Trying to Control the Uncontrolable

There are a few truisms about College Football Coaches.  One is that they are extremely paranoid.  They are always concerned that someone is going to find out their game plan for a certain game all while never really considering that what they do is already on tape for all to see and most of the time the game plan goes out the window mid-way through the first quarter.  Second, they are control freaks and third, and both two and three go hand-in-hand, they tolerate the media, but try to hold back as much information as possible.  I always thought it was interesting that during the Gulf War in the early 90s I could learn where American War planes were going to bomb next (clearly a matter of life and death) from a reporter standing in front of the Pentagon, but couldn’t stay at a college football practice for more than 20 minutes.

Recently, we’ve had several prime examples of the inherent conflict between college coaches and the reporters who cover the teams.  This is not a new phenomenon.  College coaches in general have been trying to control the narrative coming from their teams forever.  In the early 80s we were introduced to “Hoya Paranoia” from Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson whose basic philosophy was it was his job is to coach the team and that’s it.

Well that’s not actually all the job entails.  Whether they like it or not (and some actually do) dealing with beat reporters and those from local television is a part of the job.  Some handle it beautifully like now retired Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer.  Some do not, like rookie head coach Kirby Smart at Georgia.

Now, a college coach has the absolute right to control access to his practices.  I don’t blame them for only allowing media to be there for several minutes at the beginning of practice.  There’s enough to do to prepare a team to play in a game without having a camera rolling around all over the field.  Some photographers are very respectful and keep their distance.  Some simply do not and those are the ones that ruin it for everyone.  Likewise, locker rooms SHOULD NEVER be open to the media.  Any media member (or former member for that matter) who tells you they like going into locker rooms is an idiot.  They are awful.  Period.  And, more importantly they belong to the team and if you are member of that team you should have a place that is all yours.  That’s what a locker room is for.

But when it comes to controlling access to yourself and your players, that to me is a completely different story.  Most of these coaches are coaching at a public institutions supported by taxpayer dollars.  That to me forfeits your right to micro-manage access to your players.  It’s okay to have policies that say you cannot talk to true freshmen, but it’s not okay to censor who has access outside of those policies.  For example, some schools take a blanket prohibition on allowing true freshman to talk to the media.  If that’s your policy that’s fine, but make sure that policy is written and the media know that going into the season.

That was the issue at Georgia this week.  Georgia’s media policy apparently does not include such a blanket policy so last week after true freshman Jacob Eason led Georgia to a win over Missouri, the beat writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution inquired as to why Eason was not available to talk.  Smart, pulling a page from the Nick Saban playbook, smarted off at the reporter by asking what year the kid was in school.  Of course, he’s a freshman and to Smart that was the end of the discussion only as this reporter pointed out in a column in the AJC, Georgia has no such written policy.  That wasn’t Smart’s only run in with reporters this week.  His offensive line has been struggling so a beat reporter asked him if the coaches had considered making changes on the line.  Smart responded – in a fashion he’s becoming known for – by firing back a question at the reporter “what would you suggest?”  Well coach he’s not suggesting anything and it’s not his place to suggest.  He’s asking a question and if the answer is no we haven’t considered it or we are looking at everything that’s the answer.  End of story.

In Smart’s defense, and in defense of other coaches who’ve smarted off at reporters, let’s be fair.  These coaches work 18-20 hours a day, are the highest paid persons on campus and deal with unreal pressure most of us can’t fathom.  In addition, we forget they also have families so if a kid is not doing well in school or misbehaving at home, that also figures into a coaches’ mood. Their lives just seem perfect to those of us who aren’t living them.  No one feels their best everyday and so maybe a question catches the coach at the wrong time when he’s not feeling his best and he does something he wouldn’t normally do.  It happens. I’m likewise not going to defend sports writers as a group.  Some are excellent.  Some are wasting their skills as pastry chefs covering sports for a living and are known for asking stupid questions because your editor wants you to actually ask a question at a press-conference and not just sit there even though listening and observing is 99.9% of a reporter’s job.

Sports writers and sports reporters sometimes cross a line between professionalism and fandom.  Hey, I went to Virginia Tech and like to see them do well, but at no point while covering the team did I wear the school colors or apparel on the sidelines or in the press box.  I didn’t think it was appropriate and it is not.  Nor, is it appropriate for a reporter to openly cheer in the press box.  If you want to do that, then give up your job and go sit in the stands with the rest of the drunks.  They’ll be glad to have you.

But, what shouldn’t happen at a public institution is what happened last week at Virginia Tech.  Former Head Coach Frank Beamer was largely an accommodating open book.  You were limited to the time you could actually be inside the practice field, and again that’s fair, but as for access to the players and his assistants there was no micro-managing.  You worked with former SID Dave Smith and you could normally get what you wanted.  Not always, but most of the time.  Now, with Justin Fuente in charge access is more limited.  Last week the small handful of beat reporters requested 7 players to speak after practice. 6 of those requests were rejected.  It’s a public institution and a free county which means the player should decide if he wants to talk or not and if he’s not comfortable with it, that’s fine.

