Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The media and coaches: On the firing line

      We watched Les Miles being fired in the media as the head football coach at LSU in late November, and it was -- if you are partial to the Tigers -- an unsettling but fascinating chapter.
      Didn't happen, of course, but it made me think again of the media's role in the business of firing and hiring coaches. Is it the media's job to write or say -- or demand -- that coaches be let go or be forced to resign?
      In the sports world, speculation/analysis is almost as much fun (is that the right word?) as it is about politics. But, heck, politics isn't nearly as important as sports.
      I've always believed it is not the media's role to flat-out call for a coach's dismissal, and I've never done it on a local/state level. But I am "old school," and it's a new age, and my day has passed. More on this below.
Louis Van Gaal: A Dutchman coaching the Manchester
United soccer team -- and battling the English media.
      I was going to write about Miles and the media, but what really triggered this piece was a couple of news conference I saw with a soccer coach recently. Yes, soccer.
      Those of us from Louisiana think Miles has the most high-profile job in sports. You probably have not heard of Louis Van Gaal, who has arguably -- my opinion -- the most high-profile job in all of sports.
      I am, of course, partial to a Dutchman whose name starts with Louis Van ...
      Louis Van Gaal has had some of the world's top soccer coaching jobs -- Ajax Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and (my favorite) twice The Netherlands national team. The job he has now, Manchester United, is the most prestigious in the English Premier League and -- my opinion -- of any club team in the world. 

      Those are the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Celtics, Lakers, Cowboys, Packers, Canadiens -- all rolled into one. (OK, maybe a slight exaggeration.) But Man U. has more Premier League titles (20) than any team and had a legendary coach, Alex Ferguson -- Sir Alex -- who was Lombardi, Stengel, Landry, the Bear, Scotty Bowman, etc., of England.             
      And in his second year there -- after eight consecutive matches without a victory and the team's worst season in 25 years -- Van Gaal is catching hell, from fans and -- yes -- the media.
      His recent news conferences -- and his exchanges (battles) with the English media -- are an ongoing soap opera.

      Like in the case of Miles, the media already has him "sacked" -- that's the European term for fired. But it hasn't happened, which is why it's ongoing. And what Van Gaal touched on recently made a lot of sense to me.
      He talked about the human element involved in these situations, how it's not just the coach -- who despite salaries of millions of dollars still have feelings, and more importantly, lots of people around them (family, assistants, staff, friends) who are affected.
      I thought back to Miles and how, on the night of the Texas A&M game when most everyone thought he was about to be fired, the TV cameras and announcers several times focused on Miles' family. In the news conference afterward -- after the "he is still our coach" announcement -- Miles also talked about his family.
      No matter how you feel about Miles, you have to admit he kept his cool during the hectic two weeks when he was being roasted and "fired." As he pointed out, he just kept working and he did tried to answer all the speculative questions the best he could.
      Only twice, when asked about his feelings, did he respond in a suggestive manner.
      In the news conference after the A&M game, he said, "There's probably a guy or two I'd like to meet in an alley and just have a little straight talk with, but I'm not built that way."
      And in a news conference before LSU's bowl game with Texas Tech in Houston, he was asked, "Is there any bitterness toward some of the people that possibly leaked out some of this stuff about you?" His reply: "I promise you, should I find out who was in conversation there, I would -- that would be a lot of fun for me to know."
      I am assuming he meant LSU Board of Supervisors people, not the media.
      But Van Gaal's target was the media, no question.
     You think coaches in pro football, basketball and hockey, and managers in baseball, and of course, college football and basketball coaches are under a lot of pressure here? Not even close to what happens in the soccer world.
      Coaching jobs change rapidly in that sport. Already this season, among others, defending English champion Chelsea, Liverpool and -- just Monday -- Real Madrid (generally sports' richest team, the only one richer than Manchester United) changed coaches.
      Van Gaal hasn't been "sacked" ... not yet. But he is as displeased with media as they are with him.
      He has a reputation as an aloof, know-it-all arrogant manager -- sounds like some U.S. coaches we know -- but when I read that he "stormed out" or "walked out in a huff" of his news conference on Dec. 23, that's not how I saw it.
      Yes, he had an agenda. But he didn't rant; he didn't lose it; he didn't do Nick Saban or Mike Gundy or Jim Mora or Dabo Swinney on "Clemsoning" or even the occasional fired-up Les Miles routine. English media stories called Van Gaal "fiery." I thought he was calm and measured, stern and direct and -- my feeling -- honest. He did leave after three questions and five minutes, but he gave the media plenty.
       Here is how it went:
       He began by asking the media, "Has anybody in this room not a feeling to apologize to me?" (Oh, they must have loved that.) That's what I am wondering.
       “I think I was already sacked I have read. Or have been sacked. Or that my colleague [ex-Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho] was here already.
       “What do you think that happens with my wife or with my kids? Or with my grandchildren? Or with the fans of Manchester United? Or with my friends? What do you think?
       “They have called me, a lot of times, and also [Arsenal coach] Arsene Wenger is saying something about that.
       “Do you think I want to talk with the media now? I am here only because of the Premier League rules. I have to talk with you. But I can only see that when I talk to you that you put it in your context."
       In other words, the media will write or say whatever they want to.
       He went on to say that he still felt support from his players and top team officials and that the atmosphere around the team was positive. Then he added, “But I didn't feel that [warmth] in the media. I can imagine that you can write about that subject."
        When the media kept badgering him, he had had enough.
        "I wish you a merry Christmas and also maybe a happy new year when I see  you," he said. "Enjoy the wine and mince pie. Goodbye." And he walked out; he didn't storm out.
       A week later, after another loss, the media again asked about the assurance/support of team chairman Edward Woodward and Sir Alex Ferguson.
       "When they have said that, I don't say it to you because it is not any of your business," Van Gaal replied.
       Like I said, fun times at Man U. But I could empathize with the coach under fire.
        So in my career -- through Shreveport, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Knoxville -- I never personally wrote that a coach should be fired, nor did anyone on our staff do that. I could be wrong, but I don't remember any case.

