Pat White and WVU's P.R. Nightmare: Possible Strategies

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IJuly 31, 2008

UPDATE: Pat White issued the following statement Thursday evening through the university:

"Thinking back on my recent comments at Big East media day, I believe that I may have overstated my feelings on college baseball and the WVU baseball program. I have not played collegiate baseball in the past because I have concentrated on football and building on our success with my football family.

I am sorry my comments have caused so many distractions. I am looking forward to putting this behind me and getting on the practice field with my teammates on Saturday."

I'll parse this later, but now resume to my blog posting which went up earlier today, before the school released the statement:

Right now, the WVU athletic department must be in full-scramble mode.

After quarterback and Heisman-hopeful quarterback Pat White essentially accused WVU baseball coach Greg Van Zant of being a racist at Big East media day on Tuesday, there has been nothing but a perfunctory response from WVU, nothing from White, and nothing from Van Zant.

In the business world, this is when you call in a crisis communications P.R. firm. They handle indicted executives, companies facing SEC probes, and other white-collar clients suddenly in the blistering and unforgiving media glare.

Let's be clear on this: WVU has a P.R. nightmare on its hands.

The school is still reeling from a diploma scandal, in which the governor's daughter was given a bogus MBA, a mess that cost the university president his job.

The football team is trying to move beyond the Rich Rodriguez imbroglio and made a positive step last month, retrieving its $4 million buyout payment from him and Michigan. Optimism under feel-good football coach Bill Stewart, the team's best ambassador, was rising as the players report to fall football camp with the first game a month away.

Then comes this gut-punch from White, probably the last guy you'd expect to hear something like this from. He barely spoke to the media his first two years as quarterback. As a junior, he loosened up but was always polite and measured, spreading the credit around, never saying anything controversial.

However, he began exercising his great political capital right after the Fiesta Bowl win, when he told a Fox national television audience that Stewart should be the next coach.

On Tuesday, he shocked everyone when asked if he'd play baseball for WVU by saying that baseball coach Van Zant is "not too high" on black players. "In my knowledge of West Virginia baseball, there's not been many players of my race on this team."

He then went on to slam the coach, who has a .544 winning percentage at WVU but has not been to the NCAA tourney since 1996, for being "not successful at all."

WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong said he would talk to White about his comments but that likely won't happen until Friday.

Meanwhile, this toxic cloud hangs over WVU.

What can White and the university do?

Here are some potential strategies:

—It's too late to get out in front of the problem, which is what a crisis communications firm would first advise. The longer it goes unanswered, the greater the political damage and potential damage to Van Zant's career.

White cannot deny that he made the statement, so about the best he can do is try to clarify it, putting the blame on himself, something to the effect of: "I am sorry if my comments about the racial makeup of coach Van Zant's team have been misinterpreted. I only meant to point out that there were no black players on last year's team and I would find that situation uncomfortable."

In this way, he pulls back the racism charge and absorbs the damage. Some will read this as Pat White admitting reverse racism, but Van Zant's reputation is hanging out in the wind right now.

—White can claim that he didn't know he was talking to an accredited member of the media and that his comments were going to be printed. This is less plausible because there was a guy with a tape recorder standing in his face at the Big East media day.

Also, it wouldn't matter: Whether printed or not, they would still be White's thoughts.

—White can claim he was tired or sick and not thinking straight. Possibly plausible. ("Too much cough syrup.")

—White can claim his comments were taken out of context. Implausible because they are on tape.

—White can affirm what he said. This would cost Van Zant his job or White his. The most damaging option.

—White and WVU can stay silent on the whole mess.

It leaves his racism charge against Van Zant hanging out there unanswered, smearing the coach's reputation and potentially hurting his recruiting. It makes the WVU athletic department look weak by refusing to back up their coach, who was there before White arrived and probably will be there after White leaves.

It diminishes Pat White's unblemished star in the minds of WVU fans. As a friend of mine said yesterday, "My estimation of Pat White as a person just went down about 25 percent."

It undermines the authority of coach  Stewart, who looks like he can't keep his players under control.

White has been drafted by the big leagues three times and has constantly been peppered with questions from the media about if he would play baseball, or when he would play baseball. He has always deflected the questions with the appropriate answer, "I want to concentrate on helping my football team win a national championship."

But he was even goaded into playing for WVU by his own coach, Stewart, in the offseason. Maybe he had just gotten fed up with the whole issue, had believed this about baseball coach Van Zant all along and couldn't hold his tongue anymore.

It's effective in this manner: No one will ever ask him again if he wants to play baseball at WVU.

One really has to question White's judgment for saying what he said when he said it. But that horse is out of the barn.

Now, WVU must swing into damage-control mode, and stat.


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