By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Against the backdrop of a coaching scandal at Rutgers that blossomed from simply a basketball coach gone mad to one that eventually may cost two athletic directors and that university’s president their jobs, the decision West Virginia University athletic director Oliver Luck made in hiring saintly baseball coach Randy Mazey seems to border upon pure genius.
Not only did Mazey come in and take over a downtrodden baseball program and rejuvenate it on the field in his first season, but he led it into national prominence as a team with a heart, bringing aid and comfort to the tornado victims of Moore, Okla., last week during the Big 12 Tournament.
The videos of Mazey fighting back tears in press conferences as he and his West Virginia players delivered supplies and helped with the cleanup from the deadly whirlwind tear at the heart, especially when placed alongside those of an enraged Mike Rice at his Rutgers basketball practices, hurling both physical and verbal abuse at his players.
Rice’s behavior was so abusive that it not only cost him his job and has landed him in therapy, but it cost AD Tim Pernetti his job.
Julie Hermann was selected Pernetti’s replacement, one of only three women to lead a top-tier athletic department, only to see a letter signed by all 15 of her volleyball players at Tennessee 16 years ago crop up, stating that she ruled that team through humiliation, fear and emotional abuse.
“The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable,” the players wrote about the woman who was hired after serving as the No. 2 athletic administrator at Louisville.
How did it work out that Luck would pull out such an apparent gem, especially after there was much early concern over his choice of football coach Dana Holgorsen after an incident at a Charleston casino early in his employment, in Mazey?
“Ultimately, there’s like two boxes you have to look into and hopefully neither is Pandora’s box,” Luck responded when asked what it is like hiring coaches in today’s environment.
“One is sort of the more objective data … where had this individual been coaching and for how long and the data that is available on his record. You have to go back, even to when he or she was a (graduate assistant). You go and get the highlights, but you want to check the lowlights, too.
“That’s one box. The second box is what kind of a person is he or she. How does he or she motivate a team? How do people who have worked for the coach or above the person view them? What does a former AD say about the person or what does a former player say?
“That’s not as objective. It’s subjective.”
Indeed it is.
Bench a player and that player may be critical about you, perform below the expectations of a person who hired you, and you may not be painted in a particularly flattering manner.
“Basically, it’s much like at the Pop Warner level. You have to do a background check,” Luck said.
Even there, you may not learn the whole truth.
“Even if you do a background check and it comes back he or she doesn’t have a criminal record, it still doesn’t tell you how he or she motivates players, what’s it like playing for that coach, does that coach bring the right atmosphere?” Luck said.
“I was reading about the Rutgers thing yesterday on Mike Rice. I’m sure he didn’t have a criminal record and the background check might not have shown he was abusive to players … the same as the lady they hired as AD.”
The problem stretches further than anyone may imagine, for all people have their faults.
“Everybody is fallible,” Luck continued. “Then the questions becomes – OK, he or she has a black mark on their record. Let’s assume it isn’t a criminal black mark, a felony. Assume it was unpaid traffic tickets.
“Should that prohibit them from becoming a coach? No question you should talk to them about it, but the larger question that comes up when you are hiring someone is ‘Does this person deserve a second chance if they made a mistake?’”
That takes some soul searching, on all sides. You have to search your own soul for forgiveness, but you also must search the coach’s soul to see if he or she truly has moved forward.
“You have to ask how serious the transgression is. We all make mistakes. There’s nobody who has a perfect background record. There’s somebody in that coach’s background who is going to say that person can be abusive or curses too much or something,” Luck said.
In fact, in hiring Mazey, Luck had to find out why Mazey had been fired at East Carolina even though he had a strong on-field performance, coming to the conclusion that he offered what he needed in someone to rebuild the program and move it forward in a new league.
“I did due diligence on the subjective side, and I felt a very good comfort level he was the type of person who could take the program and revitalize it,” Luck said.
Times have changed, and coaching techniques are now viewed in a different light than they once were. We are in a time when we are blending some of the old coaching techniques, perhaps some of those used by a Bob Huggins or a Jim Boeheim with a stricter society.
“Society has changed a little bit,” Luck said. “I read a comment recently; it may have been from the new Rutgers AD. She said you would want every moment of our practice filmed from the moment it starts until the moment it’s over so we would be able to show it to any recruit’s parents. That is really noble, but I have been around a lot of coaches over the years at a lot of levels, and sometimes there are harsh moments.
“I’ve worked in law firms and other organizations, and believe me, in board meetings there are some very tough moments,” Luck said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.