“We’re pretty blessed to have these jobs, man,” Drinkwitz said during the SEC Spring Meetings. “I coached high school football. I painted lines. In the summer, I opened weight rooms. I got to fly down here on a private jet. I’m sitting at the beach. Is it hard? Absolutely. Do we have the greatest jobs in the world? Absolutely. There’s no way that I’m going to turn this into a ‘Poor me’ deal.”
It’s amazing how that simple acknowledgment of privilege reframes the conversation. Like all college coaches, Drinkwitz has concerns. The environment is anarchy right now, but coaches shouldn’t look at themselves as innocent leaders who have lost some of their authority for no good reason. On the contrary, the control freaks are complicit in creating this mess because many of them lacked the foresight necessary to wield all the power they demand from their schools. They helped to maintain an antiquated, exploitative amateur model with their rigidity, greed, lack of self-awareness and myopia.
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They could’ve used their influence to persuade their presidents, their conference commissioners and the NCAA to start forging a new, more sensible path. They did nothing proactive. Now the lucrative con of big-time college sports is fraying. The Supreme Court took apart a piece of it. State lawmakers have damaged it even more. With NIL legislation causing chaotic unintended consequences — blurring the lines between endorsements and pay-for-play schemes, and threatening to turn recruiting and the transfer portal into auctions — there needs to be some kind of thoughtful regulation. But complicated tasks seem impossible when supposed leaders lack perspective and imagination.
It’s a hard time to be a dictatorial sourpuss in college athletics. LSU football coach Brian Kelly tried to employ public scare tactics to warn players against what he considers the professionalization of his sport.
“I don’t think they want contracts,” Kelly said last week. “I don’t think they want to be traded. I’m sure they don’t want to be cut. I’m sure they’re not going to like getting a call at 3 p.m. in the afternoon saying: ‘Hey, I don’t know, but we traded you today to St. Bonaventure. Oh, they don’t have a football team.’ ”
Kelly left Notre Dame in November to sign a landmark 10-year deal that will pay him $95 million plus incentives. When he told the Fighting Irish players he was leaving, he spoke for 3½ minutes, fled, and the next thing you knew he was doing a really lousy job faking a Southern accent in a weak attempt to impress his new fan base.
For almost $100 million, it’s fair to expect Kelly to be more than a great coach. He is a leading voice who could help inspire positive change. But he would rather be an ineffective comedian.
Obstinance and bluster won’t solve anything. Kelly, 60, sounds too grumpy to be part of the revolution. His thinking is too ancient. The generational divide in college coaching has never been more recognizable than it is now. It has little to do with on-field strategy. Instead, it’s a failure to adapt off the field and see the bigger picture in society. It seems the sport’s most established voices would rather engage in petty wars like Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher. They would rather air grievances than suggest pragmatic policies. They would rather live in the past.
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Mike Brey, the Notre Dame men’s basketball coach, doesn’t want to live that way. He’s 63 and approaching 600 career victories. He recently offered a strong message to his peers.
“This is the world we’re in, and last time I checked, we make pretty good money,” Brey said. “So everybody should shut up and adjust.”
Actually, everybody should amplify the rising young coaches. Their perspectives are essential now. Coaches such as Ohio State’s Ryan Day and USC’s Lincoln Riley have long careers ahead of them. They’re not old enough, or accomplished enough, to know of only one way. They are built for adaptation.
With legendary basketball coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Jay Wright joining Roy Williams in retirement, there’s significant hoops turnover afoot — and there are many opportunities for fresh leadership. NCAA President Mark Emmert is scheduled to step down by June 2023. There has been even more recent change among the conference commissioners. If meaningful, equitable, smart reform is ever going to happen, it must occur now. This is the 11th hour. Delay any longer, and the whole system will be destroyed.
As Coach K exited, he reserved time to make one last call to action for his sport. He wants everything to be reimagined, and he wants people with skin in the game to lead the way.
“You should always talk to the people that are being affected by what’s going on now, not by people who are retired or people who are on a committee who don’t have a feel for it,” he said during his last Final Four run. “How do you get a feel for it? You have to talk. And a lot of the young coaches would be great in this.”
But for the young coaches to lead, they have to win, and they have to succeed in a new way. In college and in the pros, you’re starting to see the impact of a new breed of coaches who can relate to players differently, meeting them where they are and commanding respect without being so uncompromising.
Still, in college athletics, the challenge now involves more than teaching the game and making an emotional connection. Money is an unavoidable subject. Even the coaches who support players receiving NIL compensation worry about the current lawlessness. It’s an opportunity to take charge, not whine.
“What are we trying to do here?” Drinkwitz asked rhetorically. “If it’s for student-athlete health and welfare and protecting the student-athletes, then we’ve got to make decisions in the best interest of them and not necessarily in the best interest of us.”
Do coaches owe the sport more than jokes threatening to trade or cut players? Absolutely.