During last year’s NCAA basketball tournament, fans around the country were treated to something almost as sweet as seeing their own teams win the national championship: watching Duke lose. In its opening game. To Lehigh. My schadenfreude was slightly different from everyone else’s, but it was schadenfreude, and this was new. I’d never been one of those Duke haters. In fact, I’d been a Duke fan for more than two decades, since my first years as a graduate student in Durham, when, despite my many aversions to life in the Gothic Wonderland (e.g., people calling it the Gothic Wonderland), I began to treat the school’s basketball triumphs as my own. But I can’t root for the Blue Devils anymore. When they play John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday, I’ll be rooting for Kentucky, sort of, but I’ll really be rooting against the NCAA. Kentucky is the ugly truth the NCAA wants to hide, and Duke is the hysterical lie they hide it with.
As a Ph.D. student, I did the usual TA stints in giant lecture classes. I graded athletes’ essays, and I knew the unfortunate work I was reading signaled admissions standards bent for the sake of ACC and NCAA championships. My broader suspicions, though, were neutralized by the heroic profile of Coach K. I’d both played and coached high-school basketball, and, for me, the living myth of Mike Krzyzewski was irresistible. A bonus, at a relatively small school like Duke, was the regular chance to run in pickup games with Coach K’s players, who were usually gracious and even generous with the ball, though you could often feel a certain condescension when they passed it to you.
It wasn’t just ex-jocks like me, apprenticing with former students of Allan Bloom in the stodgy political science department. Coach K’s aura filled the most radical graduate lounges. Young Lacanians and Derrideans, honing their hermeneutic chops under Fredric Jameson and Stanley Fish, could be found cheering alongside preppy, heteronormative undergrads at local bars. Coach K made this possible. College basketball was notoriously corrupt, and college sports in general were a problem on several levels, and sharing Final Four ecstasies with those undergrads could make you feel a little funny, if you thought too much about it. But, on Coach K’s authority, we let ourselves join in on the self-celebration. He was a different sort of college coach. The exception. The ideal.
But in so desperately seizing onto Coach K as this ideal, we were conceding the indictment against his profession. Our admiration was actually an untenable form of relief. Finally, we thought, here’s someone whose comportment and reputation do not obviously mock us for losing ourselves in his sport, for treating it as a purer form of competition: “The College Game.” He’s an exception. There has to be someone, the ideal coach who embodies the true spirit of amateur sports, who allows us to go on imbibing their incredible drama. The theoretical possibility of this ideal coach redeems our exultation and dejection on those autumn Saturdays, and during “Championship Week” and “March Madness.” It eases the yearly nausea of “Bowl Season.”
But what is this ideal coach an exception to? Famous scofflaws, presumably, like Jim Tressel and Barry Switzer, and whoever was most recently fired at the University of Miami, and the other less notorious but still kind of sketchy heads of major “programs” in college football and basketball. The ideal is an exception to the familiar run of characters who make up the coaching ranks of big-time college sports, people whose jobs depend on a wide array of legal scams and sanctioned loopholes: the slippery promises of recruiting, degraded standards in admissions and academics, eligibility schemes that shunt players into gut classes but leave them far from any degree when their scholarships run out. And, for many coaches, there are the seven-figure contracts and rich sponsorship deals they take for themselves as they bask in the legal and sentimental light of amateurism, and also in the cultural authority of the universities whose standards they corrupt.
Of course, the ideal coach can’t really be an exception, not if he wants to—as they say—compete. That’s his job description, too. Somehow, people considered Joe Paterno, living by his own laws inside the private reality of his luxurious football complex, an exception. But he merely lacked certain outward traits we’ve come to expect in the men who lead our major “programs”—that familiar combination of big-boss imperiousness and con-man dodginess. We needed Joe Pa to be someone who doesn’t exist, and he did sort of look like that person, and that was good enough for us.
