Well, Josh, here is where we disagree. Or at least, where actual NFL players disagree with you. You want your coaches seen and not heard, spending their time drawing little X’s and O’s on a whiteboard or flipping through a dog-eared copy of The Pyramid of Success. Players want a friend.
Take Rex Ryan, because he won’t shut up long enough to let us forget about him. To the Jets, Ryan’s not a war-room general, commanding his troops from afar (though he’s at least as flawed as Patton and nearly as inspiring). He’s in the trenches with them. Look, football is a boring job. More succinctly, it’s a job. There are three hours a week to “play,” but the rest is meetings, workouts, and all kinds of boring shit that no kid grows up dreaming of. The lockout revealed the us-against-them mentality the players have regarding management, the belief that any success they achieve comes in spite of their bosses. But the Jets view Rex Ryan as being on their side. He gets them. He’s a drinking buddy.
Presidential elections shouldn’t be decided on which guy you’d rather grab a beer with, but in an interpersonal sport like football, likability matters. A coach handles strategy, yes, but he’s also got to be a life coach, a motivational speaker. Happy players try hard. If you doubt that, how have the Jets had so much recent success despite being pathologically unable to run, throw, or catch? Of course, a big part of keeping players happy is segregating the unhappy ones. Derrick Mason wants to question the playbook? He’s gone. Perhaps the paranoid Patton was a better comparison than I realized.
If you want to see what an unhappy team looks like, just take the Jets’ opponents last night. The Dolphins lost because they’re not very talented, but they got blown out because they just don’t care very much. How many near-interceptions did Sean Smith drop? How many routes did Brandon Marshall sleepwalk through? How many times did the pass rush just stand up straight and say, “Screw it, we’re not getting to Sanchez anyway so why bother?” And through it all Tony Sparano stays quiet, dignified. If he doesn’t appear to care publicly, why should his charges? And why should Dolphins fans?
Even the No Fun League sees value in coaches as personalities. The three best seasons of Hard Knocks featured Brian Billick, Herm Edwards, and Rex Ryan, and two of those guys are doing TV now. So it was unsurprising to see that Jims Harbaugh and Schwartz won’t be punished for their “come at me, bro” moment on Sunday. Harbaugh’s become the biggest name on the 49ers this year, and they’re sitting at 5-1 despite having much the same personnel as last year.
Real Sports profiled the Harbaugh clan a few months back, and at one point they were shown taking a family vacation to Gettysburg for a Civil War reenactment, because that’s what the Harbaughs like to do. (Jim fancies himself more Joshua Chamberlain than George Patton.) But there was a neat moment when the brothers recalled father Jack asking, from the front seat on long car rides, “Who’s got it better than us?” And the boys, in unison, would answer back, “Noooo-body!” Jim has borrowed that call-and-response for his locker room speeches, and his players absolutely love it because professional athletes are just massive children at heart.
So what should a coach’s role be, then—psychiatrist or kindergarten teacher or middle manager or all of the above? The cop-out answer is, be whatever works. Rex Ryan wants to be seen as a 54th player who just happens to carry a clipboard instead of a helmet. (Patton wanted to be “buried with [his] men.”) Jim Harbaugh was a player, but is content to play up the big-brother dynamic like Chamberlain, shepherding his brother Tom through Little Round Top at Gettysburg. And then there’s the feared Tom Coughlin, who won a Super Bowl using the stick instead of the carrot. Unfortunately for Coughlin, his career is less likely to end with a cushy TV gig than with a disgruntled player gunning him down in a latrine like Sergeant Hartman.