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Is it still OK for coaches to scream at kids?

Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Was Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo, the 64-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer, justified in confronting Aaron Henry, a 19-year-old freshman he felt wasn’t hustling?

The video went viral within minutes. And in the weeks since, almost everyone who saw it — fans, athletes, coaches, media types — debated whether Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo acted appropriately when he berated and lunged at one of his players during a timeout of a first-round NCAA Tournament game.

The conversation transcended generational and social lines. Was Izzo, the 64-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer, justified in confronting Aaron Henry, a 19-year-old freshman he felt wasn’t hustling? Was there a better way of handling it? How has the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior by coaches shifted in the last decade? And since Izzo and the Spartans advanced to the men’s basketball Final Four this weekend at U.S. Bank Stadium, does that make it all good?

“Every basketball player has watched this clip probably ten times over,” said Tina Syer, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national non-profit committed to positive coaching norms in youth sports. “This is a great opportunity at the dinner table, at your next practice, to talk to your team. In this moment, what would you have done if you were coaching this team? It’s a lost opportunity if people aren’t talking about this with their team and their kids.”

The topic even came up earlier this week on a conference call promoting the women’s Final Four, with UConn’s Geno Auriemma among the coaches weighing in.

“I just find it a little bit disconcerting that more and more coaches are being told, ‘This is inappropriate; you’re not acting the right way,’” Auriemma said, as reported by Mechelle Voepel of espnW. “What is the right way, and who is going to decide what the right way is? I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

Here’s one answer: Don’t act like a maniac. Especially on national television.

Let’s go back to what happened.

Michigan State, the East Region No. 2 seed, faced No. 15 seed Bradley in Des Moines. Trailing by one at halftime, the Spartans scored ten consecutive points early in the second half to jump ahead. But Izzo wasn’t happy with Henry, a promising 6-6 freshman forward who botched a defensive assignment, then let his man beat him down court.

Some context: Michigan State hadn’t advanced past the tournament’s first weekend since 2015, lost to a No. 15 seed once already in 2016 (Middle Tennessee), and still hadn’t recovered from  three hard games in three days to win the Big Ten Tournament. Bradley, in its first NCAA Tournament in 13 years, clearly wasn’t intimidated by Izzo or his team. The Spartans could lose if they weren’t careful, and Izzo knew it.

At a timeout with 16:48 to play, Izzo walked out to intercept Henry heading to the bench. Izzo briefly grabbed his arm, yelled at him, then pointed a finger toward his face. Henry appeared puzzled, unsure why Izzo was so mad.

“That’s what I was trying to understand,” Henry said in the locker room the next day. “He’s yelling, and I’m trying to listen. I’m like okay, we’ll talk about it in the huddle.”

Junior guard Cassius Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, gently guided Izzo away. Later in the timeout, with everyone seated, Izzo lunged toward Henry. Senior guard Matt McQuaid eased Izzo back to his stool. Longtime Spartan observers could not remember Izzo ever doing that in a game. Izzo remained so angry that Winston had to tell Henry what Izzo needed from him.

“He was getting after Henry the whole game,” Winston said. “It was tough for Henry. He’s a freshman. Bright lights. All kinds of things going through his head. I just felt, at that moment, I could get the message to Henry a little bit better. That’s all it was.”

The Spartans won, 76-65, with Henry making a key basket in the lane and two foul shots down the stretch. Two days later, Henry contributed nine points and nine rebounds in a 70-50 second-round victory over Minnesota. And in the next round, Henry poured in a season-high 20 points against LSU.

“I didn’t show any disrespect and fight back,” Henry said. “Most people would have in this generation. Not me. I just knew what he wants from me as a man. If he didn’t think I could handle it, he wouldn’t have embarrassed me on TV like that. It’s not even embarrassment. He just wanted the best for me.”

Via Twitter, former Spartan players, fellow coaches, television commentators and professional athletes backed Izzo, who has coached the Spartans to 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Final Fours and one NCAA title. Some declared those critical of Izzo’s behavior must be “soft.” But others, including a Detroit News opinion columnist, criticized Izzo for losing his cool.

