Ode to Coach Busken

I just slapped my 5-year-old on the head. He wasn't wearing a helmet. He stumbled a bit from the blow.

He squared up again like some tough guy, so I thumped him in the gut.

Call Child Protective Services. Call the principal and superintendent. Quit the team, call a parents' meeting. I'm Bernie Busken, defrocked coach at Mountain View High School, all over again. And I'm just about to do it again.

Yeah, sure, I actually pulled the punches, made them just hard enough to let the boy feel the next level of competition — the strength of a really weak kindergartner. And the slap was a barehanded pat during one of the faux karate matches he begs of me, but let's not get technical or fiddle with context.

It's all abuse. It's all violence. His laughter is sublimated agony. Physical scars can heal, Arizona Republic sportswriter turned feminist poet Pedro Gomez reminds us, but emotional scars last forever.

A World War II vet on my paper route who occasionally needed surgery because lodged shrapnel from a Japanese grenade would work its way into his spine disagreed with the Republic's beret-wearing Gomez. He said that, actually, the guys who got blown to bone meal around him would, if they weren't dead, argue that sticks and stones and grenades really are more painful than words.

Has anyone noticed that football is an extremely violent sport?

Has anyone noticed that Americans still worship men who show no fear in battle? Who run up stairs in burning buildings that are falling down? Who run, with evil intent, full speed the length of a football field at a guy running full speed in the opposite direction? Who find ways to win?

Does anyone still know how to get a large group of 21st-century American teens into the mindset in which they work their hardest and have no fear? Is it still possible?

I don't know how to do it. I can barely get my boys away from Nintendo to eat hot dogs.

Bernie Busken, the absurdly successful coach of the Mountain View High School football team, apparently knew how to do it. And, as coach of the state's premier high school football program, he was under immense pressure from parents and administrators to do it year after year.

So he did it his way and now he's gone, another old-school casualty of whiny, callow suburban kids and their duplicitous and incessantly meddling parents.

Busken said mean things. He once told a player he knew the kid was going to fail him (the kid did fail him, by the way). He drilled too hard. He grabbed facemasks and slapped kids on the helmet to get their attention (again, what sport is this?). He allowed some Mountain View hazing rituals to continue, rituals, I might add, that were one-tenth as painful as anything even the kicker endures from opponents on the field.

Still, Busken was clearly an asshole.

Like Jesse Parker before him, like Frank Kush at Arizona State University and hundreds of other coaches across the country who emerged from small towns or rough neighborhoods with mentors forged by the Depression and two world wars, Busken believed that mental and physical toughness is built through ferocious trial.

These guys were all assholes.

I lament the extermination of assholes.

And I am, like many fathers and coaches in modern America, profoundly confused about how hard to drive my boys toward the mental and physical toughness I believe they'll need to be happy and successful in this sometimes brutal world.

I have made my 9-year-old jog two miles with me for not cleaning his room. I have denied him Nintendo until he finished extra-credit homework and took a shot at doing three sets of 20 pushups, which he had done easily in wrestling two years before. I've grounded him for two weeks after watching him ignore his mother three times in 10 minutes.

He is a smart, strong kid who is doing well, and I tell him so with what I think is regularity. He most often acts like he's elated when I come home.

Still, one day I'm confident that I've helped make him good and that I'm a good dad; the next I'm sure I'm the dad I promised I'd never be.

There are two kinds of assholes, some of America's top coaches will tell you. There is the asshole who loves kids and is rough only toward the goal of making young men overachieve in battle. Cruel to be kind, tough love.

You hate these assholes during the season, then love them for the rest of your life. Most of the worthwhile men I know had a figure like this in their lives.

Then there is the sadistic, megalomaniacal asshole who brutalizes only to assert control and to win. Most of the worthwhile men I know take pride in having survived somebody like this in their lives.

I believe either type of asshole coach is still a win-win for teens.

The vote is still out on what kind of asshole Bernie Busken is.

Charlie McBride, Sun Devils offensive line coach under Frank Kush and, later, 19-year defensive coordinator for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, is widely considered to be one of those caring, compassionate assholes.

I called him at his home in Phoenix because he's spent 50 years in the vortex of this debate. His coach in south Chicago literally kicked his butt. He admits to being embarrassed about some of the helmet smacks and tongue lashes he used to give at ASU and Nebraska.

Over time, he learned to temper his temper, as Busken should have been allowed to do.

But McBride was still relentlessly tough. He was blunt. He screamed. He questioned a kid's heart until that kid showed heart. And he usually did. And then the coach gave heartfelt praise.

He worries that all those tough leaders, those guys who molded 20th-century American boys, will get the boot in the 21st century.

"I don't think there's any doubt this is a tougher time in which to coach a sport like football," McBride says. "It's a tough sport. You need to build tough kids to play it."

McBride echoes sentiments I've heard from just about every other effectively hard-nosed coach I know. Fathers today are much more likely to ride coaches for working their sons hard. Mothers are more likely to weigh in on the issue. Teens are much more likely to run to mommy and daddy and find an ally against their mean coach.

Parents are much more likely to crave the glory of football while having no concept of the violence and gut-wrenching preparations the game, played at its highest level, demands.

"My dad just loved watching when coach kicked my ass in practice," McBride says. "Now a coach is much more likely to get yelled at by the dad.

"It has spread through the whole society. A coach in high school now just needs a total hands-off policy and must know that any words can get him in trouble. It can seem like an impossible situation considering the task at hand."

Ditto in fatherhood. Ditto in war.

Larry Hawkins, president of the Institute for Athletics and Education at the University of Chicago, agreed with McBride:

"It's very tough these days for anyone to give a kid a rough time when the kid is messing up," Hawkins says. "It's an evolving situation, and I don't know if it's evolving for the better or worse for society."

I can't help believing, after watching the whiny little Mountain View players with cockeyed hats bashing their coach on television for not playing them, that this evolution can be anything other than bad.

We demand that a segment of the young males in our society are willing and capable of outrageous levels of violence and courage. They are our wrestlers and football players who become our soldiers, firemen and cops.

This country has benefited greatly from the skill with which its young men kill and the willingness with which its young men risk death. As the last 35 years have proven, enemies, like blitzing linebackers, take great joy in occasionally testing our willingness and ability to fight back.

And in the blood sports we love and the wars we must fight, to let young men be flabby dunderheads is to sentence them to injury, humiliation and death.

Bernie Busken may be hopelessly out of touch, a throwback too violent for his own good.

But in the worlds in which excellence in violence is demanded, he should still be allowed to be the fine leader he has proven to be at Mountain View.

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Robert Nelson