A Tragic Comedy of Errors
Almost all those who aided in Coach Carole Kleinfelder's recent dismissal from the Harvard women's basketball team should consider hanging their heads in shame.
A delicate situation--one which demanded maturity, compassion, and respect for feelings--was handled horrendously. Everyone from Athletic Director John P. Reardon, to the majority of the players, and even to some extent Kleinfelder herself, made an already difficult task long and humiliating.
This is not to say that Kleinfelder should not have been released. The final decision Reardon made was a proper one. Over the past two seasons, Kleinfelder has compiled a meager 12-39 record and her most recent campaign saw the squad's mark plummet to a dismal 4-21. (But, keep in mind, at Harvard it takes more than just a losing record to dismiss a coach)
Although the blame for the team's unfortunate showing cannot fall entirely into Kleinfelder's lap, much of it should. Many observers-and most significantly the players-were acutely aware of the flaws in Kleinfelder's game strategy. Kleinfelder herself-admitted on several occasions to making tactical flaws.
"She was just a bad coach," one player said.
For one thing Kleinfelder had a knack for calling untimely timeouts-using them up in the early stages of games, leaving the Crimson unable to stop play to develop proper attacks in the crucial closing minutes. A two-point loss to Vermont earlier this year, for example, saw final seconds tick way because Harvard had depleted its five timeouts.
Her substitutions policies were also questionable. Often she removed a hot player from the game with no apparent justification.
She never determined a consistent starting line-up because she had difficulty identifying her best players. Players like Kate Martin would play one game start to finish, only to ride the bench for the next. The result was confusion amongst the players and inconsistent performances on the court.
There is little question that Kleinfelder should have been dismissed as coach. But that is not the problem. The problem came with how the dismissal was effected.
"The greatest mistake was made higher up for not releasing her a long time," says player who asked to remain unidentified. Reardon, as athletic director, must assume responsibility for keeping Kleinfelder on Harvard's basketball staff for so long.
Kleinfelder's track record over the past two years speaks for itself. Reardon should have realized that she was not contributing to a winning environment. Women's basketball traditionally has one of the highest attrition rates of any Harvard sports, and in recent years many players have left the program, citing Kleinfelder as one main reason for leaving.
But Reardon didn't take any bolo action until the team's record, frustration and animosity toward the coach mounted to a point where several players threatened that they would not return if Kleinfelder remained at the helm.
One of the tenuous situations which Reardon had to consider when dealing with Kleinfelder's future was her success and popularity as coach of Harvard's lacrosse program. He must have found it difficult to take affirmative steps-relating her from her basketball post-when the women's lacrosse team won an Ivy League championship last year. So he let the problem linger until, finally, the basketball program turned critically ill.
Another player who wishes to remain us identified says that as early as February. Reardon had given very strong indications that Kleinfelder would not return for the 1982-83 campaign had already known that she would not return. Rumors even circulated that prospective coaches had inquired to the athletic office about job possibilities. But Reardon kept a know nothing see nothing facade.
Because Reardon failed to act decisively, the players and Kleinfelder remained in limbo. Perhaps he was trying to lower the axe gently to protect Kleinfelder's feelings, but he also should have contemplated the emotional trauma Kleinfelder must have faced in spending months in a state of confusion and worry.
The players themselves added to this unfortunate atmosphere. Although they justifiably felt that a change was necessary, they often treated Kleinfelder with disrespect and cruelty for much the season.
Carole Kleinfelder--if not a good basketball coach--is a nice, friendly person, and did not deserve the treatment which many of the team members inflicted on her.
Granted, the stress of playing for a 4-21 team makes it easier to designate a scapegoat. Frustration puts people on edge. But still, frustrations should never have allowed the players to nickname their coach "Sybil--women of 16 different responsibilities." No one sat or talked with her on the bus. She was ignored and scorned behind her back, laughed at.
At times it seemed that the only cohesive force keeping the players together was born of petty maliciousness towards Carole Kleinfelder.
"Carole made mistakes, and her coaching lacked a lot, especially in crucial parts of the game," one player reflects. "But, at the same time she wasn't given [any] encouragement or respect."
On the court, the team ignored her directions. No matter what individually players think of a coach, her strategy or her personality, during gametime her word must be followed with the same respect shipmates accord their captain.
In addition to Kleinfelder's being personally insulted and the team's ignoring her instructions, the leaders of the team-co-Captains Martin and pat Horne-made little attempt communicate with Kleinfelder about the team's low morale and its complaints. By not confronting Kleinfelder, the co-captains further deepened the player-coach right, instead of alleviating it.
Martin looks back on the situation with regret, saying. "It's very unfair to Carole that it was dragged on for so long and [that] it made such a messy situation. I respect Carole very much as a very classy person, and I don't think that it was right that it was right that she had to go through such an emotional situation."
She adds, "I don't want to lose her as a friend over this, and I hope that I'm not alone in this opinion."
In the game and in the locker room, the team went off in several directions, severed from the coach. If players are going to disregard a coach's strategy, they had better have a game plan of their own, but in this case they didn't. Five players on the court, each playing her own game, amounted to a confused and messy circus.
"The team wasn't strong enough in rallying together to merit going off on their own tangent," says one player. "It was counter productive to ignore her."
Kleinfelder did, however, make efforts to maintain any dregs of the alliance which she and the team had. One time, she lent a player the keys to her car. She never stopped smiling sometimes rather pathetically to the eager. Friendliness in the wake of a team's bitterness towards its coach, did not appear to evade her.
These are reasons to blame the players for a miserable season.
Kleinfelder cannot be scorned for coaching a losing team. She couldn't produce a winner. That's not why she is to be criticized for the role that she played in Reardon's decision to replace her.
But Kleinfelder probably knew that every one from Reardon to her players wanted her gone. It would be hard to ignore the disrespect of her team, and how it reflects what the players feel about her staying in control of the program. People have speculated that Reardon in the past discussed with Kleinfelder that he would prefer that she resign. At that point, perhaps she should have packed her bags and said "to hell with it."
She stayed though And, like Reardon, she let a no-win situation persist. Tension concern and anger mounted during that time.
There's no denying that it's easy to sit and write that Kleinfelder should have called it quits earlier. It's hard to say what emotions dictated her actions. Kleinfelder herself refuses to comment on her dismissal.
But no matter where the balance lies, it can be safely said that the situation could have been handled a lot better. As it turned out the whole thing was a bloody mess.