Hired as football coaches, WSU’s Jon Gruden and Nick Rolovich failed to be leaders


When athletic directors, general managers and team owners hire people to lead their teams in the future, what factors will they take into account?

Will they be looking for real leaders? Or will they, as is so often the case, fall for the false badass? The intimidating personality? The arrogant and closed-minded stereotype?

Judging from recent sports titles, one would think that the main traits of a coach are selfishness, narrow-mindedness, lack of perspective, contempt for community.

That’s the takeaway from the news regarding former Raiders coach Jon Gruden and former Washington State coach Nick Rolovich.

Football coaches like to think of themselves as ‘leaders of men’. But that concept was smacked in the nose – a favorite phrase of the bullying trainer type – by Gruden and Rolovich.

Gruden quit after posting a mine of his emails, full of racist, homophobic and misogynistic messages.

Obviously, he’s not the only NFL coach who thinks or talks this way; emails have served to shed light on the subculture of how some powerful men operate in their own world, when they assume they will never be held accountable. Yes, all emails from the Washington soccer team investigation should be posted. And, yes, it’s weird that the only missives released were about Gruden.

None of this changes the obvious: Gruden’s ability to stand in front of a team, to stand in front of the audience, to represent a team with a long history of inclusiveness, to have credibility, is gone. He knew it and quit less than an hour after the emails went public.

Rolovich, a Novato native and Marin Catholic-Kentfield graduate, didn’t read the play very well. He seemed to think that as the highest paid employee in Washington state he was going to get some sort of free pass, for disobeying the state’s vaccine mandates.

Instead, his request for a religious exemption was rejected by a review committee who had no idea that he was the powerful and all-important Rolovich. (Virtually all organized religions, including the Catholic Church, support vaccinations.). As expected, he was fired “for cause” – meaning Washington State does not have to pay the remaining three years and more on his five-year, $ 15.6 million contract.

Rolovich never explained his reasoning. Never had the courage to take a public stand, even though literally hundreds of people, from coaching staff to support staff to players and rookies and their families, would be affected by his refusal to follow a state mandate.

Instead, his act of leadership was to file a lawsuit accusing athletic director Pat Chun, who followed state guidelines, of “discriminatory and vindictive behavior.” Rolovich’s first public comment came from his lawyer, who accused Chun of “demonizing” the coach for his Catholic faith. It has since been noted that Chun is Catholic.

Rolovich’s inflexibility was wired for a while. This is the second pursuit he has been involved in in 21 months since becoming the Cougars coach. He is pursued by former player Kassidy Woods, who withdrew from the 2020 season due to COVID concerns resulting from an underlying genetic health issue.

In his lawsuit, Woods described the Washington state culture created by Rolovich as one where COVID outbreaks were kept under wraps. A punitive environment, where players have been threatened with reprisals and banned from joining the #WeAreUnited movement for athlete rights.

Was he the big boss of the Cougars?

Virtually all studies of effective leaders focus on similar traits. Be accountant and responsible. Have empathy and a willingness to understand and develop others. Be ethical and citizen. To be able to communicate effectively across cultures.

It seems that Gruden and Rolovich were missing most, if not all, of these key points.

Too often coaches, operating in their own small fiefdoms, are isolated from the real world. They receive absurd amounts of power, compensation and loyalty for coaching a sport. A study of the highest-paid state employees in 2021 found that in 41 states, the highest-paid state employee is either a basketball or football coach (including California, where the honor questionable returns to UCLA football coach Chip Kelly).

But the pay doesn’t equal leadership. Or point of view.

One of the best descriptions of what it really means to be a coach has come from Brandon Staley, the low-key 38-year-old head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.

In the wake of the Gruden scandal, Staley said these words:

“Perspective and confidence in this world is really hard to achieve. I think of all the people who have been affected by these emails. … If you are a person of color, your gender, your sexual orientation. That’s what I’m thinking about because it’s a holy coat for someone to call you Coach. Have someone call you a leader.

“Confidence is really, really hard to achieve in this world. It’s really, really hard to do, especially with people from the groups I just mentioned. People are really cautious and skeptical of people because of these kinds of emails.

“The kindness, uplifting people and respecting people you don’t know, I just think that’s such a big part of our thing here… listening to people and learning more about people because I think that what you will find is that we have so much more in common than not.

Being a coach is not a birthright. Being a leader doesn’t automatically come with a big salary or a celebrity or sidelined faces.

As Staley said, being called a coach is a “holy mantle”. One that more people in this position should wear.

Ann Killion is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @annkillion

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