So Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said some sorta poor-sport-y stuff after his Badgers lost the NCAA championship game to Duke last night. In the video below, he can’t get through the pro forma talk of how much his graduating players meant to him without tossing in a passive-aggressive aside about how “we don’t do a rent-a-player.”
In the next one, he can’t even get a full sentence into how proud he is of his players before starting in on how the referees made the game unfair for them.
The “rent-a-player” gripe sounds like a pretty clear shot at one-and-done players, especially since Duke’s star players, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, are freshmen who’ll likely turn pro in a few months. (Too clear, maybe. After mentioning the rent-a-players, Ryan seems to catch himself and immediately pump-fakes with a reference to fifth-year seniors who transfer into big programs for a one-season run at a championship.) He is saying this by way of noting how much more profoundly he and his seniors have bonded because they spent four years together: I forge meaningful relationships with my players, unlike these other guys who care only about winning. He’s congratulating himself on losing virtuously. Which is silly for the obvious reasons, like the flamboyantly fictional notion that Ryan’s program lacks these players because it doesn’t want them, and not because they don’t want to be part of it.
By contrast, his griping about the level of physical violence allowed by the refs is just plain old crankiness. It’s also pretty funny, coming from the coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. The Wisconsin Freaking Badgers! The very avatars of the grueling, grinding, 42-39, collisions-and-free-throws Big Ten style! It wasn’t so long ago that a typical Wisconsin game was like watching a wrestling match between a drunk and a fucking elm tree. The refs would’ve had to have passed out lead pipes and PCP the other night at Lucas Oil before the level of physical play even approached the spectrum of Big Ten basketball in which Wisconsin’s teams historically have thrived.
All of this has brought Bo Ryan in for some scorn—for not handling the loss as graciously as he ought to have, for being a poor sport, for bad leadership.
This is fair up to a point: the sour-grapey shit is lame, the kind of thing you roll your eyes at even when a kid does it after losing at Street Fighter. Still, if Ryan wasn’t exactly a model of post-loss serenity last night, none of what he said amounts to more than harmless steam-venting. In the context of who Bo Ryan is, and what fans and the media demand from coaches (and athletes) the entire rest of the time, the only thing out of place here is the unfair and very silly expectation that they’ll be ready to put on a display of gracious sportsmanship in the immediate aftermath of a bitter loss.
Put another way: If you’re losing respect for Bo Ryan for this, consider what you respected him for to begin with. This inability to let go of a loss is a lot nearer to the heart of his success than mystical leadership qualities. We only know who he is is because he’s a hypercompetitive lunatic.
When a coach works 20-hour days—when he sleeps on his office couch; when he reviews film until his eyeballs turn to sand; when he hits the recruiting trail hours after his season ends and stays on it until hours before the next one begins; when he does this year after year after year even though virtually all of those years end with some form of disappointment or another—fans and the media sing hosannas to his dedication, without considering the reality that only an insane goddamn maniac with a downright pathological fixation on winning could sustain that dedication for more than a couple of days without collapsing. It’s a job you can’t even get, much less hold, unless you’re ambitious and driven beyond all reason and sense of probability; a dude who can settle for the humanist self-fulfillment of giving it his best shot and forming some great friendships and memories along the way, who handles setbacks with equanimity and perspective and does not seethe and roil and refuse and rage at each one of them, does not come within shouting distance of a Division I job interview. He looks at the job requirements and declines to apply for it. To a man, these people are fucking psychos; most of them, given the choice between a busload of doe-eyed orphans and a shiny trophy, would roll the bus into a gorge and use its crumpled wreck as a stepping stone to get the trophy. And they’re praised and rewarded for it.
And then, when one of these goddamn madmen grinds his miserable way within reach—a nine-point lead! seven minutes to play!—of his long-shot goal, the remote summit toward which he orients his entire singleminded existence, and falls short ... fans and sportswriters who know full well (and sometimes even celebrate) the depths of his fanaticism expect him to walk out of the losing locker room 10 minutes later and go, Hey I’m just proud of our guys, it’s been a great journey and we’re all winners because we got to go on it together. Like it’s a team of 6-year-olds who just lost at tee-ball and next he’s gonna take ’em out for pizza and juice. Like he didn’t completely hollow out his life and refill it with nothing but the pursuit of this one game, only to have it snatched away from him by a bunch of fleeting shit he’ll be replaying in his mind for the rest of his bitter life. Like being the kind of guy who could let that stuff go wouldn’t disqualify him from being in position to answer those questions in the first place.
The difference between the coaches who can pull this off and the ones who can’t isn’t sportsmanship or integrity or decency. All of these men are frothing lunatics; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. The same goes for their players: Stick a microphone in a hypercompetitive young dude’s face a few minutes after the biggest and most painful failure of his life, and maybe you’ll find that he’s not brimming over with warm feelings toward the guys who defeated him. If the interaction offends your sense of smell, the stink is coming from the reporters and pundits pretending there’s anything surprising or scandalous about it—that it reveals anything we didn’t already know about the losers and the winners.
The best you can say for the coaches who can pull off the display of postgame grace and dignity that fans and sportswriters demand of them is that they’ve received better media training than the ones who can’t—that their mask of sanity insulates heat better than Bo Ryan’s. Is that something to praise them for? This ferocious competitor can hide the very attributes that brought him here for whole minutes at a time. Good psycho. Keep that nonsense. The time to have thoughts about grace, leadership, and good sportsmanship comes before you expect them from a maniac.
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