How do coaches handle players — then and now?

— So how far is too far?

That's a central question these days when it comes to how coaches treat their players.

A lot of national attention came to the forefront in April when Rutgers University Basketball Coach Mike Rice was fired for what school officials felt was violence toward his players.

Video was captured of Rice throwing basketballs at his players and using very tough language.

But Rice is just one in a long line of coaches whose disciplinary actions have led to controversy.

The most famous may be former Indiana University Coach Bob Knight, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the NCAA.

Knight was known for throwing chairs across the floor and for disciplining his players very sternly.

But Knight also was known for the fact his players graduated from college and that's what likely kept him at IU for so long before being forced from the university.

Fans of Indiana basketball still have mixed feelings about this and it took the Hoosiers a very long time to be competitive after Knight left the program.

The local angle

But college sports aren't the only place where coaches are scrutinized for their discipline. It happens in high schools across America.

Even in Wayne County, the issue arose recently when successful Honesdale High School girls basketball coach Tracy Ludwig did not have her contract renewed by the board.

Rumors about Ludwig had persisted in the community for three years. Those rumors included rough behavior toward the players.

There were even other rumblings in the community that if Ludwig was going to return next season, many of the star players would quit.

Ludwig led the Lady Hornets to two consecutive district tournament titles and the team won its first state tournament game in quite a while earlier this year.

But when the time came, the Wayne Highlands School Board chose not to renew her contract. They said nothing other than they wanted a new direction for the program. In fact, the board didn't even take a vote, instead apparently deciding the matter behind closed doors and then simply not renewing her contract. No board member would say anything about the situation.

Hiding behind "personnel" issues, the board has to this day refused to talk about the matter even though Ludwig was one of the most high-profile public figures in Wayne County.

Yet many questions remain, including what the board members know, what the parents said and how the players feel.

So far, no one has agreed to do an interview about the matter.

There's also the question of future employment as a coach for Ludwig and just how much might be said by local school officials to any future employer.

Since the controversy, the board has hired a new coach, which has also started murmurs in the community. Time will tell how it works out for the board.

The big picture

In the meantime, hundreds and hundreds of local athletes continue to participate on sports teams in this region and all of them have coaches.

Just how do coaches handle discipline and other issues related to being a coach?

That's a good question and some area folks who have been involved with sports have given some good insights to the issue.

Handling discipline

"I can sincerely say that disciplining an athlete is without question the least appealing part of coaching," said Justin Collins, the varsity track and field coach for Western Wayne High School. "My first suggestion is to always be consistent when it comes to discipline and enforcing your team rules."

He said that athletes will certainly notice if some rules apply to some and not to others.

"My suggestions that I can give to a new coach is to first provide athletes and parents with a clear and concise set of team rules that lay out your expectations for the upcoming season, almost like an athletic syllabus," Collins explained. "This will let your athletes and parents know exactly what they are getting into before the season begins and hopefully minimizing future discipline issues. I have both the athlete and parent sign and return their rules document before he/she is allowed to begin practicing."

Collins explained that when discipline issues arise it's important for coaches to "communicate with their athletic director."

"Athletic directors are wonderful resources that can provide a coach with sound feedback since often times they once were seasoned coaches and often parents themselves," he said. "This will also ensure that you are both on the same page, and that your disciplinary action lines up with school policy."

Collins also stated that "most importantly," making a connection with parents or guardians "should happen immediately" when disciplining is a concern.

"Sometimes the message that goes home does not coincide with what actually occurred, so making the adult connection helps to eliminate additional frustration and potential confusion," he said. "In my opinion you will rarely find a successful/championship team that does not have a clear set of rules and a certain level of accountability. As long as you are consistent and fair you're setting yourself up with a team atmosphere with a focus on the team and the sport."

Coaching style

Wendell Kay, who has coached sports spanning both the recreational and high school level, has experienced first hand the differences in coaching styles.

"I am a believer in coaching to the player's strengths," he said. "Coach to what each player is good at," instead of focusing on what they are not.

Kay, who played varsity golf at the high school and college level, also said coaching has changed since he played competitively.

"It was different when I played," he said, adding that when he was coached "the coaches directed you. You didn't question what you were asked to do and gave no push back."

Today, he said current players need to know the reasoning behind the coaching decision. "That strategy doesn't work with today's athletes. They need to have an explanation behind a decision."

Four Decades

George Werthmuller has devoted his entire adult life to high school athletics in general and varsity basketball in particular.

A star player at Oneonta State, Werthmuller earned First Team All-SUNYAC honors, was named team captain and earned the Red Dragons Most Valuable Player award as a senior

He was elected to the Oneonta State Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and is also a member of the Wayne County Sports Hall of Fame

Werthmuller tipped-off his coaching career at St. Rose (Carbondale) back in 1972. He remained there for 19 years, shepherding the program through its transition to Sacred Heart.

He coached the Roses to a Lackawanna League title in 1979 and the District Two Class A championship in 1984.

From there, Werthmuller moved to Wallenpaupack Area where he became a fixture on the shores of The Big Lake.

He coached varsity hoops at Paupack for 22 years and led the Buckhorns to the District Two Class AAAA crown in 2003.

After being named Coach of the Year twice, George resigned from the bench and moved to the Athletic Director's office. Just last month, he announced his retirement from teaching after 41 years.

Over the course of four decades, Werthmuller has gained valuable insight into the psyche of teenagers, their parents and high school athletics.

"The first thing I'd like to say is that kids haven't really changed over the years," George said. "I think parents have changed and our expectations have changed radically."

Werthmuller believes that parents, coaches and booster clubs have "micro-managed" games, leagues and tournaments to the point of absurdity.

"Let's let kids be kids!" he exclaimed.

"In my opinion, we've organized everything to death. There's way too much adult involvement in youth athletics these days. Just let the kids play for heaven's sake!"

Werthmuller is the prototypical "old school" coach. He earned a reputation as a no-nonsense mentor, one who stressed hard work, focus and dedication on a daily basis.

"I'm the first to admit that I over-coached at times," he said with a laugh. "But, I think I learned to ease off a little bit over the years. It's a constant process, a continual evolution."

One of the things that Werthmuller laments is a major shift in emphasis he's observed over the years.

With the rise of AAU programs and travel teams, kids are getting involved earlier. They're also focused more and more on just one single sport year-round.

"As a high school coach, it's a very different world than when I started all those years ago," George said.

"Parents are much more engaged in their children's lives. My mom saw me play one game in high school and one game in college. That's it. But, those were very different times."

A heavy-handed and oft-times contradictory message is being sent regarding competition at its most basic level.

This is the so-called "everybody plays and everybody gets a trophy" generation ... which leads to a sense of entitlement that can be counter-productive later in life.

"Parents and coaches today are always yelling, 'Let's go out there and have fun," George said. "But, it's not hard to see how much they want their kids to win.

"They honestly believe their child is going to go to a big school on an athletic scholarship. That's definitely a noble goal, but in reality it's a very, very rare occurrence."

Coaches are charged with helping their players attain these lofty goals, but must temper their enthusiasm with realistic expectations.

"There's a ton of pressure on coaches to win, but there's also an intense focus on how we do our jobs," George said. "We have a very fine line to walk and it isn't easy sometimes."

Contributions also made by Kevin Edwards, Melissa Leet and Kelly Waters