That holds for disciplines both familiar and foreign.
“Managing is like holding a dove in your hand,” said the one-time Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda. “Squeeze too hard and you kill it: not hard enough and it flies away.” Put more simply, though far less eloquently, it is the old balancing act between the carrot and the stick.
Last Sunday, Jim Gavin found himself answering questions that few thought would wing his way this summer after Donegal’s incredible defeat of his All-Ireland champions in Croke Park. Gavin’s tactics were, by then, already being undermined by supporters, journalists and pundits, who were asking just why Dublin had not attempted to shore up a back-line dissolving like a Panadol in water.
Gavin could have pointed the finger elsewhere. He could have blamed the missed goal opportunities in the first half. He could have lamented the, well, lamentable finishing by some of his best players, particularly in that second half when a collective loss of composure and stray shooting cost his side a chance to close the gap to a single score as the clock wound down. He didn’t.
“I’m just disappointed for the players, to be honest,” was his dignified if unenlightening take on it all. “I know the level of preparation they put into this game was phenomenal and I couldn’t question their determination, their commitment and their resolve to the bitter end to keep going at it.”
Rewind more or less 24 hours and a man named George O’Leary was sitting in the exact same seat in the media room underneath the Hogan Stand. To say his attitude was different wouldn’t do it justice. The defeated University of Central Florida coach was effusive in his praise of Penn State and Ireland, but his own lads didn’t feel the same love.
Nor the press, for that matter. Here’s a taster.
Reporter: “Coach, do you think your replacement quarterback [Justin Holman] did enough today to earn a start next time out? O’Leary: “That’s my decision and if I want to talk about it, I’ll talk about it. You’re just a cub reporter, right?”
Reporter: “Had you seen Holman make those sort of big plays in practice before today?”
O’Leary: “You’ve been at practice every day. Why are you asking questions like that?”
At that point, you guessed O’Leary was just doing what so many coaches and managers have always done and that is take out his foul, post-defeat mood on the people asking him questions he would rather not answer. Then someone went and addressed him as ‘George’ and you expected the earth to shake.
If it did, then it was the 50-something players in the nearby locker room who felt the tremor. Starting quarterback Pete DiNovo, in particular. “I told him at half-time that he wasn’t moving the chains. I didn’t like the way he was handling things out there. He was just all over the place a little bit. I said ‘let’s give him the next series and see if we can move the chains and go from there’ and that was it.”
DiNovo was joined in the doghouse by more than a few of his fellow student athletes. The defence got an especially thorough filleting for basically not trying hard enough — ouch — while even Holman, who almost rescued the game, had his pre-season throwing in practice dismissed as too high, too inefficient and too slow.
It isn’t as if such grouchiness has done O’Leary or UCF any harm. The 68-year-old has transformed the UCF Knights from nothing football programme to a contender, achieving one of the greatest turnarounds in history a year into the job, back in 2005, while last season they pulled off one of the biggest college football upsets of the last 25 years, defeating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
Which just goes to show that tough love isn’t all bad. Even when it is made public. Over this side of the Atlantic, that is a no-no. Coaches and managers criticising players in public are deemed bad sports. Remember December 2008, when Hull City manager Phil Brown conducted his half-time dressing down on Manchester City’s Eastlands pitch?
There have been moments when the dressing-room seal has been broken here, too: Pat Gilroy’s observation that his players were like “startled earwigs” was a tame example, Babs Keating’s famous declaration that his 1998 Offaly side were sheep in a heap a more prickly version of the same species.
But imagine what the sports world would be like if we had more George O’Learys and Babs Keatings willing to call out their own or themselves: referees wouldn’t be hounded over decisions made in the split of a second, cribbing over venues, dates and all manner of other slights perceived and real would be relegated to the margins of our thoughts and copy.
Then again, the players probably wouldn’t take too kindly.
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