The Joy of Six: American sport's pushiest parents

From Roy Jones Sr to Mike Agassi - half a dozen parents who controlled their children


1) Marv Marinovich

There are many stories of pushy, obsessive, overbearing sports parents who manipulate their child’s athletic lives and then there is Marv Marinovich. At a time when sports training camps, travel teams and nutritionists weren’t almost mandatory for blooming young sports stars he was all of these things for his son Todd. Perhaps unfairly, he has become the template for the modern, overzealous athlete father.

Marv Marinovich, you see, had a dream. He was going to take his son Todd and make him the perfect quarterback. Marv was a lineman and captain on USC’s 1962 national championship team and hoped he could deliver the player who would lead his alma mater to another title in the late 1980s. He forbade Todd from eating sweets, transferred the rigorous training methods he used as a strength coach for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and set about molding his son into a star.

When Sports Illustrated’s Douglas Looney encountered the Marinovich family in 1988 he called Todd “the first test tube quarterback”. After he described Marv’s methods, others preferred the nickname “Robo QB”. The name stuck. But Marv was determined to build Todd to win. He had his boy doing pushups before he could walk and dragged him along to teams of specialists who fine-tuned his flexibility, endurance, vision and psychology among other things. After Looney’s story came out, people were stunned. No one had heard of parents doing such things. At least not outside of the Soviet bloc.

Predictably, Todd did not become the perfect quarterback. He did go to USC like his father and started at quarterback as a freshman, winning the Rose Bowl. Two years later, he was arrested for cocaine possession and seemed to crumble under the pressure of being Robo QB. A brief NFL career with the Raiders fell apart too. He kicked around the Canadian Football League and had repeated drug problems. His relationship with his father frayed. Eventually, in his late 30s Todd found a new passion. Painting.

Later in life Marv and Todd have bonded in a way never imaginable in the 1990s. They are closer than they ever were in those wild days. Marv has embraced Todd’s artwork and both seem better for it. A 30 For 30 on their relationship ends with father and son at one of Todd’s art shows, with a sculpture the two had done together, connected at last by something other than the drive to make the next great football player.

2) Carl and Bonnie Lindros

Who knows how great Eric Lindros could have been as a hockey player. For years he was awfully good – tall, strong and bruising with a beautiful shot – he might have been one of the best ever if concussions hadn’t cut his career short. But his biggest problem might have been the parents who tried to manage every aspect of his career, relentlessly hounding grizzled hockey men into bending to their will.

Lindros biographer Daniel Poulin once told the Los Angeles Times: “The problem with the Lindroses is that they think they are above the rules and regulations and laws affecting the rest of us.” No line might have summed up the relationship between Lindros’s parents and their son’s career than that. Not content to simply manipulate their son’s life from the background like most aggressive parents, they also ran it in public. Carl, the father, was Eric’s agent. Bonnie was the voice in the background bludgeoning reporters, team executives and seemingly anyone else who crossed her son’s path. The same Los Angeles Times story tells of how she introduced herself to a reporter covering Eric’s first NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers, by saying men were jealous of her hockey knowledge. “Everytime I talk to male reporters they look between their legs after they’re finished,” she boasted.

By then hockey was well aware of Lindros’s parents. When he was 16 and eligible to be drafted to the juniors Ontario Hockey League they told Sault St Marie, the team with the No1 pick, to pass on their son. Sault St Marie’s general manager Angelo Bumbacco ignored them, however, eventually trading Lindros to Oshawa. In 1991 they demanded the same of the Quebec Nordiques, who held the NHL’s top choice. Quebec traded Lindros to Philadelphia, receiving pieces of a eventual Stanley Cup champion to placate Lindros’s parents.

“Looking back, the greatest thing that could ever happened to Eric Lindros was coming to play in Sault St Marie, just to get the hell away from those parents,” Bumbacco later said. “It would’ve been like when you send a kid away to university to give him a chance a chance to grow up. I’ll tell you: that kid has never grown up.”

While Lindros played in Philadelphia, his parents accused the team of mismanaging his concussions and even alleged the Flyers tried to kill him when he suffered a collapsed lung. Reports surfaced that Carl and Bonnie kept track of which players passed the puck to their son the most and urged general manager Bobby Clarke to pursue players they thought they would fit with Eric. Eventually, he was traded to New York and retired in 2007, ridding the NHL of his parents forever.

3) Mike Agassi

Second Captains

Perhaps all you need to know about the father of Andre Agassi is that he was a boxer. He was also an immigrant from Iran who settled in Las Vegas and longed for his children to have a better life. The controlled violence of boxing and the fake glow of Las Vegas made the perfect combination for an obsessive father.

Years later, in his autobiography, Andre wrote of his father rustling up matches for his son all over Las Vegas, often getting action on the contests. Once, Mike bet former NFL star Jim Brown $5,000 that his then nine-year-old boy could beat the running back in tennis. Andre won. It was good that he did because Mike could be intimidating. A 2002 Sports Illustrated story on Pancho Gonzales describes how Mike, working as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino hated Gonzalez and planned to have him killed. “He’d have the satisfaction of seeing the man dead,” the story said of the elder Agassi.

