The Intellectual Coach: Kerr, Popovich, and the Culture of Coaching

By Andrew McGregor

Editor’s Note: The bulk of this post first appeared at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) Blog on January 25th. It has undergone slight revision and is being cross-posted here with permission.

Over the past year we’ve been witnessing a revival of athlete activism reminiscent of the “Revolt of the Black Athlete” of the late-1960s. Sportswriters, fans, and historians have offered commentary on this development, pointing to events like the University of Missouri football boycott, the outspokenness of Colin Kaepernick, and statement by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at the 2016 ESPY Awardsat the 2016 ESPY Awards. Yet, the statements of supportive coaches, like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have received relatively less attention and hardly any analysis. Popovich and Kerr have used the spotlight like few before them, engaging political and social commentary becoming a new kind of public intellectual.

In this post I propose that we look at coaches as intellectuals and sometimes activists, operating within a covertly politicized profession at the forefront of the Culture Wars. I admit that my thoughts here are rough and at times incomplete, but I hope that this framework will allow us to not just consider the statements of current coaches like Popovich and Kerr, but also re-evaluate past figures to more fully dissect the culture of coaching and analyze how coaches operate in public life. Indeed, as L.D. Burnett observed in her comment at the S-USIH blog, this framework may also allows us to better understand the patriarchal and gendered nature of coaching and sports more broadly.

Both figures (Kerr & Popovich) have expressed their support for athlete protests, specifically Colin Kaepernick, and disdain for police brutality. Kerr told USA Today, As long as the message is clear, I’m all for people speaking out against injustice. Whatever form that takes, if it’s non-violent and it leads to conversation, then I think that’s a good thing.” Popovich agreed, saying “I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown?” “I respect their courage for what they’ve done,” he added.

Their comments are important because they pushback against the traditional role and position of coaches as conservative and disciplinarian figures. While it is not uncommon for coaches to take an interest in politics — and even run for political office after their sports careers conclude — they often do so as symbols of the status quo, as conservatives trying to protect certain values that they see are missing or under attack in America. Coaches tend to view themselves as on the frontline of “Making American Great Again” by turning boys into men; by fighting for victories and acting as father figures. Traditionally coaches have become political in a paternal “this is how it should be” sort of way, not as allies to social movements or minorities. This mentality can be clearly seen in a 1969 Sports Illustrated article on “The Desperate Coach.” Former basketball coach Melvin Cratsley described the gloomy future after he was fired for being “too disciplined.”

“Athletics are the last stronghold of discipline on the campus. It may be that they are in a life-or-death struggle of their own. I read somewhere—I clipped it out—that the aim of the New Left is to replace the athlete with the hippie as the idol of kids. I don’t know if it can be done, but it seems society is intent on destroying Horatio Alger Jr. The oddball is getting control. The good guy is outnumbered. America seems interested only in glorifying the loser.”

The Desperate Coach, Sports Illustrated, 25 August 1969.

The Desperate Coach, Sports Illustrated, 25 August 1969.

Indeed, John Underwood, the article’s author, described the coaches he interviewed as “victims” of changing times. Throughout the article, the coaches often describe students and faculty as enemies. While they stop short of calling it a liberal conspiracy, Underwood explains that “To the coaches it often seems as though the faculty is simply in cahoots with the students in their disdain for traditional verities.” “The Desperate Coach,” anticipates modern conservatism, lending it numerous talking point common in today’s political discourse.

UCLA coach Tommy Prothro bemoaned the new era comparing it to his own playing days. “It’s no longer the autocratic society it was when I played, where a Bob Neyland or a Wallace Wade would just say, ‘You do it because I say so.’ Now you have to explain yourself. The logic behind it. The philosophy.” Coaches like Prothro had little patience for athletes asking “why” and seeking explanations for the rules and coaching methods they deployed.

The coaches did not see the irony in their nostalgia for an autocratic structure amidst the Cold War, seeing discipline and obedience as integral behavior to winning and strengthening the collective team, rather than the oppressive tactics of strongmen. Instead they saw the fate of democracy at stake as the precarious balance of loyalty seemed to be swiveling off-kilter.

“I recruited that boy thinking he was Jack Armstrong,” Dee Andros, Oregon State’s coach described one promising player who quit his team, likening him to the popular “All-American boy” radio character. “I was wrong,” Andros conceded, “He turned out to be a freethinker.”

While Andros’ glib swipe at freethinking may lead some to label him an anti-intellectual, an alternative reading positions him — along with Cratsley and Prothro — as a conservative public intellectual trying to diagnose and lay bare the problems inherent in the New Left. Indeed, they build on the long tradition of coaches as watchdogs over American youth, following the model of Amos Alonzo Stagg and Glenn “Pop” Warner who used their positions to shape and extol the social gospel of sports in popular articles published in glossy weekly magazines and fatherly advice in their “books for boys.”

