U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Intellectual Coach

The following guest post is by Andrew McGregor, PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American Studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of the Sport in American History blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

The Intellectual Coach

Over the past year we’ve been witnessing a revival of athlete activism reminiscent of the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” of the late-1960s. Sportswriters, fans, historians have offered commentary on this development, point to events like the University of Missouri football boycott, outspokenness of Colin Kaepernick, and statement by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at the 2016 ESPY Awards. Yet, the statements of supportive coaches, like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have received relatively less attention and hardly any analysis. Popovich and Kerr have used the spotlight like few before them, engaging political and social commentary becoming a new kind of public intellectual.

Both figures have expressed their support for athlete protests, specifically Colin Kaepernick, and disdain for police brutality. Kerr told USA Today, As long as the message is clear, I’m all for people speaking out against injustice. Whatever form that takes, if it’s non-violent and it leads to conversation, then I think that’s a good thing.” Popovich agreed, saying “I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown?” “I respect their courage for what they’ve done,” he added.

Their comments are important because they pushback against the traditional role and position of coaches as conservative and disciplinarian figures. While it is not uncommon for coaches to take an interest in politics — and even run for political office after their sports careers conclude — they often do so as symbols of the status quo, as conservatives trying to protect certain values that they see are missing or under attack in America. Coaches tend to view themselves as on the frontline of “Making American Great Again” by turning boys into men; by fighting for victories and acting as father figures. Traditionally coaches have become political in a paternal “this is how it should be” sort of way, not as allies to social movements or minorities. This mentality can be clearly seen in a 1969 Sports Illustrated article on “The Desperate Coach.” Former basketball coach Melvin Cratsley described the gloomy future after he was fired for being “too disciplined.”

Athletics are the last stronghold of discipline on the campus. It may be that they are in a life-or-death struggle of their own. I read somewhere—I clipped it out—that the aim of the New Left is to replace the athlete with the hippie as the idol of kids. I don’t know if it can be done, but it seems society is intent on destroying Horatio Alger Jr. The oddball is getting control. The good guy is outnumbered. America seems interested only in glorifying the loser.

Indeed, John Underwood, the article’s author, described the coaches he interviewed as “victims” of changing times. Throughout the article, the coaches often describe students and faculty as enemies. While they stop short of calling it a liberal conspiracy, Underwood explains that “To the coaches it often seems as though the faculty is simply in cahoots with the students in their disdain for traditional verities.” “The Desperate Coach,” anticipates modern conservatism, lending it numerous talking point common in today’s political discourse.

UCLA coach Tommy Prothro bemoaned the new era comparing it to his own playing days. “It’s no longer the autocratic society it was when I played, where a Bob Neyland or a Wallace Wade would just say, ‘You do it because I say so.’ Now you have to explain yourself. The logic behind it. The philosophy.” Coaches like Prothro had little patience for athletes asking “why” and seeking explanations for the rules and coaching methods they deployed.

The coaches did not see the irony in their nostalgia for an autocratic structure amidst the Cold War, seeing discipline and obedience as integral behavior to winning and strengthening the collective team, rather than the oppressive tactics of strongmen. Instead they saw the fate of democracy at stake as the precarious balance of loyalty seemed to be swiveling off-kilter.

“I recruited that boy thinking he was Jack Armstrong,” Dee Andros, Oregon State’s coach described one promising player who quit his team, likening him to the popular “All-American boy” radio character. “I was wrong,” Andros conceded, “He turned out to be a freethinker.”

While Andros’ glib swipe at freethinking may lead some to label him an anti-intellectual, an alternative reading positions him — along with Cratsley and Prothro — as a conservative public intellectual trying to diagnose and lay bare the problems inherent in the New Left. Indeed, they build on the long tradition of coaches as watchdogs over American youth, following the model of Amos Alonzo Stagg and Glenn “Pop” Warner who used their positions to shape and extol the social gospel of sports in popular articles published in glossy weekly magazines and fatherly advice in their “books for boys.”

Although “The Desperate Coach” only surveys college coaches, its findings largely reflect the culture and ideology of coaches in the professional setting as well. In the pro’s we hear about players coaches, but never activist coaches. They may be allies behind the scenes supportive privately for the sake of team chemistry or to shield themselves, but speaking out is rare. Certainly monetary considerations and the lack of stability in the professional leagues contribute to the reticence of outspoken coaches. But at the professional level, which has grown more prominent in the TV age and now overshadows much of the college landscape, the job description is inherently different. Coaches are tasked with being leaders, setting the tone for a team, and winning. They don’t have to recruit, mentor, and develop athletes in the same way college coaches do. Furthermore, fans and owners value winning more than anything else. As we’ve seen in the NFL with its handling of domestic violence and other issues, fans, owners, and even the commissioner care little about the off-field activity of athletes. Instead, they want their coaches to be workaholics, in control, and obsessed with winning. Politics, or any other kind of “distraction,” are believed to undermine the ultimate goal, deviating resources away from winning. These expectations of mono focused, hyper attentive coaches box them into a conservative framework, where the default is an aloof, disengaged, disciplinarian coach that snarls at any activity or question that challenges their authority or takes the focus off of trying to win.

To be sure, I am speaking in generalities here, but I think dozens of past and present coaches fit this bill. From past figures like Bear Bryant and John Mckay mentioned in the Sports Illustrated article to current coaches such as Bill Belichik, Mike Krzyzewski, and Bill Snyder, this culture remains an integral part of sports. Coaches continue to serves as respected public intellectual for their innovation, and organizational and schematic genius. We celebrate them as brilliant football minds and as molders of men. They often embody many of the qualities we respect and desire as apolitical and uniquely American — even though they aren’t. This why the legacy of these coaches, and others — such as Joe Paterno and Bobby Knight — are difficult to question. They are unequivocal leaders that achieved success; greatness.

I doubt many Americans would think the same of Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, though their records are impressive. Both have won five or more NBA championships. Popovich has five as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs while Kerr won five as a player (three with the Chicago Bulls and two with the San Antonio Spurs) and one as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. Maybe it is because the NBA is less of a “coaches’ game” than the NFL or college sports. Regardless, both coaches have emerged as a new type of public intellectual in the sports world. They’ve stripepd away  much of the conservative obstinance and cliches in favor of a more raw, straight-talk approach. While Popovich is known to be prickly with the media, he and Kerr have also offered many thoughtful comments on current social and political issues.

Beyond their own comments, they are also supportive of players — like Kaepernick — who wish to speak out. As Popovich explained:

My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about. Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.

His comments starkly contrast from those of “The Desperate Coach,” conveying his respect for the players on his team as equals. He recognizes their intellectual ability and values their expression of it as an important part of who they are as individuals. Unlike other coaches, Popovich sees thinking, speaking, protesting as inherent parts of American life, rather than activities that must be monitored, policed, or reluctantly embraced due to Constitutional freedoms. At the heart of his statement is a deep trust in his players, a faith in their ability to think and act, to make decisions, and to be aware of the world around them. Popovich is fearless. He is not scared of his players ability to think or speak. He is not worried about them embarrassing him because he knows it is not about him.

Kerr also enjoys dialoguing with his players about important issues, and like Popovich, he respects their views. After Kaepernick began his protest, he told The Undefeated that he “talked to some of the guys” because they asked him about it. They wondered, “What does it mean to you?” he said, “I’ve kind of given them my opinion. We’ve shared thoughts. That’s kind of the way we do things around here.” “We like to talk about stuff, basketball or not,” Kerr continued, “It’s probably one of the best things that’s come out of the Kaepernick issue is that people are talking about it. It’s a good thing.”

Open communication is important to Kerr. It’s a part of deciding how to use your voice and when to take stand. The dialogue among coaches and players help them find the right balance. “It’s a tricky topic. Not the Kaepernick situation, but social activism in general,” Kerr explained. “There are a lot of fans out there that say, ‘Stick to sports. We’re trying to get away from this by watching your team play. I understand that. On the other hand, these guys have a voice.” Unlike coaches of the 1960s, Kerr sees sports as only one part of his players’ lives.

Kerr admits that he has felt that pressure in his own activism. “When you’re in the limelight, you do have to think, ‘Do I want to say something? Am I right person to say this?’”

Both Popovich and Kerr have decided that they are the right people to speak out and foster dialogue. Popovich has offered extended commentary on President Donald Trump, and Kerr has chimed in too. Kerr has also shared his experience using medical marijuana for pain relief as well as the personal story of his father’s murder by terrorists in speaking out against gun violence. Together they are forging new ground, breaking the stereotype of the conservative coach defending the status quo and quelling dissent, and embracing their roles like athletes before them to become a new kind of activist, intellectual coach. It remains to be seen whether other coaches will follow in their footsteps.

