When the cost of winning is too great
By the measuring stick of college athletics in America, Tracey Sheehan could be considered a successful young coach.
At Montana State University here, where she guided the school's Division I women's basketball program, Ms. Sheehan posted a winning record. Her teams competed in the post-season tournament four straight years, and a few of her players earned honors for their performance on the hardwood court.
But last week Sheehan and an assistant were fired by the university over allegations that they focused too intensely on winning - often at the expense of their players' physical and psychological welfare.
While Montana State is not a national power in university athletics, Sheehan's firing will echo in locker rooms across the country as coaches reconsider the question of how hard to push their players.
Even as coaches and universities reap enormous financial rewards from posting impressive win-loss numbers, the decision hints at a changing attitude toward the clipboard-breaking, "win at all costs" mentality - even in the higher levels of collegiate athletics. Moreover, it's a particularly thorny issue for women's athletics, where studies show that certain types of serious injuries are more common.
For most coaches, though, the struggle to balance a student's athletic and academic interests is the primary balancing act. It can become a Catch-22, made more complicated by money from alumni, sponsors, and TV deals.
Nowhere has this resonated more forcefully with coaches than in football. Where top coaching salaries used to barely crack six figures, there is now one coach who makes $2 million a season and at least eight others who top $1 million. At bowl time, hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake for the universities.
Despite pep talks aimed at giving academics equal emphasis with athletic performance, all coaches understand an implicit set of expectations when they are hired, say some observers.
"Coaches are rewarded for their ability to win, and the coaches who don't win, don't last," says Grant Teaff, former head coach at Baylor University in Texas, now executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
Cutting corners to ensure athletes spend more time on the field has been a chronic problem in major men's college sports. Following a cheating scandal that rocked the University of Minnesota men's basketball squad last winter, investigators found that tutors were completing course work for 20 players.
Indeed, in recent years, college basketball in particular has come under fierce scrutiny as graduation rates of athletes failed to keep pace with other sports.
To remedy the problem, a select National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) committee recommended rewarding schools that meet high academic standards with more scholarships, and taking away scholarships from those universities that fail to meet minimum thresholds.
"It's a great way to deal with the issue," says Daniel Boggan, the NCAA's senior vice president and chief operating officer.
Thanks in large part to Title IX, which demanded gender equity in sports programs, American athletes - and coaches - have also seen pressure to deliver results steadily increase.
"Coaches in both women's and men's athletics are not just teachers any more," says Betty Jaynes, head of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and a former coach at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. "They assume the role of psychologist, counselor, marketer, and team accountant."
In Montana, among the charges leveled at coach Sheehan are that she had her athletes play while hurt, that she demanded they spend more time practicing than is allowed by the NCAA, and that the intensity of those workouts hastened more injuries.
Chuck Lindemenn, the university's athletic director, says an investigation into Sheehan began this autumn over concerns that players were suffering too many "overuse injuries."
Injuries such as tendinitis and knee strains are typically associated with insufficient rest between rigorous workouts. At one point, 13 of Montana State's 15 women on the roster were injured, Mr. Lindemenn says.
Sports physiologists say that knee injuries have reached epidemic proportions in women's sports. The NCAA noted in a report this year that the knee-injury rate for women during basketball practice was seven times higher than the rate for men.
Part of the onus for prevention lies with the coach and knowing when to back off, experts say.
Sheehan herself had no comment, but the mother of one player still with the team defended the coach. Bambi Rice of Big Sandy, Mont., says her daughter, Jennifer Curl, a sophomore starting guard, played twice last year with a swollen ankle. She says athletes require tough love, not coddling.
"Sometimes instead of going 100 percent you have to give 150 percent to strive for excellence," Ms. Rice says. "Coaches are expected to have a good record, and when they do they shouldn't be kicked down."
Just doing her job
Sheehan's attorney, Mike Meloy, says his client conducted herself no differently from any other Division I coach hired to contend for league titles, make alumni happy, and put fans in the stands. "She was a demanding coach who expected a lot from her players, no one denies that," Mr. Meloy says.
For Montana State, though, she went too far. "When a person's drive to win causes them to forget about the welfare of their student-athletes, then I think you've gone over the line," says Lindemenn.
He adds that Montana State's athlete graduation rates are higher than the overall student body, so administrators have more patience when teams have mediocre seasons.
But Jim Sollars, a women's college basketball coach since 1976, says most coaches will never please everyone. "What school administrators would love are teams which ... play like UCLA in the evening and players who are as strong academically as Harvard students in the afternoon," says Mr. Sollars, a coach at the University of Portland in Oregon. "As a practical matter, it's almost impossible to achieve."
Together, coaches and universities make tremendous investments in top-flight prep recruits; full-ride scholarships cost anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000 annually, depending upon the university, Sollars says.
"I don't think parents understand that Division I athletes represent 1.5 to 2 percent of the kids who played sports in high school," Sollars notes. "They are in a true elite class, but to perform at this level, a commitment has to be paid. I'm sure there are plenty run-of-the-mill students flipping burgers to pay their way through college who would rather be shooting hoops."
It's just that Lindemenn and other administrators thought the commitment that Sheehan asked for was unreasonable.
"We don't fault this staff for the success it achieved on the court, but we do fault these coaches for the way success was achieved," he says. "It was not a cost we were willing to bear."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society