So what should you do if your coach is on the proverbial hot seat?
That’s a far tougher decision for sports journalists than for fans, who can jeer at games, screech on message boards, and create websites and Twitter accounts dedicated to getting the coach fired. Journalists need to remain as neutral as possible, especially when they have to regularly speak with coaches and players – but, more importantly, because, we should report the news and not stoke fans’ emotions.
In the past week, coaches have been fired at four Southeastern Conference schools (Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee) along with Boston College, California, Colorado, and University of South Florida, to name a few others. When this happens, sports journalists can interview players, athletic directors and university administrators – and, preferably, coaches across the conference and the state. The Oracle, USF’s student-run newspaper, focused on social media reactions to Skip Holtz’s firing.
But what should you do in the days or weeks leading up to a coach’s probable release? Critically assess the coach’s performance by outlining decisions during games, by reviewing statistics and records, and by looking at recruitment signings, among other areas. Suppress the opinionated statements and elevate the facts, anecdotes and details. Ultimately, let the reader decide whether the coach should be retained. As sports journalist, your job is to supply the information for these decisions.
A week before Gene Chizik was fired at Auburn, sportswriters for The (Auburn) Plainsman worked hard to cover the event as neutrally as possible – even after the newspaper’s editorial board devoted two edits on the subject.
“Basically, my personal philosophy is that it’s somewhat wrong to call for the firing of a grown man providing for his family, whether that’s Gene Chizik or a janitor in Jordan-Hare Stadium,” said Andrew Yawn, sports editor for the The Plainsman a week before Chizik’s firing. “In this business, however, it is necessary to point out the flaws in the system and wonder if there is a better solution. Chizik is very adept at avoiding questions concerning his job or anything that would negatively impact the image of the team, if he can avoid it. Obviously, the fans are clamoring for a change right now, but no news has been heard concerning those changes except for a statement from President Jay Gouge saying he will evaluate the team. We really just try to be as tactful as possible while still giving the public the news/opinions they want to read.
Purdue’s student-run newspaper staff asked football coach Danny Hope about rumors swirling around West Lafayette, but they try not to fuel fan’s ire with conjecture. Hope was eventually fired last week.
“In general, we don’t speculate on a hire until someone has been fired,” says Anil Rao, assistant sports editor at the Purdue Exponent. “At media (conferences) we do ask the question ‘Are you afraid about job security?’ At times, we will post a question on Twitter and use user-submitted feedback in the print edition. We do plan on having stories on the coaching job if our football coaching job opens up. We will probably have a column with suggested hires and more such coverage, summing up the Danny Hope era. It is no secret that Danny Hope probably won’t make it past this season as the head coach at Purdue, but we have to be careful in what we report.”
Some college sports columnists have, essentially, called for their coach’s jobs. Sean Zak, writing for the student-run Badger Herald, wrote a highly critical column of coach Bret Bielema earlier this season that concluded:
Alvarez tabbed Bielema as his successor, and to this point, that hiring may have seemed like the right one mainly because of the multiple other hires in proximity. Bielema has made the most of his stay at Wisconsin, but his actions and status under the tag of “head coach” have remained less than impressive.
And year by year, as the coaching carousel stops spinning and the likes of Matt Canada, Markuson or any other new face enters Camp Randall, there needs to be a “real” head coach waiting for them. Right now, it doesn’t seem to be that way.
Bielema never directly addressed the column, says Zak, who is associate sports editor for the newspaper. “If he had any response to it, no one knows about it. I definitely laid some strong claims out there, but nothing that should surprise anyone. The thing about Bret Bielema is that he has instilled a very tight-lipped program, and he rarely, if ever, addresses anything written about him or his team. Elliot Hughes, former sports editor here at the Herald, wrote a column earlier this year about that tight-lipped philosophy. Bielema definitely didn’t address the piece I wrote, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he read it.”
Earlier this season, the Daily Californian ran a column outlining why Jeff Tedford should be replaced. The columnist offered some good points, but the highly personal approach made it appear more like a piece written by a fan. Conversely, N.C. State’s student-run newspaper published a column supporting its football coach, Tom O’Brien, after a difficult loss.
Ultimately, this story is much larger than any single coach’s tenure. College football has evolved into a separate, professional sports entity on most campuses, where money is lavished on college coaches and where administrators willingly buy out coaching contracts that are worth millions, as this excellent New York Times article reports. Academics, meanwhile, might struggle to retain faculty and to upgrade facilities. That’s a story always worth investigating.
In the meantime, keep communicating with players, coaches, team managers and anybody else so you can learn the coach’s fate quickly and verifiably.