Izzo’s players defended him, some even laughing at the commotion. Several noted Izzo had cried a few days earlier while consoling injured junior swingman Kyle Ahrens during the Big Ten championship game — a telling sign.

“I guess it’s hard being outside looking in,” Winston said. “But we know how much he loves us. We know how much he cares for us. We know how much he wants the best for us. He has that relationship with us that yelling at us doesn’t take away from us. The same way he yells at us, he’ll cry for us, and pull all the strings for us to see us do the best that we can.”

Syer appreciated Izzo holding Henry accountable for mistakes. That, she said, is what good coaches do. But she disagreed with how Izzo delivered that message.

“I would argue there are better ways of taking the player on for his lack of effort,” Syer said in a telephone interview. “It would never be okay if a player got upset in a moment like that and lunged at their coach or lunged at a fellow teammate. That would be viewed as unacceptable. There was a real-life lesson here to teach about self-control.”

And, Syer added, what if a Michigan State chemistry professor had done this to a student in a classroom? “It’s amazing what we allow and think is okay in a sporting environment,” she said. “It’s hard to think of any other environment where it’s okay, and it’s okay because he loves his players.”

St. Thomas Coach John Tauer, a two-time national Division III Coach of the Year and a tenured psychology professor, noted two societal changes made this a bigger story that it might have been ten years ago: The move away from authoritarian coaching, and ubiquitous social media. “It’s the carrot and the stick,” he said. “The stick is increasingly viewed as unacceptable.” And, he added, video sharing allowed millions to view it and take sides before Izzo sat for his post-game press conference.

Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve admires Izzo’s passion and intensity, which mirrors her own. However, she said, “it is never okay to physically approach a player in the way Coach Izzo did…I don’t think any situation warrants being touched by a coach in that way, in a fit of rage, and it seemed to be.”

But she liked how the players handled it — responding to Izzo’s anger with grace, calming him down, getting his message across, then moving on. “If that had happened even five years ago, I don’t know we would have thought much of it,” she said. “Times are changing, and what’s acceptable in terms of the way you motivate is in question. If you saw that in the women’s game, that would not be a good look. I didn’t think it was a good look for coaches, at all.”

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/05/2019 - 04:03 pm.

    Welcome the progress we have made:

    No chairs were thrown….

  2. Submitted by Chris Scott on 04/05/2019 - 09:44 pm.

    Tom Izzo: the Amy Klobuchar of college basketball.

  3. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 04/06/2019 - 07:45 am.

    I believe Isso a fantastic coach, but no fan of this behavior. I’ve been in situations such as this…not in sports…where I’ve been yelled at…and just block them out..Talk to me and explain, but don’t yell at me.
    That said…I understand the heat of competition and that these things can happen…but they are still Not defendable

  4. Submitted by Doug Rohde on 04/06/2019 - 08:16 am.

    As stated in the piece, the real story here is that the kids became the teachers, and absorbed their coach’s rage in such a graceful way.

  5. Submitted by Robert Ahles on 04/06/2019 - 10:38 am.

    I don’t feel there is any place in sports for actions like those Isso took. If I were the player I would have left the court immediately and probably the team for good. I will always remember a 1962 high school football game when our coach ran out on the field and kicked our defensive tackle in the ass. There is no place for that kind of behavior on or off the court or field.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 04/06/2019 - 10:54 am.

    Coaching 18-22 year olds takes a multitude of facets. You yell, you praise. You correct, you compliment. You challenge, you listen. It is all part of getting young adults to achieve more than they think they can.
    Results speak for themselves. Izzo gets results.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/08/2019 - 05:29 am.

      So the ends justify the means?

      Is that always true?

      • Submitted by joe smith on 04/08/2019 - 08:38 am.

        When you accept a scholarship at MSU, I would think you understand how Izzo coaches. If you cannot take it, don’t go there. His players all express love and thanks to coach Izzo after they leave. So yes, building character, being accountable and tough love is justifiable.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/08/2019 - 11:07 am.

          Building character? Not under Tom Izzo. His program is a sewer.

          Glad to see they lost. Maybe his poor motivational skills didn’t work this time.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/08/2019 - 05:42 pm.

          So what you’re telling me is that getting results is what counts, not how you get there.

          In other words, the ends justify the means.

          It my seem outdated in today’s day and age, and maybe it makes me a cranky old conservative, but as a Christian, my faith holds that the ends do not justify the means. How get there is as important as the destination.

          I consider myself a values voter, and my values are pretty well out of date these days.

  7. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/06/2019 - 11:57 am.

    The fact that a jerk like Izzo is screaming at players is the least of the problems with big time college sports. Schools (and coaches like Izzo) are making millions while the athletes make nothing.

  8. Submitted by John Kantar on 04/06/2019 - 12:10 pm.

    First, it has never been ok for a coach to threaten and/or demean his athletes. This has always been, and still is an all too common tactic that coaches have used out of anger, out of lack of real skills, or just to exercise control and power. The young athletes’ ability to transcend this behavior is admirable. I hope if they someday become coaches they will figure out how to coach differently than they were coached.

  9. Submitted by ian wade on 04/06/2019 - 07:24 pm.

    I played Division III for a coach that lit us up all of the time. It serves a purpose. I notice that the only ones whining about Izzo are people outside of the program. Aaron Henry and his players get it.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/07/2019 - 06:35 am.

    I would not allow coaches to speak from the bench during play. Coaches get too much attention in college games.

  11. Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/07/2019 - 09:12 am.

    I’d feel alright about the screaming if the players were paid.

  12. Submitted by Mark Gruben on 04/08/2019 - 10:41 pm.

    I’m retired now, but I taught in Iowa and Minnesota for over 30 years, and was a head coach in high school and junior high athletics for about 12 years, both boys and girls. I’ve coached both boys’ and girls’ basketball at both levels, and girls’ volleyball at the high school level. To me, the answer to your question is ridiculously easy: NO – it’s never OK for coaches to scream at kids, and this for a number of reasons. I could go into great detail about these reasons, but there’s no reason to. One reason is more than enough to make it clear: Athletics are supposed to be fun. If a coach is screaming at players, how is that fun? The person being screamed at doesn’t enjoy it. The other players don’t. The officials don’t. The fans don’t. The parents don’t. Does the coach who’s doing the screaming enjoy it? I can’t speak for others, but I certainly do not enjoy doing something that NO ONE ELSE associated with my team enjoys. That’s ridiculously selfish. Furthermore, in those years, I never had a losing team. I don’t say this to brag. I say it because it’s it’s a fact. No matter what, win or lose, my kids had fun, the fans had fun, and I had fun, too. If we just lost a game, that, itself was always my message to the kids. We just lost a game, and it’s just a game. But we didn’t lose anything else. Most of all, we didn’t lose any of the fun.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/11/2019 - 10:10 am.

    There’s an old book by a sports psychologist called: Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sports

    One of the myths the authors describe (based on their research) is the claim that organized school sports builds “character”. This claim never had any factual basis. In fact studies have shown that the longer kids participate in organized sports more likely they are to endorse “cheating” and other sociopathic attitudes like disrespect for fellow human beings. I don’t remember them specifically discussing coaches yelling and scream young people, but the over-all milieu of aggressive competition can obviously degrade any sense of compassion and basic human decency. The hazing incidents we see associated with sports are an obvious product of that milieu.

    Should coaches be STILL be screaming at young people? Coaches never should have been screaming in the first place (other than simply to make themselves heard in noisy environments or at a distance). The idea that you scream at people when you want them to do something is a bad idea to promote, and bad example to provide.

    We know for instance that military drill instructors spend a lot of engaging in otherwise completely unnecessary screaming. We also know that the reason for all that screaming is that the screaming itself is psychologically disruptive, it’s part of regime designed to “break” a recruits psyche. Is this what we want coaches to be doing?

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