One of Rice's former players, Gilvydas Biruta, told ESPN.com's Don Van Natta Jr. that he left Rutgers "because of the way [Rice] was leading the team." (The videos show Rice pushing Biruta, berating him, and throwing a ball that hits him in the knee.) More telling is that six current and former players said "they found no problem with Rice's coaching techniques." Player Tyree Graham told Van Natta that "he understood why Rice used those tactics, because people 'disrespected' Rutgers in the Big East and he wanted to simulate opponents' disrespectful attitudes during practice."
The reactions of the Rutgers players aren't surprising. In February, Cal basketball coach Mike Montgomery shoved star player Allen Crabbe during a game. Montgomery expressed remorse, and he wasn't suspended. Crabbe said after the game it was "under the bridge," though his mother wasn't as forgiving, saying, "I'm probably having a hard time putting it behind me." Morehead State coach Sean Woods also shoved a player during a game, and the school suspended him for one game. Woods at first said he was just doing his job then later acknowledged that his behavior "was inappropriate and unacceptable." One player, whose shirt Woods had pulled, said he liked playing for him. "I had a strong connection with him," Luka Pajkovic said at the time. "What happened the other night, that's nothing. That's the way he coaches." He added, "He was on me the whole year. . . . He expected a lot from me and that's why he does that, to get you motivated."
Maybe the lesson here is that coaches who get in players' faces need to be warned, even if schools shouldn't make physical contact with players the basis of a zero-tolerance policy. Bullying coaches may not be widely tolerated, but as the reaction of the six Rutgers players sticking up for Rice shows, they still have their supporters. Context matters, especially a coach's relationship with his or her players. In one 1989 study of authoritarian and democratic coaching styles, neither type prevailed. The authors suggested that "the most successful coach may be especially effective when she or he correctly adapts to the needs of particular players and situations, sometimes being demanding, other times supportive. The unsuccessful coach may be the most unyielding or the one least adept at knowing when a change is required." In other words, as Slate writer Byron Boneparth points out, "good coaches are flexible and responsive (maybe)."