Translating Classic College Football Coach Speak
If you’ve ever thought about ways to link college football with power politics, try considering the relationship between spin and coach speak.
Indeed, while the former allows politicians to verbally avoid tough questions by answering with evasive, issue-twisting and ultimately confusing dialogue the latter allows head football coaches the same type of defense mechanism against queries they can’t or won’t answer.
And basically, it’s the same road that leads to nowhere.
The following slideshow celebrates the concept of “coach speak” by translating nine classic verbal maneuvers coaches employ in specific scenarios to avoid answering difficult or ludicrous questions.
Whether they utilize an “I’m not saying, I’m just staying” strategy, throw out a bunch of unrelated coaching jargon or attempt to make something look good when it’s obviously crap; it’s all spin and it happens all the time.
Since the ultimate goal for coaches is winning and keeping their jobs, what gridiron leaders say to the media can do one of three things.
First, the words he uses with the press can hurt a guy by virtue of him being too honest. Next, the contact could help him if he is skilled at utilizing an ultra-concerned demeanor to hide the fact that he’s not really answering any questions directly.
Lastly, it could generate zero net effect, a result that can only be achieved by delicately riding the line between honesty and spin.
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When you’re a college football coach, often at a major program, and you’re being hounded by the media regarding a QB controversy the spin doctors or coach speak facilitators need to cook up some good stuff.
To illustrate, let’s go back to August of 2012 when Mack Brown was trying to deflect questions regarding whether David Ash or Case McCoy would be the starter at Texas.
When asked whether a QB controversy was brewing, again, in Austin Brown quipped, “I don’t want to disappoint you all…”
Translation: “I’m not even going to say one freaking thing about the starting QB job.”
Later in the same presser Brown spouted, “We’ve got to figure out the passing game…I think we get a clear picture of who we are in the running game. We never reached the point where we knew exactly what we wanted to be in the passing game.”
Translation: “We sucked at passing the ball last season, and we sucked epically. How bad where we? Well, we were No. 86 in the nation in passing and No. 21 in rushing yards. We averaged less than 200 yards per game passing and switched back and forth between Ash and McCoy all season long. It was ugly and I didn’t sleep at night. It’s pretty freaking clear that neither of these guys, based on how bad we were last year, is the starter. I have no idea what we’re going to do…”
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So, your team has just gotten pounded in a major game and you’ve got to find a way to face the media in some sort of a respectable fashion.
While you can’t make the loss look anything else but tragic, you also can’t make it seem like all is lost because you need to keep your job and salvage whatever momentum you had going into this game.
This is a decidedly delicate situation.
For an example in this case we’ll go back to Bo Pelini’s presser after Nebraska allowed 539 yards of rushing versus Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten Championship. The final score was 70-31 Badgers.
The opening statement from Pelini set the tone immediately. “I apologize to everybody associated with Nebraska football with how we coached, how we played, and it’s not acceptable. I’ll take any questions.”
Translation: “That was the most painful *^($+ game I’ve ever coached. We sucked. I’m tired, I’m devastated, I want to break some crap but part of my job is being here so I’ll answer your freaking questions.”
After indicating that the Huskers defense had prepared for “99 percent” of the plays that Wisconsin ran in the title game, Pelini was asked if he could identify the one percent that Nebraska wasn’t ready for.
To this Pelini said, “I don’t know. Obviously we didn’t play well enough. We came unglued. I wish I had an answer, but I don’t.”
Translation: “Seriously, if I knew the answer to that we wouldn’t have lost by 39 points and it’s pretty %$^ #*@! clear that the one percent we weren’t ready for wasn’t the *&@#$(*& problem tonight. I understand you have to ask me a question, but that’s ridiculous.”
Finally, after being flogged about whether or not the loss was indicative of the overall direction of the program under his leadership Pelini was asked to comment on what he said to the team after the game.
“Can you share some of that?” the reporter asked.
“That’s private.” Pelini flatly replied.
Translation: “Screw you. I answered your questions now leave me the hell alone.”
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In college sports the battles on the recruiting trail can sometimes wind up being as important as the skirmishes that take place on the actual field on game day.
This means that winning on signing day can keep a coach employed. And this in turn also suggest that he has to be at least somewhat prudent in employing coach speak regarding the importance of the topic of recruiting.
To illustrate, let’s hark back to the summer of 2012 when top-ranked QB recruit Gunner Kiel made the switch from being an LSU lock to making a commitment to Notre Dame.
As expected, this change of heart made huge news and among the best of the headlines were a string of reactions from LSU head coach Les Miles.
According to a pair of tweets from Scott Rabalais from the Advocate in Baton Rouge, Miles made two statements on the Scott Van Pelt Show regarding Kiel.
First, Miles was purported to say, “There are reasons for wanting to stay home and play in front of his friends and family.”
