June 4, 2013 by Charlie Eisenhood in Livewire with 26 comments
UNC-Wilmington coach Brian Casey wrote a piece late last week that exploded with comments. I won’t try to summarize it here, go read it. I want to highlight a couple of comments and emails, as well as share a few thoughts on the controversy.
First up, here’s an open letter to Casey sent to us by Robert Mugabe. It encapsulates a lot of the negative comments towards UNC-W that we’ve seen:
[quote]I, like I’m sure many, was excited to read the headline from you about stopping the negative stigma towards UNC-W’s program. Again, like many, I finished your article realizing you had no real intention of stopping this stigma, putting forth changes to UNC-W’s program, or any apologies on your team’s conduct. This isn’t just me attempting to twist the article; it’s from your own words. If you truly did not understand why people were talking about UNC-W being terrible sports rather than your results after Nationals, there are well over a hundred comments on your article now for you to catch up on.
Let me make one thing clear: UNC-W is not the only team at College Nationals that focuses on winning games. I’ve played in multiple college and club nationals. I get that at that level it’s not your average pick-up ultimate game and there is a lot more physical play. But don’t make the mistake of misconstruing an elite level of play with breaking the rules and bad sportsmanship. Everyone is talking about this aspect of UNC-W as a team rather than your T5th finish because it is embedded in your team’s philosophy to not only flirt with the rules, but blatantly and relentlessly breaking them.
You also question why people remember Tommy Lamar as a dirty cheater rather than a dominant college player. It’s plays like this one, where he intentionally lowers his body into the offender with no effort to play defense that goes totally beyond elite physical play. As a coach, you are teaching these young players to play in a way that lacks respect, safety for others, and blatant disregard for the rules. Will you see gritty, physical, intense play from the Freechild’s, Mickle’s, and Hart’s? Absolutely. Will you see any of those guys truck-sticking defenseless players, shoving opponents to the ground only to get up and taunt them, or intentionally cutting out someone’s legs as they run by? No way! It is your disability to see these major, glaring differences between hard elite ultimate and dangerous play UNC-W is coached and practiced to do that is deeply unsettling.
Brian, if you honestly believe that the style of play you are teaching UNC-W is no different than other elite college programs; it is your duty as a coach to take a closer look at your teachings. For the sake of the sport of ultimate and the development of the young men you coach, changes need to be put into place to change your unacceptable coaching and strategy. Yes, this stigma against UNC-W needs to stop. But that starts with you, Brian, and the 2014 UNC-W leadership.[/quote]
But lost in the noise have been some voices in support of Wilmington. Here’s Mike DeNardis, the coach of North Carolina. He knows the UNC-W program very well.
[quote]Just wanted to throw my two cents in here because I thought it would be good to get the perspective of a regional rival.
If our team did not respect and trust the Wilmington team and its coaches, we would not have fostered the relationship we currently maintain. I hold Tully [Beatty], [Greg] Vassar, and Casey in the highest regard as coaches and program builders, and really respect Tommy Lamar and most other Wilmington players for the way they carry themselves, especially in our more intense encounters.
It’s just a fact that championship ultimate requires a certain brand of physicality that rubs some the wrong way. And, in intense, ‘nationals like’ situations, that physical brand of ultimate can cascade into a war or words, spikes, pushing and shoving, etc. I understand that it’s a fine line to walk.
Last year, our team specifically got the lowest spirit score at nationals because we walked that line incorrectly, with several instances of immature actions outside of the field of play. Personally, the score didn’t bother me as much as the perception that we were dirty on the field. So, this year, we made sure we were still the same physical team, but tried to hold our opponents in the highest regard while limiting all the b.s. that turns college games ugly. I’d like to think it worked for the most part.
This is where I think Alan Gruntz factors in. If you have this singular, reckless entity drawing the ire of a large majority of college teams in the country, every other player’s negative actions are amplified and Wilmington, as a unit, suffers the label of ‘dirty.’ I can assure you Tommy Lamar is not dirty, but one physical act against Illinois makes people question his integrity. Additionally, Gruntz’s actions more often than not breathe new life and vigor into opponents with the closing act of his career being the loss to Pitt. It’s unfortunate that one player has to overshadow the accomplishments of a great Wilmington season, but it is all moot now and I’m guessing the coaches that built the program won’t let a distraction such as this/him, overshadow their success in the future.[/quote]
And here is Tommy Lamar, UNC-W captain:
First of all, in respect to BC’s article, the Seamen are out there to compete. That is what our program is all about. We want to everyone on the team to compete as much as the person next to him. I’m pretty sure the point of his article is to say that the ultimate media has taken the reputation of Wilmington to another level. It’s not that bad, and if you
think it is you’re probably not a respectable competitor (possibly a good ultimate player).