        Sure we knew of some coaches who struggled in their positions and maybe weren't qualified, but my feeling was that these things take care of themselves. It was up to school officials/administration and/or boosters.
        For instance, for all of the "Help Mac Pack" talk about Charlie McClendon in 19 years as LSU's head coach, I am pretty sure that no one in the Louisiana media ever wrote that he should be fired. Charlie Mac was friends with most of the men who covered his teams.
         Then I came to Fort Worth and media here didn't mind passing judgment on Rangers/Cowboys/Mavericks/Stars managers/coaches. And I do have friends who have called for college coaching changes.
         Because of the expanded media world -- talk shows, Internet sites, blogs -- it is a new day. As a friend pointed out, "Objective journalism is hard to find any more. It doesn't sell."
         I have a friend who did think Miles should have been let go, and he has twice called for coaching changes -- 23 years apart. But he said, "I don't write it unless I absolutely believe it and back it up with facts."
         Another friend, a longtime scribe, said, "My personal stance is I won't call for somebody to be fired. I'm not an AD. What I will do is point out how bad things are."
         Yet another friend said: "I never overtly called for a firing; didn't think it was my place. Would lay out the facts and all but hit the reader over the head but never said fire him." As an example, he used the case of one of the former LSU football coaches.
          These are friends, and all good journalists. And I think they'd agree that the media is in a sweet spot in this regard: We are fortunate that -- with few exceptions -- we don't have football or basketball (or soccer) coaches sitting in judgment of our work, saying that we should be let go.
          As my wife points out, there's enough judging going on about the media within our own ranks.


  1. From Dave Moormann: Great piece. Food for thought. Think the media's penchant for firing coaches is reflective of a changing society that is quick to judge. Also I think it has something to do with coaches' extravagant salaries. People like Miles making such ridiculous sums of money are more open to criticism -- much like the tabloids dishing dirt on celebrities (which rich sports figures have become).

  2. From Jimmy Russell: I have an idea for all the media people who call for a coach’s firing. Sportswriters and other media types usually predict how a team will do in the coming season. They write about all the talent and ability the players have and how good the team will be. But sometime the opposite happens and the writers begin to criticize for whatever reasons. Maybe the writers should be tied to the predictions they make and if the team does poorly they should be fired also along with the coach for their misleading fans and supporters.

  3. From Gary West: And what about Georgie Steinbrenner? Ever want to call for his firing?

    1. Indeed, I did, several times. Did the same the third, fourth and fifth times Billy Martin was hired as Yankees' manager. Which is why, in this blog piece, I said I never called for any firings on the local/state level. Like with Steinbrenner and his interference with Yankees' player moves, I have suggested often that Jerry Jones let someone else make the football personnel decisions with the Cowboys and just let that someone else use Jerry's money.

  4. From Peter de Weijs: Once a school master, always a school master. Louis Van Gaal is one of the few coaches who has followed a dedicated sports and coaching study in The Netherlands.
    Van Gaal is one of the world's best soccer coaches I have seen, but he also likes to dictate and is not always a good listener. His relation to the press and the environment is both amusing and hilarious. For me it is very understandable, but many hate him as well, especially in the Rotterdam area.

  5. From Joe Harris: Good article. I always felt you were one of the good guys. ... One thing I always was uncomfortable with: When an article began with Coach (fill in the name)'s team. I always tried to keep my name out of that situation because I felt like a small part of the team I was coaching and that it belonged to the school and community I happened to be serving. Just a thought.