In an era when egotism and narcissism will more than ever define our nation’s leadership and profile, one can appreciate all the more former Wake Forest University coach Jim Grobe’s thankless gesture of temporarily coaching Baylor University’s football team at a time when some fans stubbornly demanded head football coach Art Briles’ return and regent leadership engaged in escalating battles with alumni, donors and even BU’s assistant coaches.
While most of the vitriol wasn’t leveled at Grobe, the most savage criticisms made about Baylor’s football team, athletic staff and high regency only made his lonely job tougher. Yet, win or lose, Grobe and his team rate plaudits for continuing to play competitive games many weekends. He stressed optimism, resilience. As player Patrick Levels noted admiringly, Grobe “came here and tried to help us get out of the rut we were in.”
Indeed, as the 64-year-old interim coach made his decision not to return next season official this week, all who respect courage, sacrifice and resolve can only applaud Grobe’s mission, undertaken in the wake of Baylor regents’ decision to fire Briles last May following a nine-month investigation of sexual assaults at Baylor, including institutional indifference regarding victims and questionable oversight of some athletes. We don’t ordinarily allot heroic adjectives to those involved in the business of athletics, but in this case they’re very clearly justified.
“The overwhelming majority of our student-athletes at Baylor are absolutely wonderful kids who make our university proud every day,” Grobe said in June, shortly after meeting a team he didn’t know and assistant coaches fiercely loyal to their former boss. “Our football team is no exception. We have a fantastic group of guys who are extremely saddened by what has happened. We are deeply regretful that the actions of a few can hurt so many.”
Grobe’s announcement Monday will no doubt be lost in the din of debate over Texas coach Charlie Strong, fired Saturday for his losing record but championed by many fans for his strict demands of UT players, including rules that they treat women with respect, wear no earrings in athletic buildings, take notes in class, sit in the front two rows of all classes and, if they miss a class, run till it hurts. Grobe too sought to emphasize integrity and discipline among his wounded charges, even as other elements seemed to conspire against him. Some of these forces were close to home.
Briles won acclaim for building a winning football program and touting a philosophy of second chances. However, as we seek answers to how his prescription for success failed athletes and many others, it’s important to remember coaching has long been equated with molding character as well as athletic prowess and, yes, winning. And in the grander scheme of a successful life, the former ranks as far more important than even the latter points of pride.