Over the past few days, while political and religious analysts have written about Libya and the latest sex abuse scandals, I have thought about the success of Catholic high school sports coaches. On Saturday, my alma mater played in the California boys basketball championship. On Sunday on 60 Minutes, the legendary Bob Hurley of St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, New Jersey was profiled. Each of the schools graduates virtually all of their players, an achievement that in the case of St. Anthony’s, a school located in a black ghetto, is especially impressive. And based on initial signs, each of the teams say Catholic prayers and promote Church teachings in their programs.
The success of these two basketball programs cannot be attributed solely or even mainly to the great talent they attract. De La Salle’s team this year did not have a single player recruited by a Division I school. Although St. Anthony’s has had superior talent to De La Salle, certainly they are not a sports factory, a school defined solely by its record, as some high school basketball programs are.
Far more important to the teams’ success than the players’ talent, it strikes me, has been the coaches’ benevolent autocracy. They act more like Vince Lombardi than Tom Hayden or Tom Ridge. They spend virtually their entire careers at one institution, are devoted to their charges, and demand high standards from them. Hurley is a good example. He has coached at St. Anthony’s for four decades, asks his players to sign a 19-point contract, berates or expels them for not following orders grueling practices, and stares down gang leaders.
In the mid-twentieth century, Catholic leaders in various fields, including national politics, the labor movement, and the clergy, acted like benevolent autocrats and achieved stunning successes. Following their lead is more difficult today, of course. The country is larger, more heterogeneous, and has more diffuse sources of power. And achieving what Lombardi did requires a time commitment away from home that many spouses, especially wives, are no longer willing to endure.
Also, many Catholic leaders fall far short of Lombardi’s example (or Terence Cooke’s, David L. Lawrence’s, and George Meany’s). Some succeed on the court but use questionable means to do so. Others are benevolent and autocratic but incompetent in some areas.
But in Catholicism’s two big institutions, its dioceses and schools, being a benevolent autocrat is still possible. Achieving democratic results, such as graduating players from poor backgrounds and serving the faithful, continues to be viewed as more important than following democratic procedures. Imagine if Lombardi had been in charge of the Philadelphia archdiocese or urban parochial schools. He would be all about getting rid of abusive priests rather than hoping in vain that they repent and inspiring affluent Catholics to donate to the archdiocese’s schools rather than assuming the laity will step up.