Since he's first come to Chicago, I've heard talk about Lovie Smith and his lack of emotion on the sideline. I guess some folks want to see him jumping up and down and screaming at players when they screw up. Others have no problem with Lovie's demeanor. No doubt we've all heard arguments for both sides. Some believe a coach needs to scream and yell and throw stuff to inspire their players, while other think the player are grown men and professionals and don't need all the theatrics for inspiration.
In high school I ran cross-country. Our varsity coach was a lot like Lovie Smith. I mean, almost to a "T." We'll call him Mr. Ed for the sake of this blog. Mr. Ed was a quiet guy, clean cut, disciplined, a family man, and a devout Christian. He showed a tremendous amount of respect to his runners, the opposing teams, the IHSA, the school, and everyone involved in his program. He would talk to us before a big race and go down the line, telling each varsity runner what place they needed to finish for our team to win the meet and what time we'd need to get that position. No pep talks, no rah-rah, no preaching about how much we sacrificed at practices. He might say some things about running in a pack, or pacing, or how he thought other teams would run, but that was about it. It was all very dry and very technical.
Mr. Ed's counterpart was Mr. Steve. We were all pretty sure Mr. Steve was certifiable. He was the frosh-soph coach. It was Mr. Steve's job to weed out the weak and feeble underclassmen until only the strong survived. He took our class of fourteen freshmen and whittled us down to three varsity runners in two years. Mr. Steve served in the army and could've been a drill sergeant. Easily. Imagine R. Lee Ermey, and then turn his voice up about three octaves. You could hear his voice for MILES, and you swear he could SEE you when you were a mile away behind a grove of trees on the opposite side of the course.
Mr. Steve was the guy who would take us up to the starting line. He would talk to each of us individually. He knew we responded to different motivational techniques. Some guys didn't need much motivation at all. Me? I ran cross-country like Dick Butkus played football. I needed to hate the other teams out there. Mr. Steve would tell me things like, "These rich sissies like to go out fast, but don't let that get to you. Stick with them, they'll fade late, they think they're better than you. So, play with their heads. Be sure you spit in their direction for the first mile and a half and let them know you're still there. They'll break." And then the race would start and we knew it was just a matter of time before we could hear Mr. Steve screaming at us. During the race, Mr. Ed would calmly tell us what place we were in and whether or not our pace was fast or slow and Mr. Steve was the one who screamed, "PUMP YOUR ARMS, DAMNIT!"
To me, it was the proverbial perfect marriage. The head coach was the technical guy who developed our training regimen and crunched the numbers. The assistant was the firecracker who could fire you up and put the fear of God into you. That was the best coaching tandem I ever had the pleasure of working with in any sport, including my uninspiring college career.
Reading this, you might start to think that Mr. Ed was some kind of pushover. Or maybe he didn't have a very competitive spirit. You'd be dead wrong. When we lost a meet we should've won, it ate him up inside. He got mad. Oh yes. You could see those veins sticking out of his neck and forehead. But he contained his ire. The worst thing Mr. Ed ever said to me in two years is "Pete, I don't see how someone from [a weaker team in the conference] beat you today. You should've beaten him easily, and if you would've run the time I said you should've run, you would've done it." That stung more than anything Mr. Steve bellowed at me as a freshman or a sophomore. Mr. Ed didn't have to scream or swear or throw anything while he said it.
I screwed up again the next week, and he questioned my motivation and threatened to pull me off the varsity team. Again, he didn't yell, but he didn't have to. I was an elite high school athlete on a team that was bound for the state meet. I knew I screwed up, and he just had to let me know that HE knew I screwed up too. But you know what he was also saying by not screaming at me? He was saying, "Pete, I have respect for you as a person. I am not better than you, but you're not living up to your commitment to this team and that has to stop."
That's all it took. The next week, I ran the race of my life and placed exactly where Mr. Ed told me I should. As a team, we fell short of our goal of making it to state. But the next day in the local paper Mr. Ed was quoted as saying that I ran my guts out and placed very well considering the extreme competition that day.
That's a good coach, folks. I don't think I heard him yell twice in two years as a varsity runner. But he took his team to state three out of four years. I graduated, and the next year they took third place at state. The year after our terribly disappointing season, Mr. Ed, Mr. Steve, and their runners took the state by storm. That's what good coaches do. And if anyone told me that Lovie Smith was not a good coach just because he doesn't show enough emotion on the sideline, I would have to disagree vehemently.
I was an elite high school athlete. Only the elite of the elite get scholarships to college programs. After college only the elite of the elite get a shot at the pros. In my estimation, that means professional football players are elite to the third power compared to me. Trust me, these guys don't need to be yelled at. They know when they screw up, and it bothers them as much (if not more) than it bothers their coaches. They don't want to be benched, and that's all the motivation they need.
Of course, Lovie Smith doesn't seem all that willing to bench players who perform badly. Ask me again if it bothers me that Lovie isn't very emotional on the sidelines, and I'll say, "Not at all." There is nothing wrong with a coach who speaks softly and carries a big stick. I think professional athletes appreciate a "quiet" coach who shows respect to his players by not bawling them out on national TV. However, if a head coach can't (or won't) bench a player who's struggling, I have a BIG problem. I don't know if there is any greater motivation in professional sports than the fear of being benched.