October 04, 2018

NEW YORK—The reason I stopped being a sportswriter was that I could no longer deal with the concept of the coach’s interview.

Since I was only 13 when I started, I initially thought it was my own problem. You ask the coach a question—at first it was high school football coaches—and they give you an answer that seems to be the answer to a question asked in a different language by an unknown person in a Central Asian country.

For example…

“Glad to meet you, Coach Wilkins. It looked to me like Stevens caught the ball a few inches out of bounds but the referees didn’t see it. Are you mad about that?”

“They were just hungrier than we were. They went after it and we didn’t go after it. We weren’t hungry enough.”

Well, uh, no. If there hadn’t been that bad call, you would have won the game.

Besides which, I never got the concept of athletic “hunger,” just as I never got many of the other concepts, like “playing with emotion.”

Sometimes you shouldn’t “play with emotion.” For example, I’ve noticed that when Roger Federer goes down two sets in a match, he does the opposite of play with emotion. He goes into a supernatural calm, focusing on the single point. The reason he kind of explodes in a celebratory frenzy when he finally wins the match is that he has refused to let himself feel any emotion at all until that moment. I’ve noticed that skilled positions in football—wide receivers, quarterbacks—tend to be mastered by guys who can screen out emotion and focus on relaxation instead.

But if you try to talk to the coach about any concept that challenges the cliché, he won’t like it. I once angered a coach who said, “We have fourteen starters returning from last season, so we’ll be the most experienced team in the division.”

To which I replied, “Since they only won three games last year, do you think you want those same fourteen guys back?”

It was as though I had violated some sacred principle called “the cosmic power of the returning starter.”

“I don’t need you people in the press questioning the heart of my people.”

Once again, one of these sports concepts that are often used in boxing: “That kid has heart.”

“Notice that you only say ‘That kid has heart’ when ‘that kid’ is losing, especially if he’s refusing to give up in a situation that is hopeless.”

Notice that you only say “That kid has heart” when “that kid” is losing, especially if he’s refusing to give up in a situation that is hopeless. He’s lost nine rounds of a ten-round fight, he’s flailing away, he’s going for dangerous knockout punches every fifteen seconds, his face is bloody, and his opponent is systematically drubbing him. What you should be thinking is “The referee or ring doctor should probably stop this so he doesn’t end up with permanent brain damage.” Instead you say, “That kid has heart.”

And here’s the part I didn’t like. You had to say that in the article the next day. You needed to acknowledge that “the kid has heart” or else you would get angry mail from the fans of that fighter.

When I was older—I wrote about sports for a looooooooong time—I started to realize that most coaches don’t wanna talk to you at all. They wish you weren’t there. As soon as they see the guy with the notebook in his hand, they go into some sort of defensive “let’s screw with him” posture. Watch a few college football press conferences and notice the pained expressions on their faces. Would they really be happier if we returned to the days when the media ignored them and a hundred people would stand on the sideline to watch guys in leather helmets run plays up the middle in the mud? Do they not realize that the only reason they have money is that the press coverage creates an audience for something the world could easily live without?

So what I realized is that there was something tribal about the football community that I simply didn’t understand. One time I covered a golf tournament in Cherokee Village, Ark., and I roomed with the head football coach at the University of Richmond. I was asking him a lot of questions about how much money he needs to train his team and how much he gets from his administration and how much of a disadvantage he feels because big public schools like, say, the University of Georgia have unlimited funding for facilities he’ll never be able to afford, and he suddenly developed an attitude and cut me short and said, “Let’s talk football.”

And I was kind of stunned because, up to that time, we seemed to be hitting it off. I wasn’t saying it was his fault that the funding system was corrupt, I was simply saying, “These Southern politicians will always make sure the state school has the biggest football stadium, the highest-paid coach, the best weight equipment,” etc. But the principle I was violating—I figured this out later—was that of “desire.”

If you have enough “desire,” then it doesn’t matter that the other team is bigger, better financed, better trained. I used to point out that the reason my own school, Vanderbilt, could never do that well in football is that the Faculty Senate refused to lower the admissions standards for athletes. We didn’t need to do that much. All we needed to do was make it possible for a C student in high school with no particular academic distinction to be admitted as a freshman based on his superior athletic ability. Colleges do this all the time for violin prodigies and 16-year-old mathematics savants who fail all their English classes—why not just say that the ability to play football, if you’re spectacularly talented, is a special case as well?

Oddly enough, the criticism of this particular point of view came not from my own school, but from schools like Louisiana State and Alabama—because I was implying that their players were stupid. I had violated another of the sacred clichés: “All teams are equal at the beginning of the season. No team has an advantage because of low admissions standards.”

I was thinking of all these things over the weekend when, at the height of the football season, when coaches should be most intelligent, I heard them saying the same things they were saying all those years ago, as though they’re all equipped with the same brain microchip:

“We’re going to have to protect the football.” (James Franklin, Penn State)

Yes, James, it would probably be a good idea not to fumble the ball.

“We have to prepare Monday through Friday to have a chance on Saturday.” (Chris Klieman, North Dakota State)

Yes, Chris, I agree that the team should practice.

“He’s a warrior. He’s the toughest guy on our football team.” (Steve Addazio, Boston College)

Whenever a coach uses the term “warrior,” it’s always applied to a player with standout ability who’s aggressive on the field. It never means an athlete so skilled at avoiding tackles that he never gets hit. It’s closely related to “mix it up,” as in, “Jimmy is not afraid to mix it up,” which means “player with the dirtiest uniform.”

“We just gotta keep getting better.” (Bo Pelini, Youngstown State)

Well, Bo, the way to do that apparently is don’t feed your team. Then they’ll be hungry and they’ll play with emotion and heart and become warriors. Also, don’t fumble the football.

I’m sure the coaches mean something when these words come out of their mouths. I’m sure that many of the sentences are not intended to “just get this damn thing over with.” I’m sure they think they’re saying something. I’m just glad that I’m no longer the person who has to figure out what it is.


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