Using the spotlight

An agent of change - Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

After his Winthrop Eagles almost upset the mighty Buckeyes, head coach Pat Kelsey gave a press conference that grabbed more attention than his team's play. His message was clear: it is time for a change.

Taking advantage of opportunities is much more difficult than it should be. Earlier this year, Oregon and Kansas State were primed and ready to go to the BCS National Championship game, and had ample opportunity to do so. But they couldn't, Oregon losing at home to Stanford, and KSU falling to Baylor on the road. Dreams: dashed.

A few years ago, Butler had a chance (two, in fact) to become the first mid-major program to win a national championship. They would ultimately lose in consecutive years to two of the highest majors in existence: Duke and Connecticut, respectively.

These are situations where teams failed to take advantage of a huge opportunity. In our college sports world, we usually only talk about teams and players, and how these groups struggle in defeat and celebrate in victory. Other than Urban Meyer on this site, seldom do we talk about a coach, unless they are getting fired or hired. Rarely do we talk about a coach taking advantage of an opportunity.

Pat Kelsey had that exact chance on Tuesday night.

His Winthrop Eagles, under his supervision for the first year, had played tough with the Buckeyes for about 30 minutes or so before eventually succumbing to the better talent and abilities on the other bench, and Ohio State would go on to win 65-55 in a very close game. But once the clock hit 00:00, the story was not about the upset that wasn't, or the tough win that was, the story was about Kelsey.

"I know this microphone's powerful right now, because we're playing the [seventh]-best team in the country. I'm not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life," Kelsey said. He is probably right; most of the world doesn't care about mid- and low-major programs until February or March. And given the close game, there would probably be a lot of eyes and ears on the former Wake Forest assistant coach. Kelsey seized this chance to take advantage of his situation. Here is his statement in its entirety:

“The last thing I wanna say is I’m really, really lucky, ’cause I’m gonna get on an eight-hour bus ride, and I’m gonna arrive in Rock Hill, S.C., and I’m gonna walk into my house, and I’m gonna walk upstairs, and I’m gonna walk into two pink rooms, OK, with a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old laying in that pink room, with a bunch of teddy bears laying in that room. And I’m gonna give them the biggest hug and the biggest kiss I’ve ever given them. And there’s 20 families in Newtown, Conn., that are walking into a pink room with a bunch of teddy bears with nobody laying in those beds. And it’s tragic. And I don’t know what needs to be done. I’m not smart enough to know what needs to be done, OK? I know this country’s got issues. Is it a gun issue? Is it a mental illness issue? Or is it a society that has lost the fact, the understanding, that decent human values are important? And our leaders – I didn’t vote for President Obama. But you know what? He’s my president now. He’s my leader. I need him to step up. Mr. Boehner, the Speaker of the House, he’s a Xavier guy, he’s a Cincinnati guy, OK, he needs to step up. Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up. This has to be a time for change. And I know this microphone’s powerful right now, because we’re playing the fourth-best team in the country. I’m not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life. And I’m going to be an agent of change with the 13 young men I get to coach every day and the two little girls that I get to raise. But hopefully things start changing, because it’s really, really disappointing. I’m proud to grow up American. I’m proud to say I’m part of the greatest country ever. And that’s got to stay that way. And it’ll stay that way if we change. But we gotta change.”

Kelsey's speech drew much more attention than anything his team did on the court, and not surprisingly. Many sports news outlets barely mentioned the team, only the coach and his cry for change. And Kelsey isn't the first coach to use that spotlight.

Whether you like Syracuse's Jim Boeheim or not (and some people have many reasons not to), he is a college basketball icon. His status in the upper echelon of the basketball coaching elite - he just won his 900th game - usually lends credence to his words, like it or not. After winning game number 900 a day before Kelsey and Winthrop took on Ohio State, Boeheim used his podium and his spotlight to comment.

“If we in this country as Americans cannot get the people that represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society ... If one person in this world, the NRA president, anybody, can tell me why we need assault weapons with 30 shots in the thing. This is our fault. This is my fault and your fault. All of your faults if we don’t get out and do something about this. If we can’t get this thing done, I’m with (Mayor Michael) Bloomberg, if we can’t get this thing done, I don’t know what kind of country we have. This is about us. This isn’t about the President or those other people down there. We have to make them understand somehow that this needs to get figured out. Real quick. Not six months from now.”

- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim

A microphone is a powerful thing, to be sure. Kelsey and Boeheim are used to talking about zone defense and offensive rebounds, but both had the opportunity to make statements that transcended basketball. Both handled their chance in the spotlight remarkably well. Boeheim has always been a grating and grumpy coach, and his call to action is more than appropriate, given his character, calling on Bloomberg and the President to make changes now.

Kelsey, on the other hand, began his comments by noting he is a father above all, and that there are things much more important that basketball. One would expect this from a man who all but gave up on basketball after his former coach and mentor, Skip Prosser, passed away suddenly in 2007. It was poignant, it was moving, it was appropriate.

Sports history is dotted with plenty of instances of coaches appearing before a microphone and looking less than human. Look back no further than former Colorado coach Gary Barnett and his handling of the Katie Hnida situation back in 2004. But on Monday and Tuesday, two men stood up and reminded us that, given the right tone and the right opportunity, a coach can not only motivate players with their words, but maybe move mountains as well.

The tragedy in Newtown is a disgusting reminder of our humanity, and of how precious human life truly is. The story has lead to many stories of child protection and heroics, and the unfortunate, if not expected, rise in firearms purchasing since last Friday. But if there is one takeaway it's that given the opportunity to speak your mind before a large audience, anyone, from a coach to a player to a lowly blogger, has the chance to remind us that everyone has the chance to be, in Kelsey's words, an agent of change.

Well said, coach.

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