.

Despite its ugly brand of basketball, Wisconsin demonstrated the beauty of that premise last season. The Badgers were barely a .500 team during the middle of the season, hardly a candidate to reach the largest stage in college athletics.

Sometimes, by March, teams give out mentally, and not because of the 30-35 games. It is all the other stuff: the zillion practices, the mandatory study halls and the early-morning conditioning sessions, all of it overseen by the bellicose control freaks who discourage a modicum of perspective and balance.

The message, implied and otherwise, is that this is an almost life-or-death undertaking, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Now go out there and compete, guys.

Here's another truth, courtesy of a notoriously bad loser, and don't take it the wrong way: You, the coaches and players, are future notations in the back of the school media guide. The moments, good and bad, are mostly transitory, the all-or-nothing sense overstated.

By all means, compete. Yes, get out after it. But have a clue. Hysteria probably is not the answer. Besides, it's not even December yet.

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