In an industry that traditionally leans right, it is easy to disregard Popovich and Kerr as simply rare liberal-leaning coaches. Some may similarly describe them as not a new phenomena but rather as bringing a balance to the social and political perspectives shared by coaches. These critiques neglect the historical absence of coaches as allies to outspoken black athletes and dismiss the role of the coach in the culture war over American masculinity. Popovich and Kerr are asserting themselves as leaders who respect and encourage thoughtful dialogue on social and political issues. Their comments serve as an important step in recognizing and appreciating the intellectual merit for African American athletes, which has historically been denigrated and downplayed. Likewise, their comments show that coaches — and other leaders — can achieve success and earn respect by treating others as equals. The sports world is fraught with unequal power dynamics and intimidation to keep athletes in line, Popovich and Kerr model team environments that reject those antiquated practices. As their own stances show, they operate in a world where they can think freely, speak freely, and act freely. As leaders and as intellectuals, they understand that white American masculinity is not under attack and offer an alternative worldview empowered by thoughtful and respectful dialogue.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Very interesting piece.

    Dean Smith is certainly a precedent for the Popovich-Kerr coach-as-intellectual model. While an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina, he worked with a local clergyman (Baptist, I believe) to integrate Chapel Hill restaurants. Basically, Smith and the clergyman dared an eminent local restaurant to expel them and an African-American congregant. Smith’s father, who was also a basketball coach, undertook a similar task decades prior in Kansas. If what I’ve read can be believed, his father coached the state’s first integrated high school basketball team.

    Among other liberal-left causes, Smith was also an outspoken opponent of nuclear armament and the death penalty. In the 1980s, he was encouraged to run against Jessie Helms for a Senate seat–he was, as one might imagine, one of the few state figures popular enough to challenge the Republican.

    Smith’s politics was based, in no small part, on post-World War II Christian theology–Buber and the like. Newspaper features about Smith often highlight his interest in Kierkegaard and theology.

    And Duke can go to hell.

    • Thanks for the comment Roger! You’re absolutely right about Dean Smith. He outlines many of the things you mentioned in his autobiography, and I feel silly for overlooking him. I still contend that he — like Kerr and Popovich — are exceptions to the larger culture of the profession. The liberal coaches stick out, but I think there is still work to be done analyzing how coaches have acted as intellectuals and activist on both sides of the political spectrum.

  2. Roger Benson:
    “Smith’s politics was based, in no small part, on post-World War II Christian theology – Buber and the like.”

    Not to nitpick, but Martin Buber was a Jewish theologian, though doubtless sharing some themes in common with some of his Christian counterparts.

    n.b. I don’t claim to know much about theology or to have read more than a page or two of Buber, but I and Thou was on my parents’ bookshelves when I was a kid. (I’m not sure whether anyone in the household had ever read it, but in this context that’s irrelevant.)

  3. This is a fascinating issue, in part because college athletics are so corrupting and tend, as Andrew McGregor notes in his stimulating piece, to be run by conservative types with what they think is a license to act like drill sergeants. I have also just read something else on Steve Kerr which introduced me to the difficult and courageous life he has had–and his family especially. Dean Smith IS a good example, as Roger Benson says. John Feinstein’s book “The Legends Club” explores the relationship the basketball coaches in the Research Triangle–Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Valvano. Coach K was, and is, conservative but not without a conscience(even if he is at Duke), while I believe Valvano, then at NC State, was fairly liberal. Buber was close intellectually and theologically to Reinhold Niebuhr after the war. In fact Niebuhr urged him NOT to convert to Christianity. In that extremely interesting period in Protestant theology, with Paul Tillich also still alive in New York, Buber could very well have influenced Dean Smith, even though Smith was, I think, a Baptist. In the late 1950s on into the 1960s, the campus ministry groups at Chapel Hill were active theologically and politically in supporting the desegregation of local holdouts against serving African Americans.

    • Thanks Richard! — I skimmed some of Smith’s autobiography tonight (which I read years ago) and I believe he was a Baptist. His grandfather laid the cement foundation for one of the Baptist churches in Emporia, KS where he grew up. He doesn’t explicitly say that it was the church he went to as a kid, but does mention that his mother taught Bible classes and was the church organist. His father was a deacon. So this was certainly a formative part of his early life, and likely informed much of his adult life.