Translation: “You need to stay in the Midwest kid, the SEC is a lot tougher and if you would have come down South to the big leagues, you would have wished you had stayed back home.”
Next, Miles apparently commented, “To step into our stadium…takes a different breed of cat. I wish Gunner all the best and I mean that very honestly.”
Translation: “Gunner doesn’t have the balls to play for LSU. That kid pisses me off, I have to say some nice stuff so I will, but who does he think he is? Notre Dame over the SEC, the Irish over the Tigers? That’s freaking ridiculous. I’m going to go eat a turf taco.”
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In another common press conference/interview scenario, your team is heading into a game with an opponent that is overmatched in a big way.
Whether your big bad BCS team is facing an FCS squad, a team from the Sun Belt or instead a FBS program in a decidedly downward spiral, it probably won’t be anywhere near a close contest.
In this instance you have to give your foe more respect than it’s due because you don’t want to come across as overconfident, cocky or condescending.
Since Nick Saban is a guy who comes to mind when thinking of this set of circumstances, let’s look back to how he handled his press coming into the Tide’s November 2012 game with FCS Western Carolina.
Saban: “I don’t think we need to be worrying about who we are playing this week as much as we need to worry about how we are playing.”
Translation: “Yes, we’re playing a team from a division below ours but we just lost to Texas A&M at home and probably cost ourselves a shot at two titles. We just allowed a freshman to score 20 points on us in the first freaking quarter. Who cares who we’re playing, we need to play better. In fact, I don’t care if we’re playing Dumas High School or Blinn Community College; we need to play better football.”
Saban: “We have a lot of respect for every team we play and certainly Western Carolina has done a lot of good things this season.”
Translation: “I’m not going to give you your ‘sound bite of the week.’ Go try that crap on somebody else.”
Taking a Job at a Struggling Program
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There may be no better place to find hard core coach speak than when a coach takes over the head role at a program that has historically struggled.
And this all becomes even more pointed when the assignment just so happens to be one of a handful of jobs in the BCS ranks that is fraught by nature.
Yes, when you become the proverbial “next head coach” at places like Washington State, Kansas, Indiana, Duke or Kentucky what are you supposed to say in the opening press conference?
While you can’t afford to say that you’re going to “win the conference in the next four seasons” you also don’t want to say “Geez, I hope we can win five games per year.”
But, the sad truth is you’ll be lucky, based on the relative strength of your competition, to get to a bowl game every couple of years.
This all sets up a serious need for spin served complete with some amped up RPMs.
To illustrate this scenario, let’s look back at what Mark Stoops had to say during his opening press conference as the new head coach at Kentucky in early December of 2012.
“I’m highly motivated to build this program to national prominence. There will be no magic wands in getting it done.”
Translation: “I’m really, really hoping that we can win five ball games and if we do, lots of people will like it. But, I watched the film and this thing is going to take a while to get off the ground. And, hey, did you guys realize that we have to play Florida, South Carolina and Georgia EVERY SINGLE YEAR?!?!?! WTF? LOL!”
When asked what he thought it would take Kentucky from a “losing culture to a winning culture” Stoops responded, “We’re going to embrace the process. We’re going to attack each and every day.”
Translation: “Wow, this could really suck but we’re going to make it seem like we are making progress even if it takes us two years to get there. Every day we’re going to get up and say to ourselves in the mirror, ‘we’re not going to be the next coaching staff at Kentucky that makes it only three seasons.’ And, if my name is on the ‘Hot Seat’ list I’m going to be punch-drunk happy about it. Geez, I just hope we can win more than five games…”
Other Job Opportunities
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Another prime scenario for coach speak to be unleashed on media types is when a guy receives interest from another organizational suitor.
Whether it is a “better” college job or a role in the NFL, as soon as your current head coach is on the “short list” or reportedly “being offered” another job, expect the spin to start, well, spinning.
Though there are a wild number of examples of this set of circumstances, we’ll pluck only two.
First, let’s look way back to 1998 when Tommy Tuberville was the head man at Ole Miss and made his now infamous remarks regarding his role in the Auburn coaching search.
“They’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box,” Tuberville stated, implying an almost religious level of dedication to the Rebels.
Since hindsight makes us geniuses and we all know now that Tubs took the Auburn job approximately 48 hours after the statement, the translation is a bit easier to complete.
Translation: “I’m getting my Arkansas #@% out of Mississippi before you can scream “Hoddy Toddy” one more flippin’ time. Later. Losers. LOL.”
Next, let’s dive into the shocking coaching change from 2012 that took Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema all the way to Arkansas to replace the one-year wonder John L. Smith.
According to an article featured on the on-line edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, Bielema made the following forward-looking statement prior to the Big Ten title game, a contest that took place just days before he decided to take the Razorbacks job.