We enjoy nothing more than having an intense game with mutual respect between two teams. Hence the incredible Colorado and Carleton games. Both teams respect the other and their will to win. Unfortunately, our sport is filled with people who don’t know how to compete. Most of these people aren’t respected by others and for good reason. I’ve played at the top level of our sport and if there is one thing I love more than anything, it is the mutual respect between players. It’s the one unique thing about our sport. No officials means you can go as hard as your matchup wants to go.
Sometimes you matchup and play soft, and sometimes you matchup and are going at it for the whole 90 minutes. Either way can be a good matchup, but it’s up to the two players to decide how they want the game to go. Personally,
I’ve never felt that I’ve stepped over the line when it comes to physical play. If a team wants to play physical, perfect. If a team is soft, then we tone it down to stop the constant complaining.
The Illinois game was one of the few exceptions, though. They set the tone. Watch the first few points. Constant grabbing and hands every cut (at least my matchup). There’s no attempt to even play good ultimate. It’s interesting to hear them complaining after they chose the way the game was going to be played. That is all to be expected going into any college ultimate game when a few inexperienced hotheads want to make a name for themselves though. You don’t see this at the club level (at least I haven’t experienced it).
The play highlighted in the video [linked in Mugabe’s letter] was an obvious foul. I no contested and tried to help the player immediately after. I made a late move in an attempt to set myself in a good defensive position. I’ve done the same thing the right way hundreds of times, and an inexperienced player usually calls a foul which the observer overrules. I apologize for the bad foul and injuring an Illinois player; that was not my intention. I was trying to set
myself in a legal position and reacted too late, leading to the dangerous collision. I’ve been on the receiving end of this type of defense plenty of times before and it happens. You call a foul and play on. Unfortunately this time it injured the player and that wasn’t the intention at all but it is the nature of sports.
As far as the complaining about our system and our team’s spirit, I’d like to point out a few things. First of all, Gruntz was out of hand on multiple occasions throughout the season. As a captain, I do take responsibility for his continuous bad plays. As coaches and captains we addressed the issue every time an incident occurred. Unfortunately, he didn’t respect our words or the team enough to listen.
Gruntz is a good player who in the past didn’t have these ridiculous outbreaks (at least to the extent he took it this year). We preach to the entire team, including at nationals, that this is not how we play. There is a difference between physical, aggressive play and cheap shots. Our whole team knows the difference, and we make sure of that. In hindsight, the situation should have been handled differently earlier in the season. It will be handled differently in years to come.
Gruntz’ cheap shots took a lot away from our successful season, and that’s why we are sitting here talking about it now. If all you can take away from the Seamen is one player’s actions, then you are really overlooking how far this program has come. Secondly, when I first joined this team in 2009, the team had players that turned the game into a call fest. If you watch our games today, it’s usually the opposing team who makes more calls and they are usually ticky tack calls.
In no way does the current team rely on calls to win games. We just beat teams by playing aggressive and competitive ultimate. Our reputation both helps and hurts us. We use our reputation to train our players to be good competitive players. There isn’t a Seamen out there who is soft. There is no mistake there. Unfortunately, our reputation leads opposing teams and observers to make bad calls against us. Numerous times teams were complaining throughout games about little inadvertent things and observers played along, as well. It’s unfortunate that some observers are so entwined in the ultimate community that they try to talk to players and use preconceived judgment when making calls. Our community is small so it is hard to find an unbiased third party, or at least someone who is willing to become unbiased for 90 minutes. That being said, we did come across many observers who did their job exactly as they were supposed to and called a fair game both ways. All of this is to be expected when you are a Seamen. Our reputation isn’t going anywhere and our aggressive competitiveness isn’t either.[/quote]
I think the real takeaway from the entire situation is that UNC-W had one egregious cheater: Alan Gruntz. He was out of line multiple times throughout the course of the season, and his actions make it easy to paint the entire team with a wide brush of poor spirit and cheating.
In his article, Casey points out that their games against Colorado and Carleton were very clean. It’s true! Watch them! We even talked about it on the broadcast. Carleton, early in the game, was complaining a lot to the observers about…well, nothing. It eventually stopped.
But Gruntz was one of college’s worst spirit offenders. He probably should have been benched entirely. Now, UNC-W is dealing with the consequences of letting him play.
The combination of their past reputation and the play from Gruntz made it easy to call this team a bunch of cheaters. I really don’t think that is the case. Most of their top athletes — Lamar, Mark Evans, Xavier Maxstadt, Robert Goode — are fair competitors.
We’ll be hearing from head coach Greg Vassar about the team’s season and this late season distraction later this week.