      He mentions attending youth camps at Ottawa University (a Baptist university in KS), some conferences at the National American Baptist Center in WI, and attending the First Baptist Church when his family moved to Topeka. He attended the Congressional Church off and on during his college years at KU.

      At UNC, he was a member of the Binkley Baptist Church. There is a chapter in the autobiography (_Dean Smith: A Coach’s Life_) that deals almost exclusively with his religious views. He comments on the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, and mentions some folks that have inspired/shaped his beliefs. If you’re curious, it might be worth checking out.

  4. Note–I made a mistake in my comment above. It was the Jewish theologian and sociologist, Will Herberg, whom Niebuhr urged not to convert to Christianity. But Martin Buber’s work, such as “I and Thou”, was also much read in the post war period in religion and philosophy of religion courses at American universities(or at least at UNC which I attended). Again, it is not surprising that Smith had been exposed to, even read, Buber’s ideas.

    • Thanks for the context. I wasn’t suggesting Buber couldn’t have influenced Smith, just was making a small factual correction to that sentence in R. Benson’s comment.

  5. Andrew, thanks for this piece.

    You touch on an issue obliquely here and there in this essay — coaches as patriarchal, coaches as playing some role in American culture wars over masculinity.

    It seems to me that this, rather than conservatism, is the salient characteristic of “coaches,” at least in the cultural imaginary. To be a man may not be to be a coach, but to be a coach is, stereotypically, to be an archetypal man. I mean, while there are (thanks to title IX) now women coaches up and down the ranks of (mostly women’s) sports from children’s leagues to high schools and colleges to professional women’s teams, there are plenty of women’s teams that are coached by men. And there are far, far, far fewer men’s teams at any level where the head coach is a woman, right? Pop and Kerr can be outside the norm politically and they’ll be just fine, because that’s not the most important norm that coaches represent and defend.

    The college coaches interviewed in the article you cite are grousing about SDS and the BSU. But from our temporal vantage point, we know that they’re going to have something else to grouse about shortly (even if they didn’t see it then): the feminist movement.

    Yet I wonder if they weren’t already feeling the earth move under their feet in 1969. I think you see hints of it in Prothro’s comments about the generation gap (all that “daddy” talk) combined with his following observation:

    But athletes have changed. You’ve changed. I’ve changed. The whole world has changed.

    The raw material is not so very different. “The two big things on this campus and on every campus I’ve been on are sex and food,” says Prothro. But the athlete’s frame of reference has altered considerably. Drinking, for example, is now allowed by many coaches. (Some just look the other way.) At Virginia, a conservative school, two beers are permitted after a game. Dress is relaxed. Money is more available. Sex, too. And drugs. A boy is more aware. He can watch the war every night on the 6 o’clock news.

    So it’s buried there, just beneath the surface of the discourse: the central function of the coach is to incubate masculinity. Women are in the picture here as “sex,” and that part of the picture, the coach senses, is changing.

    And how.

    • Thanks for this wonderful comment L.D.!

      I agree with your connection with “coaches” more generally as not just inherently masculine, but as both incubators and protectors of masculinity. I think that is definitely a continuous norm throughout the profession from the beginning to the present, regardless of how overtly political or intellectually they are. In some regards, I think you could argue that “coaches” and “coaching” is (almost) always an inherently political act in terms of how it acts to support and nurture masculinity and patriarchy in society. But to pushback a little bit and return to politics, I’m thinking a bit out loud here, but I think tracing the work of conservatives (or proto-conservatives) to feminize radicals, leftists, and eventually liberals can help show how this culture become a political tool and sports an important battle ground in the culture wars. This is a bit beyond my work, but an area that I am interested in and Popovich and Kerr have provoked.

      To your observation of women as viewed/depicted as “sex” in the article — that is really powerful when juxtaposed to current issues regarding domestic violence and rape among athletes (from Steubenville to Baylor and on up). It helps show how patriarchy — not just masculinity (if you can separate the two here) — remains embedded in sporting culture and how (some) coaches gloss over it or dismiss it. Women as “sex” fit into the biological/natural needs of masculine/athletic men — and while often characterized as a distraction, it only truly becomes an issue when it gets someone into “trouble.”

