March is the month of the coach. Forget Cinderella and buzzer-beaters and whatever else they're selling to music; the coaches are the ones with the real power, and the real madness is in the idolatry, the ritual bowing of the head and bestowing of blessings at the altar of the coach.
From now until the tournament title game, we'll be treated to an endless stream of paeans to all the remarkable qualities of the men in charge. Roy Williams had the patience. Tom Crean had the fortitude. Rick Pitino had the belief. You can hear it, can't you? It comes at you in an endless loop of hyperbole. The cultists have sold the product like street-corner hustlers, and so the end result is what we've got now: a three-week ode to the men who take unformed, selfish humans and transform them into upstanding young men who are finally worthy of earning their masterful coach one of two things: (1) a shiny new contract, or; (2) a shiny new job.
No offense to the coaches. They have a vested interest in making you believe they're recruiting empty vessels who would wander campus aimlessly without their unerring direction. And good on them, because they've found a willing media to push the finer points of the hagiography. It's a pretty sweet deal.
There's an entire culture constructed to promote the mythical power of the college coach. It's nearly impenetrable; coaches simply can't be rude enough -- and boy do they ever push the limits -- to shatter the image. There are a number of reasons coaches -- even the prickliest, highest-and-mightiest of coaches -- get preferential and reverential treatment.
First, they're far more available than the players. In many cases, coaches limit players' availability throughout the season because they're afraid of what they might say. In this way, coaches become the gatekeepers for their programs. Second, it's a lot easier for the average media person -- white, middle-aged, male -- to carry on a conversation with Ben Howland than Vander Blue. It's safer and more comfortable, and if the coach treats the media member with arrogance and dismissiveness -- a role-playing combo that is an absolute staple of both professions -- the coach's power and privilege trumps all. He's just too smart to deal with the pedestrian demands of the average human.
But if someone catches so much as the distant scent of a player acting inappropriately? Well, he gets vilified, of course, because that's how the formula works. Then he's simply offered up as evidence of how magical Coach Genius truly is. The impenetrability is so complete it's almost like a superpower.
The other accepted apocrypha of the coaching profession is how damned hard it is. Lord, if you didn't know any better you'd think these guys are carrying canaries out onto the practice court to make sure it's going to be OK. Coaches are spending the night in the office and waking up before dawn just to figure out how they might manage to coax a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans to a win over Albany.
You hear the same tropes in college football, although it seems basketball coaches get permanent spots in the pantheon before football coaches. Think of all the college hoop coaches who are essentially unfireable -- Coaches K, Boeheim, Pitino, Calipari, Donovan, Few, Izzo, Williams. They're coaches for life. In football, Gene Chizik won a national championship with Auburn in 2010 and got fired two years later.
And maybe that's why it took a football coach to bring some sanity to the conversation. Southern Miss head football coach Todd Monken -- hired to his first FBS head job by USM after a winless season -- was asked a perfunctory question about the task ahead by footballscoop.com. His answer was not perfunctory.
"I don't find anything you have to do as a head coach to be hard, but there's a lot of it," Monken said. "That's what I probably didn't realize. Recruiting, coaching, dealing with people, the every-day job. We coach for a living, for God's sakes. We don't work on a construction crew and lay asphalt. None of it's hard, it's just there's a lot of it. It just consumes so much of your day."
Amen. None of it's hard. That doesn't dismiss the profession, or belittle it, but it provides some perspective you're not likely to hear over the next three weeks. They work a lot, but they work because it's enjoyable. And it's not hard work the way we've traditionally identified it. Most of these guys are salesmen, smart enough to know that all the coaching acumen in the world can't teach a thick-ankled point guard to outplay Trey Burke or Russ Smith.
I was fortunate enough to spend two days shadowing Michigan coach John Beilein while he engaged in some serious, time-sensitive preparation before the Wolverines' early February home game against Ohio State. Beilein is one of the most decent men I've met in any profession. He's an excellent coach who doesn't take himself too seriously, a spiritual man who doesn't proselytize -- or, worse, use his faith as a recruiting tool. Two days is a small sample size, of course, but Beilein seems to treat his players as something more than a means to an end.
Part of this is because Beilein didn't take the slickster's route to the top of the college coaching profession. He took the coaching route, starting in high school and working his way through the college divisions like someone who didn't feel owed. Unlike others, he doesn't seem to have relied on standing around in a tracksuit at the Final Four hotel glad-handing and networking to get his next job.
Beilein worked, and he worked a lot, but it didn't fit into the traditional idea of hard work. He met with his coaches and planned practices and watched film and devised a game plan, but from the outside it looked a lot like a desk job. A fun, challenging and highly compensated desk job, but a desk job.
But the players -- that's another story. They're the ones doing the hard work: watching film before practice, practicing for two hours, returning to the facility after dinner to watch more film. As they trudged out of the final film session after 9 p.m., the night before a 9 p.m. game, with dead eyes and slow feet, it seemed impossible that they could summon the energy for class, studying, a walk-through, more film and a game the next day.
I'm guessing Monken -- and Beilein -- would admit that the true hard work is done by laborers and not management. But Monken better hope his sentiments don't spread throughout the profession. He might find himself ostracized at the next coaches' convention. Oh, and one other thing: He should stay steer clear of the hotel lobby at the Final Four. Those stares might get icy.