When the coaching grid at every level went a little haywire over the weekend, the winningest coach in Georgia football history did what he often does and thought about the guy he succeeded for that title.
“Maybe Dan Pitts was right,” said Lincoln County’s Larry Campbell when asked for his reaction to the horrifying postgame fight between two of his Region 7-A rivals that left one of his coaching brethren badly injured.
Campbell often defers to Pitts, who won 346 games at Mary Persons High School in Forsyth, Ga., before retiring in 1997. Even though Campbell sailed past Pitts’ record more than 100 wins ago in 2002, the Red Devils’ legend claims he wasn’t “in the same league” as the coach he considers the best to ever come through the state.
With three highly publicized postgame coaching incidents on consecutive days at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, Campbell once again recalled Pitts’ unique vision.
“Dan Pitts had a rule,” Campbell said. “He never shook hands with the other coaches or had players shake hands after the game. We played them a couple of times and that upset some of our people. But that was his policy because he had a skirmish like that break out one time. So he shook hands before the game and told you his rule, and that was fine.”
The postgame handshakes are a staple of the games we play. It is an act of sportsmanship and camaraderie that illustrates all the best attributes of athletic competition.
But as the events of the previous weekend show, it can also be a flash-point that sparks extended tension from the game that just concluded.
On Friday night in Sparta, Ga., Warren County coach David Daniel had bones in his face “crushed” when he intervened in a fight between his players and Hancock Central’s and got smashed over the head with a helmet.
On Saturday night in Nashville, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham engaged in a midfield shouting match with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin that nearly escalated in the team’s brawling after a frenetic finish to their Southeastern Conference matchup.
Then on Sunday afternoon in Detroit, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz chased San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh down the field and had to be restrained after objecting to an overly enthusiastic hand shake and back slap from the guy who had just beaten his team.
We all understand that football is a violent game played by overgrown children, but does it need to be coached that way as well?
“I hate the fact that at the end of the game we can’t shake hands and get off the field like gentlemen,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said in the unseemly aftermath of his Bulldogs’ narrow 33-28 victory. “We are grown men and we all need to act that way. But we’re also competitors.”
At some point, the postgame handshake has become a cliche that practically invites confrontation. Whether the game was particularly intense or one team ran up a score or did something else the other found offensive, we have come to expect it to be dealt with in the immediate seconds when the clock hits zeros. Cameramen, reporters, players, coaches and often fans all converge onto the middle of the field. Most of the time it’s cordial, other times terse and, on occasion, tense. The whole scene is always under a microscope and often analyzed.
It’s dicey enough in the SEC that coaches are almost always accompanied by a uniformed state trooper until they reach the locker rooms. Warren County could have used that kind of support last Friday night.
It doesn’t seem like much to ask for these grown men to play nice for just a few seconds in the public eye. After all, hockey players who might have just fought can line up like civilized men.
However, most of these same athletes and coaches can’t be trusted to speak to the media without a reasonable cooling off period to collect their thoughts and come down from the competitive high they’ve just engaged in for several hours. Wouldn’t it seem reasonable that they might need a similar pause before being expected to confront the guys who they were just clashing with?
It certainly seems that way when you hear the coaches say they got caught up in the moment without a moment’s notice.
“I was just really revved up and that is totally on me,” said Harbaugh of his slap-grab handshake encounter with Schwartz.
Said Schwartz: “I went to congratulate Coach Harbaugh and got shoved out of the way. And then I didn’t expect an obscenity at that point, so it was a surprise to me at the end of the game.”
At Vandy, Franklin chose the worst moment to raise his complaints.
“Some things were said that I didn’t think were appropriate and I tried to find Coach Richt to address it and I couldn’t find Coach Richt and I happened to have a discussion with one of their assistant coaches and it didn’t go well,” he said.
Grantham said he stepped to the defense of his players (rather vulgarly based on my lip-reading skills). “While my intentions were genuine, I feel it was unfortunate that things escalated to a confrontation,” he said.
In his postgame interview, Franklin used words that illustrate the football mentality that makes these occasional conflicts inevitable.
“We’re also going to fight and I want to make sure everybody understands that,” he said. “We are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Anybody. No one. Those days are long gone and they are never coming back. Ever.”
Even in the days since each incident, nobody has sincerely apologized.
“It’s not a war with real bullets but it’s war in a sense,” Richt said. “Tempers do get flared up. And we’ve got to mind our blood getting hot. But we are grown men and we all need to act that way. We’re also competitors and we all have emotions and sometimes when you get a little bit fired up it’s hard not to keep from getting in a jawing contest. I’ll say this, there were times in the game where I was ashamed of some of the choice words that came out of my mouth. I’ve got to be disciplined, too.”
Maybe Pitts was onto something all those years ago. Maybe grown children can’t be trusted to control themselves in the immediate aftermath on the “battlefield.” Maybe they should deal with the camaraderie and sportsmanship before things get heated and then go their separate ways until things get cooler.
“It may come to that,” Campbell said. “It’s a shame, but you saw how quickly things can get intense. It may come to that.”