Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is known for being a perfect model of calm and collected behavior, until he loses his cool in a heated game. Then even the meticulous and polished coach is susceptible to angrily spewing four-letter words. "I don't know any coaches who don't use profanity," says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former Duke player. "It's part of the competition."
Outbursts by college basketball coaches, whether spoken or gesticulated boorishly, have become as routine as a pregame layup drill. They are featured in highlight reels all the time.
The NCAA wants it to stop. This season, referees will start enforcing a bench decorum policy that won't allow coaches to use profanity, abusive language or excessive gestures to display annoyance with officials. Whether they're in or out of the coaching box, if coaches violate the policy, they can be assessed a technical foul with no warning.
"I thought it was long past due," says Hank Nichols, the NCAA's national coordinator for men's basketball officiating since 1986.
Cleaning up coaches' courtside demeanor was initiated by the NCAA basketball rules committee, Nichols says, but it has been endorsed by men's and women's basketball national coaches associations and the Collegiate Commissioners Association. Collectively, coaches stand behind the policy. Individually, it's another story.
"For me, if it's not broke, don't fix it," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl says. "I don't think it's broke. That said, if it's a point of emphasis, I'll have to adjust to it."
Krzyzewski says he doesn't plan to change his ways, at least for now.
"I'm not going to pay any attention to it," he says. "I'll be who I am, and if I'm doing something wrong, I'll be punished and I'll change."
The new policy is about preserving the game's integrity, some say.
"A lot of us are concerned with the general reputation of basketball as a sport," says University of Hartford President Walter Harrison, chairman of the NCAA's committee on academic performance and former chairman of the association's executive committee. "There's a growing interest in the NCAA that the brand of basketball get protected."
Last March in a letter to The Washington Post, Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha Catholic High School Principal Daniel McMahon complained about coaches' stomping and swearing. He pointed out some coaches' tirades are directed at players, and he questioned coaches' professionalism.
"Are these guys educators?" McMahon says by telephone. "If they are, they have an obligation to set an example."
McMahon wrote that if he "yelled and cursed at my students in class, under the guise of motivating them, I would be fired."
McMahon, a former assistant to legendary high school coach Morgan Wootten, believes coaches are given too much leeway on the sidelines. "People tolerate it if it brings in money or if the coach wins," he says. "It filters down. You can go to sixth-grade games and see the same behavior."
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg responded to McMahon's comments by saying, "If he wants to see us teach, he should sit in on a talk or an academic meeting. To take one small moment in time is an insult."
Virginia coach Dave Leitao agrees, saying sideline demeanor is not usually representative of the way a coach behaves off the court. Anyone who has talked to Leitao probably thinks he is thoughtful and mild-mannered, but in game situations, he can act like a man possessed.
To date, no boss has told Leitao he's out of control, the coach says. When he coached DePaul in Chicago from 2002 to 2005, blue-collar fans embraced his in-your-face technique.
"If I'm chastising a player, I know he can handle it," Leitao says. "It's meant to motivate. But there's much more of a balance with me than the public sees."
Whether a coach uses profanity with a player or a referee, by rule he could receive a technical, but officials are less likely to be within earshot of conversations between players and coaches, Nichols says.
Still, Leitao and others are being told they must adjust to their sport's rising visibility, which continually raises the stakes for coaches and schools alike. There is pressure to win and fill arenas, which can cause tempers to flare.
"How can you not feel the pressure when you're in a fishbowl?" Greenberg asks. "You're susceptible to things other human beings are susceptible to. Anyone and everyone is susceptible to the pressures of our profession."
Following the Pros
Improving decorum was a hot topic in the NBA a year ago when Commissioner David Stern cracked down on players' demonstrative protests by green-lighting referees to call technicals against out-of-line complaining. He said negative reactions by players showed a less attractive side to the greatest athletes in the world.
In a way, college basketball coaches are getting a similar message. NBA coaches have long adhered to a stricter bench decorum code than college coaches, "without question," says Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik, who coached the NBA's Denver Nuggets from 2002 to 2004.
Bzdelik believes college coaches have had more wiggle room because of their star power. Unlike the NBA, where star players enjoy long careers and typically are the center of attention, college coaches often are their schools' most identifiable luminaries because of their longevity. "Unfortunately, at the college level some coaches become more of a star than their team," Bzdelik says. "The reality is that we're only as good as our talent."
Sideline tantrums and excessive complaining can be contagious, especially when coaches believe "they have no other choice but to fight fire with fire to impact the officials," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany says.
Toledo coach Stan Joplin, considered relatively low-key, knows that feeling.
"A lot of times, you say, 'Hey, do I have to act like the guy on the other bench, or do I have to act like a jerk?' " Joplin asks.
Fans, too, feed off the coach. "History tells anyone involved with officiating that the crowd takes the lead from the coach, especially when it comes to officiating," Nichols says. "When both coaches do not get involved in officiating, it's like day and night."
There is some concern that star coaches could get more freedom than others to break the rules.
"You hope if it's going to be enforced, it's enforced from top to bottom," Georgia State women's coach Lea Henry says. "If it's enforced for us, we want to see it enforced consistently."
Coaches such as Krzyzewski and Texas Tech's Bob Knight will test the new policy, perhaps early and often.
"It's a game that's an emotional game, and referees make bad calls," Knight says. "Referees, on occasion, make terrible calls. And not to get up and remind them that they've made a bad call, I think, is taking something out of the game. … I think all that's bull."
Bzdelik says for the measure to work, referees need to communicate more with coaches.
"In the NBA, as long as there's respectable communication, the referee will talk to you. The most frustrating thing to a coach is when an official won't communicate with you."
Hartford's Harrison believes administrators should be proactive in setting standards for coaches to follow, but as Delany points out, "When the rubber hits the road, there's no place for athletic directors and presidents to act."
Bilas doesn't buy that argument. "What he's really saying is when the rubber hits the road, we're wimps and won't do it ourselves."
As in the past, there are exceptions to the decorum initiative. For example, a coach can leave the coaching box to stop a fight or point out a scoring or timing mistake.
Referees who consistently enforce bench decorum rules improve their standing for postseason assignments. And if the measure falls by the wayside for lack of enforcement, "Then it's a pox on all of us," Delany says. "What it normally leads to are stricter standards and criticism for failing to do what we said we'd do."
Contributing: Kevin Allen, Jack Carey, Andy Gardiner, Dick Patrick, Steve Wieberg