Hey coach, lighten up!

Steve Spurrier and his coaching cohorts get pissy with the press

Steve Spurrier, the wisecrackin’ ol’ ballcoach at the University of South Carolina, has the Gamecocks in rarefied air. After demolishing Georgia last weekend, a team that traditionally stomped Carolina, Spurrier’s squad is undefeated and ranked third in the nation. A huge game looms Saturday, when South Carolina visits LSU, last year’s national runner up, in Baton Rouge.

But with success inevitably comes arrogance, and Spurrier is flexing his muscles with local journalists, knowing full well he is in a position of strength. Earlier in the season Ron Morris, a columnist for The State newspaper, accused Spurrier of exposing an injured player, quarterback Connor Shaw, to further harm by playing him before he was fully healed. Then Morris compounded the accusation by going on a local radio show (part of a weekly, paid segment) and lambasting Spurrier’s power and ego, which were only growing. He then invoked the toxic words “Penn State,” meaning Morris felt absolute power in a football program would lead to absolute corruption.

As if determined to prove Morris’s point, Spurrier reacted angrily to the comparison, and demanded Morris be fired. The radio station ended the weekly segment, and while Morris is still employed by The State, Spurrier has made comments that would indicate he is doing all he can to ensure that Morris had better keep a cardboard box near his desk.

“We need to make some changes and I really believe between [South Carolina] president [Harris] Pastides and the guy that runs the newspaper, that some good changes are coming forth,” Spurrier said.

Morris has already apologized for using the Penn State analogy, and Spurrier would seem to have more important matters on his plate than the fate of a local columnist, even if his long and superb coaching career is littered with incidents of petty feuds with local media (he stopped speaking with a Florida writer after he wrote that Spurrier was booed at a local civic function, which Spurrier denied took place. The silent treatment lasted nearly two decades), including last year with Morris himself.

But Spurrier’s demagoguery comes in the context of several other incidents between coaches and the press this season. At USC, coach Lane Kiffin ran out of a press conference after a local reporter had the temerity to ask questions about injured players. Kiffin then briefly suspended the reporter’s access to the team. Across town, UCLA coach Jim Mora booted the entire press corps from practice because they committed the mortal sin of wandering into restricted areas. Alabama coach Nick Saban, who can reliably be counted on for media criticism, angrily took reporters to task for downplaying the threat posed by a coming opponent, a team the Crimson Tide belted 35-0. And just this week, athletic officials at the University of Kansas suggested that a sports writer for the student paper not ask questions at future press conferences after unflattering coverage of the Kansas football team appeared in the paper.

Football coaches, a paranoid, suspicious group of control freaks and egomaniacs at the best of times, aren’t likely to improve their behavior vis a vis the media anytime soon. Much of the tension, at the college level as well as professional, comes from the attempt by reporters to discover the status of injured players, information coaches consider as confidential as atomic secrets. Unfortunately, their attempt at maintaining competitive advantage runs afoul of the need to service this great nation of gamblers, who help make football the Tyrannosaurus Rex of sports. Injury information is critical to handicapping, a fact that is material to basically everyone in the world except football coaches.

It is perhaps germane to ask whether the exhaustive and often personal coverage football teams engender is worth the effort. But coaches like Spurrier and the NFL’s Bill Belichick, the Marcel Marceau of non-communicative performance art, have made millions off the football beast that has run amok across the countryside over the last half century—driven in no small part by the commercialized spectacle created by the media. So the price of admission to this exclusive club includes accepting the scrutiny that comes with it. Rare is the question, opinion—or even a comparison to a program that fostered a child molester—that is worth the aggrieved reactions from the coaches.

A common tactic of football coaches to elicit better performance from players is to insist that the athlete “grow a pair.” It’s advice that the coaches would be wise to follow themselves when dealing with the media—the same media that have helped pay for the coaches’ assorted homes, private schools, and watercraft.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , ,