Stay in Your Own Locker Room

Jerome Tang is a really good basketball coach. As college basketball fans got to know him even better this March, they got to see what an even better man he appears to be. He seems to really connect with his players and fanbase by being open and honest, while allowing everyone to have fun. Even more importantly, he showed that all of the attention shown to him and his program did not spoil his perspective on sport and life when he went into the Florida Atlantic locker room after they defeated his team 79-76 to advance to the Final Four on Saturday. With his team coming up just short on the cusp of the programs first Final Four in 60 years and his own players hurting, he took it upon himself to go and congratulate the FAU players and staff and wish them well in their locker room. He certainly wasn’t doing this for attention or praise, but his actions soon went viral and he was praised for his grace in defeat. However, I disagree with his actions, and I don’t think what he did in the moment was right and shouldn’t be emmulated by other coaches.

In sports, there aren’t many more sacred places than a locker room. It’s the one place where players at any level can go to get away from the outside world. It’s the place where teammates share stories, make memories, and connect on a deeper level. It’s the place where coaches and players share some of their biggest personality traits and vulnerabilities. It’s a place where strangers don’t belong.

After a big win, a locker room is a place where a team goes to let out all of their trash talk about their opponent. It’s a place where a team goes to truly let loose to avoid trying to show up their opponent. The locker room is the place where the music drowns out anything else. A locker room after a big win is not a place to bring in a stranger. It’s not a time or place for someone to come in and kill that vibe. It’s not a place where players want to talk about respect for the opponent, win or lose. The lockeroom is a place where players can get out all of their emotions with their ‘family’ before confronting the rest of the world. It’s where you cry, you celebrate, you punch lockers, you dance with the people you trust most; It’s not a place for an opposing coach.

One of the longest traditions in sports is the postgame handshake. Recently there have been more and more incidents in these handshake lines with players and coaches getting into it, and quite honestly it is embarrassing. Of course, in our modern society people simply want to get rid of it. However, that is the place for players and coaches to share their respect and any other complimentary thoughts with each other. If you have nothing nice to say, you simply shake the other teams hand and move on. You can head to the locker room and bad-mouth and bash your opponent shortly afterwards with your own teammates. Somewhere in our modern society athletes and coaches have lost the ability to adhere to rules of respect and if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all. However, the handshake line is designed to be that opportunity to tell each opposing coach or player, if you wish, how much you respect and admire them for the way they just played the game.

But, back to Coach Tang. I truly believe he had nothing but the best of intentions when addressing the FAU basketball team. He undoubtedly sought out permission from the other staff to enter the locker room, but it puts the other team in such a tricky spot. How do you win the biggest game in school history and then say no to the opposing coach that wants to speak to your team? In the eyes of the public, you now become a bunch of arrogant winners. Same if your team lost. I hate when opposing coaches speak to the other team after losing to tell them how great they played. They want to hear that from their own coaches, not from a stranger. Those FAU players likely were in the middle of the greatest celebration they’ve ever known, only to have to settle down to listen to an opposing coach they had never known or met. It’s like when the weird relative or friend at a wedding wants to make a toast out of nowhere. The music stops, the vibe is killed, and everyone just wonders when it will be over. If Coach Tang wanted to tell the FAU players how much he respected them and how much he hoped they won the national championship, he should have done it in the handshake line.

I sat and thought about this for a while the past couple of days. I can say with certainty that I have been in over 500 handshake lines as a coach. Most times I have simply said nice job, a decent amount of times I have shared a quick thought with the opposing coach about how much I respected them or their team, and an even smaller number of times did I stop the line to speak to a player about how much I loved watching them compete or engage a coach at length after the line to discuss their team. You know why? Because win or lose, the first thing a coach wants to do after the game is be their with their own kids. After a loss, you want to be their to console your kids and catch them in teachable moments about what they could have done to change the outcome. After a win, you want to be there to share in their success for all of the hard work they have put in. You don’t want or need another coach taking away from either of those moments.

There have been a good amount of times where I have shared what an opposing coach said about my kids with them after a game or at the next practice. They deserve to hear all of the compliments, but it should come from a trusted voice. They deserve for their coach to decide when is the right time and the right way to share those thoughts with their team. It shouldn’t come from a stranger. In fact, one of the strangest moments I experienced was when an opposing coach went on at length to our team on the field after we defeated them in a championship game. Our kids were tuning him out and taking away from the time they just wanted to get back in our dugout and celebrate with each other. It was as if he wanted me to do and say the same thing about his team in return in front of everyone, but those kids didn’t want to hear from me in that moment. They just wanted to get off the field where they could let their emotions out.

There aren’t many times that I am overly complimentary of Mike Kryzyewski. In fact, I think he’s the one that set this precedent when he went on Kentucky radio following their victory over them in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” It was seen as such a tremendous display of empathy by him at the time, but he didn’t go into that locker room. He knew that wasn’t the right time or place. Instead, he went on the radio to speak to the fans, knowing that the message would be delivered and received by the players at a time when their emotions had subsided a bit. That is the way you should handle things in that moment if you want the other team to know how much you admire and respect them. Tell someone else, don’t go into the locker room.

I hope I am not making Jerome Tang out to be an awful person or coach. I think the exact opposite. I think he’s a great guy, and I can see why players would flock to play for him. However, I worry that this could start a troubling trend of opposing coaches trying to do this after games to raise their own profile. I worry that we’ll hear about a time where a coach did this and it went wrong or did not turn out as had been intended. The locker room and bond between players is sacred, all coaches know this and should stay out of their opponents. In today’s world, there are hundreds of ways to get a message to someone or a group, but you don’t need to go into the other team’s locker room to do it. Jerome Tang should know better, and I hope all other coaches do too.

Published by mikegallo314

I have been in education for over 20 years, and it has been an amazing and rewarding career. I grew up on the east side of St. Louis, and I'm an avid sports fan. My three biggest addictions in life are the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues, and University of Illinois athletics. I love listening to rock blues, and americana styled music. Throughout the years I have coached boys and girls basketball from the youth levels to the varsity level, and the last 10 years I have coached travel baseball. I have a passion for writing, and a long list of experiences and topics that I like to share my thoughts on. The best part about writing, are the conversations and thoughts that are shared as a result.

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