      Your point about female coaches is super interesting to me, and I think deserves more analysis. Pat Summitt seems like one of the only ‘iconic’ or big-name female coaches, and she has been nearly eclipsed by Geno Auriemma in many ways (that are worth unpacking in the future). I think issues of sexuality arise here, as people surrounding sports often speculate about female coaches and star athletes’ sexuality. This is, to be sure, a function of the patriarchal masculine world of coaching and sports, and perhaps even more intense in the coaching world. I don’t really know, but it’s a great observation and something I hope someone looks into!

      Thanks again for such a stimulating comment. I know coaches tend to be viewed from the top-down, “great men” angle, but how and why they attain that status is central to understanding that culture and how they can and do serve as public intellectuals and activists in our society.

  6. There are some interesting points of intersection between Pop and Coach Smith, re: feminism.

    For what it’s worth, Popovich hired Becky Hammon to an assistant coaching position–she is the first woman to hold such a post. She also led the franchise’s summer league team to a “championship” either this year or last. It’s also worth noting just how progressive and quasi-cosmopolitan–at least anecdotally–the NBA is in comparison to the NFL.

    In the preface to Multiple Offenses and Defenses, Dean Smith’s early 80s (I believe) book on coaching, he writes:

    “I would take this opportunity to apologize to the growing number of female coaches who may be reading this book. I have had difficulty updating my language to accommodate the women. For example, the term ‘person-to-person defense’ is probably more appropriate than ‘man-to-man defense.’ In most cases, the male gender has been used but this should in no way indicate a lack of respect for our outstanding women coaches and women players.”

    I’d also be interested to hear what Andrew might have to say about the shift in coaches’ rhetoric from the humbler idea of a “coach” to the more entrepreneurial “leader.”

    • Smith is a goldmine! As a fellow Kansan, I have always admired him. Much of his early life mirrors that of my grandparents who grew up not far from Smith) and also had a deep, multi-generational commitment to education. Another fun Dean Smith Fact, that is a tad irrelevant, is that his father one ofWilliam Allen White’s pallbearers.

      To be honest, the rhetoric of the entrepreneurial coach isn’t al that new. I wrote a seminar paper related to this idea when I first started my PhD, and found examples of “entrepreneurial activities” among many of the early coaching icons. Almost all of them wrote and sold books, gave talks and clinics, and a few moved into endorsements. Knute Rockne is the person most folks identify as truly embracing more than anyone. His endorsement with Studebaker, Barabsol, and his connection to Hollywood are well-known (there was a book about published in 1932 entitled _Salesman From the Sidelines: Being the Business Career of Knute Rockne_). Of course, the increasing amount of money in sports has drastically changed this.

      Coaches are less apologetic about it now. Many have dispatched of the humble, fatherly persona for a more corporate personality (which I think is more what you’re hinting at). I’m not sure when or what motivated this change. The bigger endorsements from companies like Nike and Adidas came in the 1980s as sports apparel became increasingly more commodified (the 30-for-30 Sole Man shows this really well). You can mix that with some of what Daniel Rodgers describes as “the rediscovery of the market” in _Age of Fracture_, where metaphors of the market and microeconomics pervaded our culture and rhetoric, reorienting how we view and understand power. A related thought to consider is the rise as athlete as brand and endorser, which I think it connected to the entrepreneurial persona throughout contemporary sport. Walter LaFeber tackles some of this in his fantastic book _Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism_.

      I’m sorry if these feels like a non-answer. I think it’s a complicated question, and there are certainly several different approaches and definitions you could use to categorize a coach as an “entrepreneurial leader.”

  7. Thank you for the post Andrew! Just a quick note to the comment: Nancy Lieberman is actually the first woman to become a full time coach of a professional men’s basketball team in 2009, as the head coach of Texas Legends (D-league team of Dallas Maverick). Becky Hammon is the first to hold such position in the NBA in 2014, and Lieberman is later hired by the Sacramento Kings in 2015, making her the second. Becky always speak about how Lieberman and others have set a precedent for her to be in that place.

    It is also customary for the San Antonio Spurs to assign summer league duties to the assistant coaches, and there are actually two summer leagues, one in Las Vegas and one in Salt Lake City. Becky have been the head coach for the Vegas event last two years and won a championship in 2015.

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