Although “The Desperate Coach” only surveys college coaches, its findings largely reflect the culture and ideology of coaches in the professional setting as well. In the pro’s we hear about players coaches, but never activist coaches. They may be allies behind the scenes supportive privately for the sake of team chemistry or to shield themselves, but speaking out is rare. Certainly monetary considerations and the lack of stability in the professional leagues contribute to the reticence of outspoken coaches. But at the professional level, which has grown more prominent in the TV age and now overshadows much of the college landscape, the job description is inherently different. Coaches are tasked with being leaders, setting the tone for a team, and winning. They don’t have to recruit, mentor, and develop athletes in the same way college coaches do. Furthermore, fans and owners value winning more than anything else. As we’ve seen in the NFL with its handling of domestic violence and other issues, fans, owners, and even the commissioner care little about the off-field activity of athletes. Instead, they want their coaches to be workaholics, in control, and obsessed with winning. Politics, or any other kind of “distraction,” are believed to undermine the ultimate goal, deviating resources away from winning. These expectations of mono focused, hyper attentive coaches box them into a conservative framework, where the default is an aloof, disengaged, disciplinarian coach that snarls at any activity or question that challenges their authority or takes the focus off of trying to win.

To be sure, I am speaking in generalities here, but I think dozens of past and present coaches fit this bill. From past figures like Bear Bryant and John Mckay mentioned in the Sports Illustrated article to current coaches such as Bill Belichik, Mike Krzyzewski, and Bill Snyder, this culture remains an integral part of sports. Coaches continue to serves as respected public intellectual for their innovation, and organizational and schematic genius. We celebrate them as brilliant football minds and as molders of men. They often embody many of the qualities we respect and desire as apolitical and uniquely American — even though they aren’t. This why the legacy of these coaches, and others — such as Joe Paterno and Bobby Knight — are difficult to question. They are unequivocal leaders that achieved success; greatness.

I doubt many Americans would think the same of Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, though their records are impressive. Both have won five or more NBA championships. Popovich has five as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs while Kerr won five as a player (three with the Chicago Bulls and two with the San Antonio Spurs) and one as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. Maybe it is because the NBA is less of a “coaches’ game” than the NFL or college sports. Regardless, both coaches have emerged as a new type of public intellectual in the sports world. They’ve stripped away the much of the conservative obstinance and cliches in favor of a more raw, straight-talk approach. While Popovich is known to be prickly with the media, he and Kerr have also offered many thoughtful comments on current social and political issues.

While I contend that Popovich and Kerr are behaving in new ways, several commenters at S-USIH suggest that Dean Smith serves as at least one forerunner. Smith described his approach towards activism in his autobiography:

I just wasn’t comfortable using the podium provided me as head basketball coach at North Carolina to talk about myself, and I certainly had no desire or hidden agenda to tell others how to live their lives, how to behave, or what to believe. Except on a few occasions (such as taking a public stand calling for a verifiable nuclear freeze, signing a petition against the death penalty, and working with Bob Seymour and others at Binkley Church to attempt to break down racial barrier in our town and state), I declined invitations to endorse products and political candidates, even though I had some strong opinions on my candidates. It wasn’t that I felt disenfranchised as a basketball coach, but I also wasn’t Ruler of the Universe. I tried to be careful which torches I carried, as well as judicious in the comments I did make.

This honest assessment speaks to Smith’s thoughtfulness as well as the culture of coaching and the difficulty in being a public figure. In his autobiography he discusses his religion, personal views, and politics in more depth, offering a peak inside how he viewed the world. It is easy to be effusive when describing Smith’s character, yet as a coach during the Revolt of the Black Athlete he remained silent. I’m not trying to unfairly judge him, but I think this is one place where he differs from Kerr and Popovich, at least in terms of activism. Regardless, I think he belongs in the discussion of coaches as public-intellectuals and studying his career will help us more deeply understand the culture of coaching.

Beyond their own comments, Kerr and Popovich are also supportive of players — like Kaepernick — who wish to speak out. As Popovich explained:

“My players are engaged citizens who are fully capable of understanding what their values are, and what they think is appropriate and inappropriate, and what they feel strongly about. Whatever actions may or may not be taken are their decisions, and I’m not going to tell anyone ahead of time that if they don’t do A, B and C, they’re going to be gone or traded. I think that’s ignorant.”

His comments starkly contrast from those of “The Desperate Coach,” conveying his respect for the players on his team as equals. He recognizes their intellectual ability and values their expression of it as an important part of who they are as individuals. Unlike other coaches, Popovich sees thinking, speaking, protesting as inherent parts of American life, rather than activities that must be monitored, policed, or reluctantly embraced due to Constitutional freedoms. At the heart of his statement is a deep trust in his players, a faith in their ability to think and act, to make decisions, and to be aware of the world around them. Popovich is fearless. He is not scared of his players’ ability to think or speak. He is not worried about them embarrassing him because he knows it is not about him.

Kerr also enjoys dialoguing with his players about important issues, and like Popovich, he respects their views. After Kaepernick began his protest, he told The Undefeated that he “talked to some of the guys” because they asked him about it. They wondered, “What does it mean to you?” he said, “I’ve kind of given them my opinion. We’ve shared thoughts. That’s kind of the way we do things around here.” “We like to talk about stuff, basketball or not,” Kerr continued, “It’s probably one of the best things that’s come out of the Kaepernick issue is that people are talking about it. It’s a good thing.”

Open communication is important to Kerr. It’s a part of deciding how to use your voice and when to take stand. The dialogue among coaches and players help them find the right balance. “It’s a tricky topic. Not the Kaepernick situation, but social activism in general,” Kerr explained. “There are a lot of fans out there that say, ‘Stick to sports. We’re trying to get away from this by watching your team play. I understand that. On the other hand, these guys have a voice.” Unlike coaches of the 1960s, Kerr sees sports as only one part of his players’ lives.

Kerr admits that he has felt that pressure in his own activism. “When you’re in the limelight, you do have to think, ‘Do I want to say something? Am I right person to say this?’”

Both Popovich and Kerr have decided that they are the right people to speak out and foster dialogue. Popovich has offered extended commentary on President Donald Trump, and Kerr has chimed in too. Kerr has also shared his experience using medical marijuana for pain relief as well as the personal story of his father’s murder by terrorists in speaking out against gun violence. Together they are forging new ground, breaking the stereotype of the conservative coach defending the status quo and quelling dissent, and embracing their roles like activists athletes before them to become a new kind of activist, intellectual coach. It remains to be seen whether other coaches will follow in their footsteps

In an industry that traditionally leans right, it is easy to disregard Popovich and Kerr as simply rare liberal-leaning coaches. Some may similarly describe them as not a new phenomena but rather as bringing a balance to the social and political perspectives shared by coaches. These critiques neglect the historical absence of coaches as allies to outspoken black athletes and dismiss the role of the coach in the culture war over American masculinity. Popovich and Kerr are asserting themselves as leaders who respect and encourage thoughtful dialogue on social and political issues. Their comments serve as an important step in recognizing and appreciating the intellectual merit for African American athletes, which has historically been denigrated and downplayed. Likewise, their comments show that coaches — and other leaders — can achieve success and earn respect by treating others as equals. The sports world is fraught with unequal power dynamics and intimidation to keep athletes inline, Popovich and Kerr model team environments that reject those antiquated practices. As their own stances show, they operate in a world where they can think freely, speak freely, and act freely. As leaders and as intellectuals, they understand that white American masculinity is not under attack and offer an alternative worldview empowered by thoughtful and respectful dialogue.

Kerr and Popovich continued this approach over the weekend as the country reacted to President Trump’s Executive Order restricting travel and immigration. Citing his father’s death at the hand of terrorists, Kerr criticized the move, “If we’re trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, by really going against the principles that this country is about and creating fear, it’s the wrong way to go about it.”  “If anything, we could be breeding anger and terror,” he added. Popovich agreed, and likened the roll out of the new policy to the Keystone Kops.

The outrage over Trump’s policy has led a number of sports journalists and athletes to speak out in a trend Noah Cohan has championed as #EndStickToSports. While it is impossible to know the extent of Kerr and Popovich’s influence, it is undeniable that their willingness to share their thoughts have shaped public discourse.

Andrew McGregor, PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American Studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

3 thoughts on “The Intellectual Coach: Kerr, Popovich, and the Culture of Coaching

  1. Very good and thoughtful post, Andrew. I hope this post and other works can help us critically examine coaching, public intellectualism, and activism in realms of masculinity and competition. I will briefly add that the NBA, while imperfect as a league and system throughout the years (the post-Detroit brawl “dress code,” for example), arguably has a better record on issues of race and activism than some other sports league. The hiring and promotion of African American coaches is one historical area, for years surpassing the NFL’s performance. More recently, and later but not never for the tastes of some, the NBA responded and with vigor to ban Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after outspoken anger and potential threats from the Clippers and Warriors during the 2014 playoffs to boycott a nationally televised playoff game, when Sterling’s racist beliefs and comments (if not history of racist business practices) became public. Popovich in particular presents an interesting case in that he blends public and personal intellectualism and thoughtful social critiques with a plainspoken approach to coaching that lead some (to me mistakenly) to characterize him as “old school.” I think that view plainly misses how Popovich, as an intellectual as well as a coach, has adapted to complex eras of and changes in basketball (faster paced and more wide open than the mid to late 1990s, more 3’s, less low-post play), activism, and society.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jason. Your point about the NBA is right on, and something I struggled to fully flesh out in this piece. We definitely need to spend more time thinking about how and why basketball as a sport has been able to operate and more successfully (at times) navigate issues of race and activism. In this post I am operating on an assumption that sports culture and coaching culture is relatively similar across various leagues and games, but I think with further research we might come to see that my assumption is wrong and not all sporting cultures are the same. This presents some interesting questions about authority, masculinity, etc. when comparing sports as well as coaching styles and league policies. It’s something I never really considered before this post.

      I also agree that there are several dimensions to what “intellectualism” might look like, including coaching innovation and adaptation. My focus here is more on the social critique and political statements because that deviates from what I see as the norm, but you’re right, it is important not to privilege a certain type of intellectualism over another. That’s the fun thing about writing things these kinds of posts and getting comments like yours — they help us all (re)consider different aspects and perspectives.

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  2. Pingback: The Politics of Sports in Trump’s America | Sport in American History

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