There’s also a feeling I think among some coaches that these players are their property.  Well no they are not.  They belong to the team, but have their own thoughts and opinions and their own stories which are many times fascinating and deserve to be told.  The coach can view the player as his property, but if a bigger paycheck at a bigger school comes calling, he’s willing to throw that property away in exchange for something better.  You can’t have it both ways.

In fairness, Fuente is not the only one controlling access.  In fact, most of them do.  This week Florida coach Jim McElwain cut off all media access to his program as they prepared to play Tennessee.  Nick Saban actually appears to be more accommodating than his demeanor would appear.  He’s worn wireless microphones for ESPN and 60 minutes among others, but he does have a philosophy that is nauseating.  He’s the voice of the program so assistant coaches aren’t allowed to talk other than in the pre-season and apparently after National Championships.  Other coaches do that as well.  Al Groh did it at Virginia, which was disappointing as he was about as exciting as a bag of sand.  Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reached the height of absurd last week when he refused to release a depth chart for his team’s game against Colorado prompting the Colorado  SID to get creative and create a fake one that included characters like Cookie Monster.  Harbaugh – as he does with most things – didn’t think it was funny, but when you act like a cartoon character you get what you deserve.  Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops cut off access to his players this week after a true freshman back-up quarterback with absolutely no chance to even play was quoted as saying Ohio State’s defense was “basic” before the Buckeyes put the beat down on the Sooners last weekend.  He was right in one respect.  It was “basic”-ally too much for Oklahoma.

Coaches also need to realize that the local media can make or break a coach and a large part of that depends on your relationship with them.  In this day of Facebook and Twitter, access to information is virtually unlimited and so when you are an ass to a reporter, someone in Seattle, Washington knows about it.  When the local media turns its guns on you, you are done because, despite your efforts to control, they control the narrative in that area.  Just ask former Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley who didn’t speak to the press for 4 months after one of his ill-fated seasons.  When his team continued to struggle, the narrative was that Dooley was on his way out.  You don’t think an A.D. keeps up with that?  You don’t think big name boosters who really control college athletics aren’t influenced by that?  Think again.

No one is asking a coach to be nice all the time or invite the media over to his house for dinner.  In fact, I believe that would be crossing the line on the coaches’ part.  They simply need to realize that in their micro-managing world, there are just some things that can’t and should not be controlled particularly when the very people you are trying to hide things from are the ones paying your salary.

Now onto Week 4 and there are some interesting match-ups this weekend and one highly anticipated game on the banks of the Tennessee River in Knoxville where by 7:30 on Saturday night, there will be one giant party going on, or one moving truck being rented for Coach Butch Jones.  It’s been since 2004 that Tennessee beat Florida. Think about that.  Ron Zook was the coach at Florida at that time and I can’t even tell you where the hell he is now.  Urban Meyer never lost to Tennessee.  Will Muschamp – yes that’s no coaching Will Muschamp – never lost to Tennessee.  Now Jim McElwain tries to stretch Florida’s streak of consecutive victories to 12.  He will try to do with a back-up quarterback, a graduate transfer from Purdue.  But, he also has the top-ranked defense in the nation facing a Tennessee Offensive Line that has performed poorly in their first three games.  Butch Jones’ team has struggled every game this year, and he puts on a happy face by pointing out that his team is 3-0 and has won 9 in a row, but if Tennessee is truly back among the nation’s elite, the losing streak must end.  A loss here frankly dooms any chance of winning the SEC East in my opinion.

Clemson did it’s part last night by befuddling Ga. Tech’s triple option, now it’s Louisville’s turn to see if they can stay unbeaten and on track for next Saturday night’s showdown with Clemson.  This also qualifies as the A.D. should be fired for scheduling this game, as Louisville goes to Marshall.  Why?  No one outside of Conference USA should go to Marshall.  First of all, it’s a tough place to play.  There may not be another team in college football more intricately intertwined with its City than Marshall is with Huntington, West Virginia.  Secondly, let’s see how Louisville handles success after clobbering Florida State last week and with Clemson looming next week.  Then there’s the little matter of Marshall having Louisville’s number.  The Thundering Herd have won the last 4.  You might have a hard time finding this game.  It’s stuck on the CBS Sports Network at 8:00 p.m.

There are only a handful of games in the ACC’s Coastal Division that will decide who wins the division and plays in the Championship Game.  We don’t know what Va. Tech and Miami are going to be, and we know after last night that Ga. Tech isn’t going to win the division so that leaves North Carolina and Pitt as the Coastal Division’s elite.  They play on Saturday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These two have only played 10 times in their respective histories with North Carolina winning 7 of those.  Eight of the 10 meetings have been decided by less than 4 points and since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, they’ve never beaten North Carolina in a conference game.