“As the head coach, I know in year seven, I’m better than I was in year one…I’m really excited to play in this game and play in our bowl game. I have 27 juniors. I believe 12 of them are probably going to be (NFL) draft-worthy. I’m very excited about the chemistry of the group that’s going to be coming back next year.”
Translation: “Yes, I’m excited about winning the Big Ten for the third straight time but OMG did you know that Arkansas just called and that the SEC pays A LOT of money AND the weather doesn’t suck down there? Hey baby, if we can work this business out it will be out with the brats and in with the BBQ. Yep, I’m going to the show…holy crap, I’m going to the freaking SEC.”
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Another really interesting forum for coach speak often comes just after the final seconds of the first half tick off when coaches are chased off the field by sideline reporters wanting to get a 15-second sound bite regarding “how it’s going.”
In this instance, you’ve got to be careful not to be over-confident (if you’re on top), under-confident (if you’re getting beat) or too predictive if the game is close.
Anyway you slice it, and no matter what the scoreboard says, the game is not over, and so you don’t want your words to come back and haunt you.
A great illustration of how this works, in an extreme way, is from last seasons’ BCS title game when both Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Alabama’s Nick Saban were asked to comment, as they ran off the field at halftime, on the Tide’s 28-0 lead.
When asked what the Irish needed to do in the second half, Kelly managed the following response.
“Uh, maybe Alabama doesn’t need to come back in the second half…It’s all Alabama. We can’t tackle them right now and…who knows why. You know, they’re big and physical.”
Translation: “Holy Crap! Have you seen these guys? They’re huge and they’re so fast that by the time we get to the spot to tackle them they’re already long gone. The only way we win this game is if Alabama gets on the bus and goes home, but, wait, if they do that they still win, or do they? Does anyone know how that works? Geez, this is so bad I’m going to interview for the job at Cleveland…”
From the flip side we have Nick Saban’s underwhelming remarks at the half.
“I think we played well offensively…We controlled the line of scrimmage. We just gotta play 60 minutes. This game is not over, and our players need to understand that.”
Translation: Well, that went about as well as we could ever imagined. We totally kicked the crap out of them in every aspect of the game and we even got those two calls we shouldn’t have. Holy Crap! That was the bizox! But, don’t think that I won’t be all over my squad, this thing is O-freaking-ver but we’re still going to come out in the second half and act like the score is tied. That’s why I’m the best coach in the country.”
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The opposite of the coach who has to face the music after a desperate loss is the guy who has to try to control his mirth after blowing out an opponent in a big game.
Yes, you’re excited, but you don’t want to be labeled a braggart and you don’t want to give the defeated squad, and the rest of your opponents, another reason to get fired up about facing your program in the future.
Though it’s much easier for a coach in this situation to be amiable and cooperative, can he coach speak his way away from gluttony?
For an example of this type of situation we’ll go back to the 2012 Orange Bowl when West Virginia rung Clemson’s bell to the tune of a 70-33 final score.
When asked if he expected the game to go the way it did, first-year Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen spun it thusly.
“Yeah, that’s exactly how we draw it up, right? No, Clemson is a heck of a football team. You know, I was just telling them on the way in, regardless of what the score ended up, there was nothing easy about that.”
Translation: “We just beat the No. 15 team in the nation by 37 points, who in the hell expected that to happen? Clemson turned the ball over four times and the whole game turned on the 99-yard fumble recovery by Darwin Cook in the second quarter. It was over at the half and we all knew it, but who wouldn’t be giddy about scoring three second-half TDs when you’ve kind of stopped trying to score? Crap, that was awesome man. We kicked their butts! WHOOOOOOOO!!!!! “
Poor Decision Making
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Perhaps the prickliest situation for the college coach is after he’s made a poor decision from the sidelines that effectively cost his team a win.
Yes, imagine that you’ve just screwed things up in a major way and you’re forced to try and explain why your bone-headed call or calls shouldn’t affect your long-term employment status.
This may be where the politician and the coach come the closest to existing as one.
In this case we’ll look back at a little dose of coach speak from after Les Miles’ epic time management blunder at the end of LSU’s 2009 loss at Ole Miss.
If you remember, Miles bungled the clock and time expired while LSU was trying to complete a comeback-sealing drive at the Ole Miss five-yard line. The final score was Rebels 25, Tigers 23.
Miles: “I have an opportunity to represent a great school and a great state. I understand the mistake the head coach made. That will not happen again. I have to get it right. It was my fault.”
Translation: “I screwed up the end of the Ole Miss game so bad that I’m going to refer to myself in the third person to try to distance myself from one of the worst performances in my career. What was I thinking? I have no idea. Is anyone else wondering how I am going to keep this job…seriously, I am going to have to start acting like a quirky %^#*&@ and win some games to get you freaks off my butt. Does anyone have the Dolphins GM‘s cell number? "