It doesn't seem so long ago that college and high school coaches pitched fits, flew into rages, snubbed sportswriters, ignored fans, and ran their teams. Some literally dictated to the media what would and would not be written. Others castigated reporters as if they were scum. Still others were the intuitive masters of public relations before it evolved into a science. They told the parents precisely how to behave. The parents complied. Coaches ruled their mini-universes with minimal interference.
Stories of players scalping a few tickets, being locked up for fighting, being drunk and disorderly, or selling gambling parlay cards were winked at, and were never, ever, reported in the press. Coaches' and players' personal lives were sacrosanct. Only whispers were allowed, and even famous journalists knew better than to tread onto the coaches' hallowed ground. It was understood that to violate the code of secrecy meant being cast into the outer darkness of information deprivation, or worse.
Coaches were responsible for making the rules, lining the fields, issuing equipment, deciding what the trainer could decide, creating the game plans, grading the film, hiring and firing assistants, organizing the booster clubs, and counseling young people on every detail of their lives. Players asked permission to get married, and were often denied, based on perceived maturity level. Some coaches were masters of academic motivation, while others hardly noticed the books unless a lab interfered with football practice.
They appeared on organizational charts under the principal or athletic director, but reported to no one. Their answers to most of life's tough issues were contained in blocking sleds, tackling drills and team concepts like leadership, honesty, loyalty and discipline.
If they lost enough games, they changed to another venue just before being run out of town. If they won, they became the Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Vader of their campus, depending on their orientation. Some were the finest people in the universe, and a few were monsters. They were, and are, complex creatures, very seldom understood, but always watched, and usually the subjects of adulation or ridicule, with little in between.
Folks all over America (but especially in the South) smiled, shook their heads, and allowed, "Well, you know how things are. He's our coach." God help you if you tried to take the place of one of them. It was virtually impossible. One friend of mine did so, had instant success, winning several championships after the living legend retired. On a trip to the grocery store he overheard two loud ladies in the next aisle. One indignantly said to the other, "I just saw that new coach over there strutting around." He was completing his fourth successful season.
There were some wonderful things about that system, and there were some nightmares. These creatures, for all their eccentricities had, and continue to have three things in common:
• They work unconscionable hours. Call for an appointment during the football season, and you might be granted an audience at 5:30 a.m.
• They are driven competitors. They are tough as nails. If they believe they are right, they will fight you to the death. They do not care what anyone else thinks.
• They are loyal to a fault. Do not dare insult, degrade, or damage one of their family, assistants or players ever.
Far Far Away
However long ago that existence was, and I cannot come up with a line of demarcation; it is light years from what we know now. We might as well be in a separate galaxy, fashioned by the kinds of assumptions and technology that deny public figures their constitutional rights. I recently turned on a sports talk radio show, and heard the following:
"Phillip Fulmer is the head football coach at Tennessee. He does not deserve to have a private life!" The logic is inescapable, modern and chilling.
The celebrity-driven economics of our scary new millennium preordain a kind of scrutiny that demands new skills from coaches, and some find it difficult to comply. Even young coaches are often products of the old ways, and find it hard to stomach the kind of intrusive journalism that can brand a person for life, whether or not the reporting is accurate.
Coaches now answer to ADs who never played their sport, parents, female sportswriters, male sportswriters who never played their sport, administrators who see football as evil, and Title IX interpretation. Add to that number wealthy alumni, fans who never attended college, and an increasing number of social miscreants who use sports to spew rage, invective and occasional violence over all the proceedings. The obsessive media dictate 24-hour-a-day reporting, and the coaches' lives take on a complexity that is new and daunting.
Occasionally one snaps, reverts, and makes old-school noises.
Alfred Hitchcock in the New Millennium
Early in my head coaching career, when I was about Mike Gundy's age, I left the practice field at Georgia Tech with the sure knowledge that we were going to be a good football team. As I approached the evening of my 16-hour work day, I was overjoyed to be attending our annual Yellow Jacket Club Gala. It had grown from a gathering of 30-40 hardy souls in the early years to 1,200. This would be one evening we could get with our loyalists, celebrate our progress and motivate for our bright future.
During the social hour I was approached by a man who handed me a sheet from a yellow legal pad. What followed could have been vintage Alfred Hitchcock. The guy was pleasant and well-dressed, and introduced himself with a name that seemed vaguely familiar. He was compelling in his manner, and gently insisted that I read the handwritten missive in his presence. I glanced down, was transfixed, as if by hypnosis, and took the full dose.
It was a concise, well-written document that shredded every semblance of hope for Georgia Tech athletics. Prepared by a "successful" attorney, it reminded me of my foolishness, our team's notable failures, our opposition's overwhelming superiority and the inherent inferiority of our institution. It was parody. It was funny. It was good.
If that little scenario had happened five years later, I would have read the first line, laughed, bought the gentleman a drink, invited him to sit at the head table and dropped the poison document into the nearest garbage can. At that age and stage, I could not contain myself. When my wife joined me at the head table, her antennae detected my mood, and she anxiously asked what was up. I said, "I am going to light this place up." She shook her head, told me to keep my mouth shut, and returned to her meal.
When my turn came to address the crowd I announced that our team would be better than ever, that we would win the ACC, that we were surrounded by a bunch of cheaters in our part of the country, and that given time we would "bring them to their knees!" There was the obligatory standing ovation, the scary stare from athletic director Homer Rice, a line of reporters waiting to see me, and a quick meeting with our sports information director, Norm Arey. Norm asked, "When are you scheduled to take the Alumni trip to Greece?" "In about two weeks," I responded. "Think you could leave tomorrow?" he asked, not smiling.
I'd been had, done in by my ego, my emotion, my misplaced value system, and a clever brief.
Why Do A "Gundy?"
I don't know Mike, but I do know he is a good coach and seems like a fine person. I think I know what happened, and what the consequences will be.
1. Mike's team won the biggest game of his tenure. Coming off embarrassing defeats, they were so good they got the rival's defensive coordinator fired.
2. Mike was justifiably pumped with adrenaline about the big event, overjoyed, proud of his players and maybe a little sad about the ones that didn't get to play.
3. In this state of mind, he looked at an article about one of the latter that set his heart pounding, his loyalty soaring and his righteous indignation off the charts.
4. Forgetting the win for the moment, he went on the attack to defend his player at all costs.
5. Rather than affirm the positive, he allowed the negative to prevail.
6. He defended one of his men in an authentic, powerful, emotional, spontaneous way. He did it in a way that clearly put him and his career at risk.
1. Owing to the magic of modern technology, any rant by a football coach will forevermore be known as a "Gundy."
2. If Oklahoma State wins three national championships under Gundy, and Mike is coach of the year six times, some drunk relative will walk up to him at a Christmas party 20 years from now and say, "Oh, boy, you sure told 'em when you stood up and nailed them sorry sportswriters back in '07! Them was the 'good old days!'"
3. Gundy's detractors will remind one and all of the incident ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
4. His players will love him for it. Football is an authentic, powerful, emotional, spontaneous sport. He took a chance for his men. The team will work a little harder, be a little bolder. It was a bold stroke of leadership.
In the old galaxy, the article would never have been written. In the new Star Wars, coaches need coaching on when to be spontaneous and when to be diplomatic. Mike Gundy's public relations gaffe will haunt him, and for that he will have been wrong to bring it up in the manner he did. Mike Gundy's courageous, ill-conceived defense of his man will ignite something positive in his players that nothing else could have evoked. Virtually nothing in sport is as simple as it may appear.
Was he wrong? Yes. And No.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.