LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- "Lots of chatter." The words come via Twitter and Facebook and email, and in this business, the implication is that you'd better add to the chatter or, better yet for most folks, separate the true chatter from the false.
I'll make my small contribution, but first I'd like to direct your attention to Fayetteville, Ark. Today, Bret Bielema of Wisconsin was hired as the Razorbacks coach.
The amount of chatter about Bielema before he took that job, by national experts, by media in Fayetteville who undoubtedly usually have their fingers on the pulse of the program, was exactly zero.
Let me say that again. Every pundit, analyst, blogger, premium web site, live chat, Tweet, Facebook post, every message board and, yes, every newspaper and television station, got it wrong. None of them mentioned his name.
Here in Kentucky, the name of eventual coach Mark Stoops only surfaced relatively late in the search of athletic director Mitch Barnhart. In that case, it doesn't mean all the reporting up to that point was wrong. Barnhart did go through a process and talk to others. But all of the stories were incomplete, present company included.
A week ago, there was a great deal of "chatter" about the Atlantic Coast Conference. I took to Twitter a bit more because I was hearing a bit more.
In this case -- at least from the Louisville end, there's radio silence. The feeling, second-hand from two people I know close to athletic department personnel, describe a back-and-forth kind of ordeal, in which they believe one day their football coach will be gone, and the next that he might stay.
At this hour, 6 p.m. Eastern time on Dec. 4, multiple reports out of Tennessee are that Charlie Strong is a finalist for the Tennessee coaching job, and ESPN even has indicated that he has become the central candidate, though nothing is done. All indications are, however, that the process will draw to a close soon.
Out of those second-hand sources I have, the belief is that Strong is indeed under consideration, but either moved to the back burner while other candidates were interviewed, or is wrestling very hard with how he wants to proceed. Or both. Another, within the department, when asked whether they think Strong is leaving, said, "I really don't."
I want to tell you right here, that perspective should be taken with all the skepticism you would ascribe to any information you hear in these cases, and in fact the skepticism with which I take all such information. The problem with sources is that they themselves often have only part of the picture. And it's a picture that can change from hour to hour at that.
U of L athletic director Tom Jurich has been down this road before. He knows very well that the coach making him pull his hair out one day is one he might have to sell to the fan base the next. He doesn't talk. What he wants to have said, he's already said. He'll pay Strong what he wants. He'd like to see him stay. ON MONDAY, Strong held a press conference that still has U of L fans abuzz. It'll be useful, no doubt, for U of L school of business professors in public relations courses to use as an example of what not to say.
It's never a good idea to lecture your own fans. Some coaches can get by with it. If you've been to six Final Fours and won a national championship, you can do that kind of thing. When you're three weeks removed from a home loss to UConn, you might want to wait.
I was, frankly, in a bit of disbelief that Strong would utter the following.
"Kentucky can travel with the Big Blue Nation, they go take over," Strong said. "We should have that same passion here."
I haven't confirmed this yet, but apparently, U of L fans have responded by planning to return two-thirds of their allotment to next year's UK-U of L game in Lexington.
Strong came in saying he wasn't going to talk about coaching rumors, then talked about them for six or seven minutes. Something wasn't adding up. Then Strong said this, and everything started to make sense.
"I'm going to say this to you guys," Strong said. "I have no representative. Charlie Strong represents himself."
Boom. It all makes sense. You just have to listen closely.
All this crazy stuff that was said at the news conference on Monday, it wasn't Coach Charlie Strong talking. It was Representative Charlie Strong.
You might think I'm making light of the situation, and I am. But there is truth spoken in jest, and it should be remembered. Strong is a football coach. He has a great deal of experience in coaching, and is a grown man, but he doesn't have a great deal of experience in these kinds of touchy situations, where any word you say can and will be used against you.
Strong is a coach. He isn't a salesman. When he took his own fan base to task for empty seats or for a small crowd at a Senior Day Card March, he did it as a coach, not as a marketing consultant. He went after the fans as he would one of his players. This is a man who hangs posters all of the complex to motivate his players, quotes, things said about them in the media, anything he can find to rile up his players. U of L fans, he just hung a poster in your locker room. He wants you to see red.
The problem is, your fans aren't your players. You can't coach people around who are shelling out thousands of dollars to watch you play. It's a common mistake coaches make, and Strong has made it. He tried to coach the media around earlier this year. He's a coach. Most learn over time, you can't coach everyone.
He is, however, the second coach from U of L to speak out to its fan base in a little frustration. You could say John L. Smith was feeling a little rancorous when he left. I'm not sure what ticked Strong off. It is the inclination of most of us, when criticized, to immediately defend ourselves and explain the behavior being criticized. And for the most part, U of L's fan base has done nothing but grow. Its crowd for Senior Day used to be in the mid 30,000s. This year it was in the mid 40,000s. It's growing.
But it's not the atmosphere you have at other places. When U of L was in overtime with UConn, rather than filling the end zone seating section to create an intimidating home-field advantage, thousands of fans stood above it on the party deck. U of L's crowds are often more spectator than participant -- not all the time, but sometimes. It'll change over time.
The comments Strong will have to mend fences on if he stays in Louisville are his comparisons with UK fans. They are not very applicable to football, and basketball is a misplaced comparison. Regardless, you don't do it. All Strong can do to fix that faux pas is explain to fans his frustration, that he wanted better for his players, all the things coaches say.
If he stays, chances are fans will accept it. They accepted Bobby Petrino. (And might accept him again.) Some won't. But you'd be surprised how far winning games goes in smoothing over relationships. AS FAR AS STRONG'S COMMENTS ABOUT HIS JOB, he said too much, and said some of it badly. But it's important for media types not to be disingenuous about these kinds of things. If coaches won't talk, we criticize them. If they don't talk, we give meaning to their silence. And then when they do talk, they are criticized for what they say.
My philosophy has been to give the coach credit for talking, even if he says stupid things. And Strong said some ill-advised things.
But in general, it's like a game of whack-a-mole. The media coaxes the coach out of his hole, then hits him in the head with a hammer when he pops up.
Coaches are big boys. They make millions of dollars to deal with this. But it doesn't mean it's always good journalistic practice, even if it sells papers and draws viewers and web readers.
If he said he never talked to Tennessee when he had talked to them, it's a problem. He'll have to explain it.
Is Charlie Strong being ungrateful if he looks at other jobs? Tom Jurich gave him his first opportunity when no one else would. Jurich also was among those athletic directors who passed over Strong in previous years. He wound up being the one who gave him a chance, and a good one, but what exactly is loyalty in college sports? What does it constitute?
Different people measure it different ways. I measure it by the job that is done. In three seasons, Charlie Strong took U of L's program from chaos to the Sugar Bowl. He gave the program Teddy Bridgewater and a slew of talented young players. He gave direction and shape to the program off the field, requiring community service of his players and leading it to unprecedented academic levels. He brought the program from the brink of APR penalty, and improved it to the point where the ACC accepted U of L as a member -- based largely on its on-field performance in the most important sports.
Whether Strong leaves or stays, he has lived up to much of his end of the deal. He has been good for the program, and most of all, good to its players.
It has not been the smoothest year for Strong and people at U of L, for various reasons.
And now, at this hour, it appears he may (let me emphasize that word) be faced with a decision. Emotions run high in these things. But it doesn't make him a villain to look at the job, or to even take the job.
But wherever he goes, Strong would do well to listen to the advice that professionals are giving him on how to communicate publicly. You can do a lot of damage with one bad press conference, and Strong did. If Strong isn't lured away to another job, he has some serious fence-mending to do.
The reasons for going, if he does, will be evident. There are more tradition-rich programs in better conferences with bigger stadiums and fan bases.
The reasons for staying are less tangible. Strong will have to look players in the eyes, players whom last week he told, "I'm your coach. Forget all that outside stuff." He will have to live with statements he made during the season that he was cut different from the usual win-and-advance template. He'll need to think about his assistants. Tom Jurich has stood by Clint Hurtt even as NCAA questions mounted. Jurich lives by loyalty perhaps more than anyone I've ever encountered. Many athletic directors are far more likely to cut and run when there are complications.
Coaching searches, in general, don't do much for the view of journalists or coaches. Through bombast or inaccuracy, we all tend to wind up looking like fools.
Yes, there's a lot of chatter. The best thing any of us can do -- fans, media, coaches -- is try to keep our heads on straight in the midst of it.
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