Disturbing New Trend: “Win at all Costs”

Joel Mowbray
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Posted: Dec 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Because he didn’t run a “win at all costs” program, Frank Solich is no longer a head coach.  He was not ousted from an NFL or NBA team, but from a college football program.  University of Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson explicitly stated that the reason he canned Solich is that the coach was not running a “win at all costs” program.

  The truly sad part of all this is that “win at all costs” has turned into a larger cultural trend.

  The irony in Solich’s situation is that Nebraska is not a losing team.  Far from it, in fact.  The Cornhuskers ended the regular season ranked 21st in the nation with a record of 9-3, and now are headed for a major bowl game.  Two years ago, Solich guided his squad to a berth in the National Championship bowl game. 

  Nebraska did hit a rough patch last season—going 7-7—but Solich made the changes asked of him, primarily a reshuffling of the coaching squad.  And this season, the Cornhuskers rebounded from mediocrity, yet Solich is gone anyway.

  The Cornhuskers had built a program of almost unparalleled greatness during the 25-year tenure of former coach Tom Osborne, who left for health reasons in 1997 and is now a U.S. Congressman.  So Pederson’s high expectations for his coach are understandable.

  But Solich had already proven his ability to lead a top-notch team.  During his first six seasons as Cornhuskers coach, he had lost a mere seven games total.  Yet it didn’t matter in the end.

  Don’t worry about Solich, though.  Published reports indicate he will receive a severance package of anywhere from $700,000 to $1.8 million. 

  People should worry, though, about what his firing says about the state of not just college football, but amateur athletics generally.  Nebraska’s athletic director, in announcing his decision, placed little emphasis on anything other than Solich’s inability to create a “win at all costs” program. 

  No discussion on coaches impacting the lives of young, impressionable athletes or preparing young men to become productive members of society.  Sadly, those issues are being pushed to the back burner in the increasingly big money world of college sports.

  Just look at Penn State.

  The football coach in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, Joe Paterno, is the second-winningest coach in Division I-A college football.  Ever.  But because he’s had a few mediocre seasons, many Penn State alums and boosters are calling for Paterno’s head.  Never mind that Paterno built the Nittany Lions into a football powerhouse, replete with two national championships and a large national following. 

  Oh, and he places as much emphasis on turning out quality people as quality players.  Paterno’s athletes graduate at a higher rate than other Penn State students, and most of them find great success off-the-field after graduation.

  Unfortunately, “win at all costs” is not an entirely new trend.  Notre Dame sacked basketball coach Digger Phelps in 1992, even though Phelps had the most wins of any Fighting Irish coach in history and a graduation rate for his athletes that was much higher than that of the regular student body.  He had a bad season, and he was out.

  College sports used to be a realm where coaches like Paterno and Phelps were the norm, not the exception.  Today, however, coaches are increasingly told to “win at all costs.”

  Many observers have argued that college sports have been corrupted by the lucrative television and licensing contracts.  Maybe.  But maybe part of the problem is simply the desire to “win at all costs” itself that can be seen at all levels of amateur athletics.

  Fights break out at Little League games, with fists flying and jaws being broken.  Not too long ago, two parents fighting at a youth hockey game resulted in one of the men dying. 

  A competitive spirit is healthy, even necessary.  Kids should keep score and keep trying to win.  But not at all costs.  Losing with dignity is a too-often-forgotten virtue.  And not just in sports, but in life.

  Sports are important, not least because they can teach kids how to become better adults.  What we really need to worry about is what they do off-the-field in misguided attempts to “win at all costs.”