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Sideline pastors

Sports | Many well-meaning Christian coaches are better teachers in life than pen

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

Like many iconic coaches, Ohio State football's head man Jim Tressel has parlayed his sideline success into the publishing world. Tressel's latest book, Life Promises for Success: Promises from God on Achieving Your Best (Tyndale, 2011), debuted last month, but the timing has proved less than ideal. Revelations that the coach failed to report NCAA rules violations have landed him in hot water. Email exchanges prove Tressel knew that some of his players were selling team memorabilia in exchange for tattoos. The university has suspended the coach for two games and fined him $250,000.

That undermines the content of Tressel's latest book, a collection of motivational sayings, Bible verses, and stories meant to inspire. More important, perhaps, than whether Tressel's book sells is whether he ever should have written it. Why do so many great coaches feel compelled to publish books on Christian living?

Former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne has penned a pair of books in the last two years, one recounting his vocational journey from athlete to coach to congressman to teacher and the other providing his thoughts on effective leadership. In Beyond the Final Score (Regal, 2009), Osborne does his best to parse the theological differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as part of a broader discussion on developing worldview and character. The section smacks of a living room chat with a thoughtful, though unstudied, man speaking outside his discipline. In Secrets to Becoming a Leader (Regal, 2010), Osborne draws largely from experience and some from readings of Scripture to build common-sense principles that would hardly qualify as secrets.

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This tendency of Christian athletic coaches to offer proverbial wisdom through the language of sport often falls into the theological traps of moralism, prosperity, or civic religion. In The Greatest Coach Ever: Timeless Wisdom and Insights of John Wooden (Regal, 2010), dozens of coaches pen essays on topics ranging from preparation to patience to prayer. In a short essay titled "God's Playbook," former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden recounts his practice of daily Bible reading as a means for principled living. He explains how the Scripture's call for sacrifice helped him recognize the merits of working long hours, often into the night: "Excellence cannot be achieved unless coaches and players are willing to sacrifice and suffer."

Yet, the point of sacrifice and suffering in Scripture is not to achieve excellence in ourselves but to see our dependence on the excellence of another-namely, Jesus. Therein may lie the problem with shallow theology. It can become a roadmap to despair.

March gets madder

As if college basketball's season-ending playoff needed an injection of more insanity, this year's tournament expanded from 65 to 68 teams. The new format adds significantly to the already mathematically unlikely scenario of filling out a perfect bracket. The odds of correctly filling in every winner this year are 1 in 147,573,952,589,676,480,000. Or to put it in more meaningful terms, if every person on earth filled out one bracket per second, we could collectively produce every bracket combination in about 700 years. Let's get started.

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