So maybe we should idealize the typical coaching persona instead, hold it up as the awful truth it represents, challenge ourselves to face this truth, and license ourselves to enjoy “The College Game” only when we’ve proven brave enough to dwell in its hideousness. It might be unpleasant at first, but it would save us a lot of cognitive dissonance in the long run.
Perhaps, then, our new coaching ideal should be Calipari, a man hired to lead one of college basketball’s greatest programs despite an almost comically sordid coaching history. It turns out that vacated championships and forfeited seasons are not too shameful a legacy for the University of Kentucky, storied home of Adolph Rupp. (But then, why would they be?) We’d find it edifying to treat Calipari as our model, to fetishize his example. He is, after all, exemplary. Even during those years when he’s observing the rules as written, his daily job involves ethical shortcuts and competitive stratagems that are more or less exactly as sketchy as the vibe he gives off during chats with Tony and Mike on Pardon the Interruption: the nervous good humor of someone who’s just been released on a technicality. Imbibe that spirit, if you can.
The biggest problem with this ideal coach we keep resuscitating, the thing that cripples my ability to enjoy the sports he’s been enlisted to redeem, isn’t the hypocrisy. It’s the hysteria. The ideal coach is the main prop in a whole structure of overcompensation. Cheerleaders randomly kicking the air, brightly grinning at nothing in particular. Student sections athrob with bunny-hopping undergrads. Color commentators gushing about kids competing for the love of the game. Slow pans of ivied quadrangles. And, crucially, brassy pep bands drowning out vague thoughts of recent arrests and altered grades, the coach’s bloated contract, his unique record of malfeasance, other things known only as “irregularities,” all those doubts that a skeezy contraption like the NCAA is fit to judge what’s irregular, and, finally, the suspicion that the real problem is what’s regular.
I always knew, deep down, that this pathology marked my favorite sport, college basketball, and that my team’s exalted coach must be infected with it. But I’ve faced this truth head-on only in the last year, thanks to Penn State. Now I can go back and consider Coach K for what he actually does in his job. Besides the degraded admissions and academic standards, whose products I saw first-hand, I can ponder his recruiting methods. I’d always heard he was a “great recruiter,” but I avoided thinking about what this really entailed. Now, thanks to UCLA freshman and former Las Vegas prep standout Shabazz Muhammad (who was just benched by the NCAA for violating its ideological obfusc- , er, “amateurism rules”), I can hear it in my head: “He talks a lot about the Duke brand. … I think the thing that makes his sales pitch so good is that he’s really speaking from the heart.”
Did Coach K really try to recruit a high school star by telling him that Duke is the finest epiphenomenal projection of synergistic marketing strategies in all the land? I might not have believed it, except Julius Randle of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, received the same pitch late this summer. After getting Randle “hyped” by flattering him with LeBron James comparisons, “Krzyzewski,” USA Today reports, “went on to talk about branding.”
Coach K, then, solves the sleazy prisoner’s dilemma of college recruiting by talking like a Don DeLillo character. From the heart, he sells 16-year-olds on the honor of entering his great simulacrum, “the Duke Brand,” which consists largely of the hysterical myth of Mike Krzyzewski. I imagine that comes somewhat easily to him.
Dick Vitale’s sycophantic love of Duke is a running joke among college basketball fans. In his pre-game comments during telecasts from Cameron Indoor Stadium, Dickie V prattles on and on about the brainy student-fans in the bleachers, the upstanding student-athletes on the court, and, especially, the integrity and greatness of Duke’s singular leader, Coach K. I’m a Duke fan, or was, and it’s always made me uncomfortable. I used to think it was just Dick Vitale, the exuberant suck-up. But now I realize he’s more like an oracle. In flogging the greatness of Coach K’s program, Dickie V protesteth way too much. The artless babbling and obsessive praise are symptoms of open secrets, hysterically kept—and that queasy feeling he gives you, as the pep band honks half-musically in the background, means that you and Dickie V are grimly suppressing the exact same thoughts.