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College football coaches, please stop invoking Hitler

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If you want to make a point about leadership, pick somebody else.

Lou Holtz Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Adolf Hitler was not a good leader. Wow, what a sentence that is to kick off this blog post on this college football website. But bear with me a minute, won’t you?

For one thing, leading and manipulating are not the same thing. For another, even if you strip morality away from assessments of leadership ability, Hitler was reckless and erratic. He surrounded himself with yes men, including a quack doctor who made sure Hitler spent much of the war high as a kite and unable to properly process information.

Hitler’s own staff tried to assassinate him multiple times, believing he was not fit to lead Germany. He badly miscalculated strategically on multiple fronts, splitting his forces and leading them to slaughter in both the East and West. If you have never led an organization a day in your life, then congrats: You’ve been a better leader than Hitler.

This obvious reality about one of the worst people who ever lived has reached most people. But it has not reached every college football coach. Periodically, a coach will bring up Hitler in some context that is not “Hitler was very bad.” Let’s evaluate what happens to football coaches who start talking publicly about Hitler in non-“Hitler was very bad” ways.

Case study #1: Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, 2008

Holtz was not an active coach at the time, but he will always be a coach in spirit, and his case is instructive anyway. In 2008, he was serving as an analyst for ESPN. He described Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan tenure this way:

While discussing leadership, ESPN co-host Mark May said to Holtz, “You have to have leaders in the locker room to get the team and the young players to buy into what the coach is teaching you.”

Holtz replied, “Let’s remember this, Hitler was a great leader, too. There are good leaders and bad leaders.”

Did invoking Hitler go well for Coach?

No, it did not.

Anchor Rece Davis quickly intervened on air to say, “OK, and meaning obviously, that [Hitler] was a very bad leader.”

A firestorm ensued anyway. Holtz apologized the next day:

“Last night while trying to make a point about leadership, I made an unfortunate reference. It was a mistake and I sincerely apologize.”

Case study #2: Last Chance U coach Jason Brown, 2019

Brown, of Independence Community College in Kansas, was a central figure in the third and fourth seasons of the Netflix docuseries on JUCO football.

Before the 2019 season, Brown decided to invoke Hitler while having a heart-to-heart with a German player. Brown texted the player, “I’m your new Hitler.”

Brown tried to explain the circumstances around that text, in part by noting it was “public knowledge throughout our football program that [the player] often referred to himself as Hitler.”

Did invoking Hitler go well for Coach?

No, it did not.

Brown lost his job. (He was later indicted on felony blackmail and identity theft charges, but to be clear, those were unrelated to him referring to himself as Hitler.)

Case study #3: Grand Valley State offensive coordinator Morris Berger, 2020

DII Grand Valley State, a school with a proud football tradition, announced Berger’s hire on January 20. Three days later, The Grand Valley Lanthorn, the student newspaper, published an interview with Berger. Things were going well for most of it. See if you can tell where they went awry for the budding OC and former history major.

[Reporter]: So you graduated from Drury with a degree in History, you’re a history guy. If you could have dinner with three historical figures, living or dead, who would they be? And I’m ruling out football figures.

[Berger]: This is probably not going to get a good review, but I’m going to say Adolf Hitler. It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.

“And this might sound crazy, but Christopher Columbus,” Berger added later.

Did invoking Hitler go well for Coach?

No, it did not.

GVSU suspended Berger while the internet stood with its collective mouth agape. The school promised a “thorough investigation,” though it was not clear of what. A few days later, Berger resigned.

Banner Society has reviewed the evidence, and this website is prepared to issue a verdict on the question of “Should your coach invoke Hitler?”

No, they should not.