Mike was impossible for Andre to please. In his book, Andre wrote of how he won Wimbledon in 1992 only to have his father say: “You had no business losing that fourth set.” At times, Andre seemed overwhelmed by tennis and looked as if he hated the game. Many wondered if this was because he had been pushed so hard so young. But eight grand slam titles prove that Mike’s demands may have been worth it.

“Maybe I was a tyrant hard and severe” he later told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in remarks later reprinted by Tennis World. “But I repeat, its better to have a father beside his son in the sport than his coach.”

Fittingly, Andre would marry fellow superstar Steffi Graf whose own father, Peter, was even more demanding and controlling. Accused of misappropriating his daughter’s funds, he was eventually convicted of tax evasion and spent two years in prison.

4) Roy Jones Sr

Boxing fathers have long been a world in their own; domineering, eccentric presences in their children’s lives. Often they are the reason their sons are great fighters and often those relationships are complicated and fractured as evidenced by the drama that unfolds between Floyd Mayweather Jr and his father before each of his fights.

But even by boxing standards Roy Jones Sr was extreme. He built a platform in the back of the small farm he had in Pensacola, Florida, and loaded it with a heavy bag and speed bag and then he began driving his son to be the best. When Roy Jr was little the father would drop to his knees and spar with his son, testing the boy’s will to fight. Other times he chased Roy Jr with a plastic pipe, hitting the boy hard enough to leave marks.

Both men have said Roy Jr would flee in tears only to return the next day for more sparring and more smacks with the pipe. When it came time for real fights, Roy Sr was in his son’s corner, constantly screaming instructions.

“Was I harder on him?” Roy Sr once told the New York Times. “Naturally. The reason was I knew what it was going to take. I asked Roy: ‘What do you want to be? A participant or a kingpin?’ He said kingpin. To be a kingpin it takes being hard. I made them train under pressure. Constant pressure.”

Yet by the time Roy Jr was known as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, father and son had split. Everyone said it was because Roy Sr didn’t know how to let up. He insisted on controlling everything about his son’s career – eventually that became an impediment. The father was too much. Some alleged that the overbearing Roy Sr was damaging his son’s career.

Then again, Roy Jr, is still fighting at 46 recently became a Russian citizen, how much damage could Roy Sr do that Roy Jr hasn’t inflicted on himself?

5) Jim Pierce

Women’s tennis is filled with overbearing fathers who have manipulated their daughters’ careers. Who can forget Stefano Capriati pushing his 14-year-old daughter Jennifer into the pro circuit because he wanted her to maximize the best years of her career? Or how about Damir Dokic, father of Jelena, who threatened the Australian ambassador to Belgrade with a hand grenade and was kicked out of several tournaments for various physical and verbal abuses?

But the American father of French star Mary Pierce might have been the worst of the bunch. He started coaching his daughter when she showed an interest in tennis at a young age and soon demanded perfection, exploding when it didn’t come. The incidents of an outraged Jim Pierce screaming at his daughter became legend around the tennis circuit. She left the court in tears during a match at the 1992 Olympics as he screamed at her from the stands. He slapped her for losing matches, attacked her cousin for laughing with her after a match and threatened to kill her. He once “encouraged” Mary by yelling “kill the bitch,” from the stands during a match.

“You never know what he is capable of,” she told Sports Illustrated.“One reason I hesitated to break away is that you just don’t know what he might do.”

In 1993 the Women’s Tennis Council banned Jim from attending tournaments. Mary was given a bodyguard and her father’s picture was given to guards and posted in ticket booths at tennis stadiums. Finally rid of her father, Mary won the Australian and French Opens and reached four other grand slam finals.

6) The Great Santini

Bull Meechum was the literary and later Hollywood embodiment of a swaggering fighter pilot consumed with rage, determined to run over anyone in his way. In the 1979 film The Great Santini, Meechum (played by Robert Duvall) dominates his son Ben – a budding basketball star – in one-on-one games in the driveway. He taunts Ben, throws the ball at him and even orders him to knock out an opponent who fouled him in a game. In the years after the movie, many overzealous sports fathers would be compared to The Great Santini.

But Bull Meechum was real. His name was Don Conroy and he was the father of The Great Santini’s author, Pat Conroy. Pat based the novel on his own broken childhood. Like the fictional Ben, Pat Conroy was a basketball star who eventually played at The Citadel. This story about Pat and The Citadel by ESPN’s Wright Thompson describes the regular beatings Pat took from his father after his high school games.

Nothing Pat did as a player was good enough. Don demanded more. Even when Pat went to college and played well his father scorned him. Thompson describes one incidenet when Pat scored 25 points in a game, went to see his father afterward expecting congratulations and instead was told how badly he played before being shoved to the wall. “You couldn’t hold my jock as a ballplayer,” the father said.

After college, Pat extracted the ultimate revenge by writing The Great Santini, killing off the abusive, fictional father in a plane crash. The real Don was wounded by the book and worked to build new relationships with his children, something Pat wrote about in later years. Much like Marv Marinovich, he proved that not all pushy parents are irredeemable.

(Guardian service)

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.