Virginia Tech steps out of conference for the next-to-last time this season to face an old nemesis in East Carolina.  I’m going to be biased here.  I can’t stand East Carolina.   This goes back to my days at WVVA when I was shooting a Virginia Tech-East Carolina game in Blacksburg and the stupid Pirate Mascot kept getting in my way which promoted me to tell him that if he kept doing it I was going to deck him.  That resulted in an obscene gesture from him which I frankly thought was funny.  What isn’t funny to Virginia Tech fans is that ECU has won the last two games in this series, and the Pirates in all fairness have had big success against ACC teams, winning their last 6 games against conference teams including a 33-30 win over N.C. State this year.

In-state neighbor Virginia is back at home to face the Mid-American Conference’s Central Michigan Chippewas.  These two last played in 1996 when Virginia Head Coach George Welsh won his 99th game as Virginia’s Head Coach.  Bronco Mendenhall came to Charlottesville from BYU with 99 wins.  After three games, he’s still there.  Virginia needs a win badly because if they don’t get one this week or next week at Duke, they are honestly looking at an 0-8 start and all the liquor in Charlottesville won’t get people coming to the games to sign the good ole song of “Wahoo-Wa” if that happens.

After a week off, West Virginia plays BYU at Fed Ex Field in Landover, Maryland.  This is the Mountaineers final non-conference game and their first ever meeting with BYU.  BYU is 1-2, but their rookie head coach Kalani Sitake has iron balls. Rather than play for a tie and overtime at Utah he decided to go for two and the win.  They didn’t get it, but showing recruits those kinds of stones is only going to help in the future.  This may be these two schools’ first meeting, but may not be the last.  It’s likely to become a regular occurrence if the Big XII expands and includes BYU.

Our FCS game of the week takes us to San Diego and the Pioneer Football League battle between the Dayton Flyers and the San Diego Toreros.  The Pioneer Football League began in 1993 and in the league’s 23 years of existence, Dayton has won 12 PFL Titles, and San Diego has won 7.  That’s 19 of 23 years, and in 9 of the last 11 years, the winner of this game has won the league title.  Last year both team’s tied for the title at 7-1, but by virtue of Dayton’s win over San Diego, the Flyers got the Pioneer’s automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs.  Keep in mind the Pioneer is a non-scholarship league so there is absolutely no one getting paid to go to school on that field on Saturday night.

For Division II, we stay out West in the San Gabriel Valley of California near Pasadena where 3-0 Azusa Pacific hosts Simon Fraser in a Great Northwest Athletic Conference game.  Azusa Pacific is a former NAIA school that won an NAIA title in 1998 and began transitioning to Division II in 2011 becoming a full-fledged member in 2014.  Among the schools alums is former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye who came to the school to run track and found a calling in football.  And, you might have a hard time finding a more decorated Offensive Line coach in Division II that the one at Azusa Pacific.  The line is coached by NFL Hall of Famer Jackie Slater who played 20 years and 259 games with the Los Angeles Rams.  Slater spent his entire career with the Rams, an NFL record with one team.  Simon Fraser is unique in that it is located in British Columbia, Canada near Vancouver.  It’s the only athletic program outside of the United States that participates in the NCAA.  Simon Fraser is nicknamed the “Clan” but their mascot is a Scottish Terrier named McFogg the Dog.  Yes, try toping that.

For Division III we welcome back to college football the latest starting conference in the country.  It’s opening week in the New England Small College Athletic Conference also known as the “Little Ivy” League.  The NESCAC teams play only 8 conference games and do not participate in the NCAA’s Division III playoffs.  Our featured game takes us to Williamstown, Massachusetts where the Ephs of Williams College host the Mules of Colby College.  Ephs (rhymes with Chiefs) is a shortened version of the school’s founder Ephrean Williams.  Their mascot is a Purple Cow and they along with Amherst and Wesleyan form the “Little 3” rivalry, which is the longest continuing rivalry series in college football having started in 1899.  Colby for it’s part is 4-15 all time against Williams, and is coming off a 1-7 season in 2015.

And for NAIA, we go to Marshall, Missouri where the 11th ranked and undefeated Missouri Valley Vikings host Grand View in a game at begins at 11 a.m. Central Time.  The Vikings are 4-0 after beating Peru State last week.  And, no Peru State is not in Peru, it’s in Nebraska.  Missouri Valley is 57 miles from the University of Missouri in Columbia and 85 miles from Kansas City.  Among the varsity sports the school sponsors are rodeo teams for both men and women.

Having a great weekend and lasso an adult beverage or two…

 

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