Jen Floyd Engel

The student athletes from Michigan, Kansas, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast descended upon Texas on Thursday, on a school night nonetheless.

They came in private jets. They stayed in swank digs. They study film, not biology. They generate crazy money for everybody not bearing their names.

The great lie of college athletics is amateurism. And its ancillary is coaches are gods. Because the players are not professional athletes, because they switch out every year or every four years, because they are unpaid labor, the coach has been elevated to this lofty perch as the only person that matters.

It is why there is a bidding war for Shaka Smart, and why Brad Stevens turning down UCLA in a tweet feels like huge news.

We have come to believe, in college basketball, nobody is more important than the coach. We have built a Mt. Rushmore of Dean, Coach K, Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim, Bill Self, John Calipari, Rick Pitino and on and on and on while relegating the players to props they expertly move around on dry-erase boards.

This, too, is a lie. And this is the real power of Florida Gulf Coast being in the Sweet 16. Not only are they the first No. 15 seed to advance this far in the NCAA Tournament, not only did they take down Georgetown handily and now have a shot at Florida, they so perfectly debunk the lie. Their coach Andy Enfield seems to grasp that players win games and he lets them play in the opening rounds of the tournament.

“Dunk City,” as they have taken to calling themselves, is fun to watch not simply because of the underdog angle, but because this is players being allowed to play basketball. The tomahawk jams, the windmill dunks, the shrugged shoulders when something failed, the big smiles, the constant running, the lack of the coach interjecting himself into every single second of every game.

Most of what drives me crazy about college basketball is how little fun everybody looks to be having. Players look like they are miserable. And there is always the screen shot of the coach on the sideline, whoever he is, grimacing about whatever it is. This, we are told, is because coaching is very serious business. It is actually because it is big business.

With no players to pay and certain standards of Ws and dollars to be fulfilled, all of the money and prestige and pressure lands on the coaches. They become the face of the program, eagerly buying into this role as expert tactician, motivator and molder of young men because, again, this is amateur athletics.

What exactly are they being molded into exactly?

It depends on the coach, of course, but there are too many programs where what they are being molded into are props, names we never quite learn, faces we certainly do not recognize who are winning games so Coach K can do American Express commercials.

 

Some will say this is a fair trade. Others, myself included, cry bs.

The best coaches, and Self springs to mind for me probably because I saw a lot of his team in the tournament a year ago, recognize the absurdity of this. They realize a lot of their genius is really a product of whom they recruit, what houses they can get in and how much they can get out of the way.

This is not to say coaching does not matter. It does. There were shades of this in the Indiana and Marquette games Thursday. It just does not mean everything. These guys are not gods. Their players are not props. And the evidence will be playing Florida.

In the Sweet 16.

As a No. 15 seed.

With most of America hoping they win.

And that is what happens when a coach lets his kids play.

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