I grew up in a family of football coaches, but people in the profession never cease to amuse and bemuse me.
My grandfather and uncle both coached high school football in southeastern Oklahoma (at a school that, sadly, no longer fields a team). My godfather is an assistant football coach in El Paso, Texas. So, everything I say about coaches is tinged with some understanding and more than a little love.
With that caveat, football coaches are a fascinating species, better watched from afar like a zoo animal than encountered up close and personal like the intense and detached screwballs they can be. One example always pops in my mind.
In a former life, I was a sports reporter covering high school football in West Texas. After one game, I sat in the coaches’ office of the winning team. Surrounded by more than a half-dozen coaches, I listened as they somehow all referred to each other as simply “coach.” Whenever one of them would say “coach,” the correct individual would respond — even though, technically, they were all “coach.”
I guess telepathy comes with a headset, whistle and tight practice shorts.
But one thing that doesn’t seem to come with those crotch-huggers is self-awareness. As I cast my eyes out west to University of Oklahoma football émigré Lincoln Riley, sometimes I wonder what goes on in his mind.
No, I’m not talking about his 2021 decision to leave OU for the “football mecca” of southern California or his barbecue recipes. Instead, I have found myself rolling my eyes about — another — epic shitstorm of avoidable proportions caused by the myopic nature of a football coach.
Riley crossed swords with the Los Angeles media this past week by issuing a two-week ban for a reporter who covers his team. The journalist’s transgression? Quoting a player outside of the “media zones” set up for such interviews, and using it in a thoroughly POSITIVE story about the USC Trojans.
The “ban” predictably caused a whirlwind of negative press coverage, which ranged from loud tut-tutting atop the gilded ivory towers of journalism, to monumental scorched-Earth screeds from surly big-market sports columnists.
By Thursday, Riley predictably relented from his self-inflicted embarrassment, and he announced the reporter was allowed to continue covering his Trojans. The whole escapade reminded me, proudly, of when my university’s own student paper was one of the first outlets to make Riley clutch his public relations pearls.
Riley’s issues are symptomatic of our culture putting football coaches on such a pedestal, wherein ball coaches start to believe their accomplishments on the gridiron are akin to brain surgery. The comical secrecy, paranoia, self-importance and navel-gazing of the big-time football coach is ripe for a This Is Spinal Tap-type takedown. It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever, you know?
I’m sorry, but designing a neat draw play for a critical third down does not and should not deserve the same cultural cachet as caveman creating fire for the first time, no matter how many times sports pundits pat you on the back for putting your playmaker “in space.”
Now, on the 16th anniversary weekend of one of the most famous examples of a college coach feeling his oats, it’s all enough to give me a hangover from the lunacy. Fueled by multiple Oktoberfest-style beers that I consumed Saturday, here are my observations about this week’s crop of college football games, starting with two in-state programs led by quirky and intense individuals:
- OU collected a really nice road win Saturday, with a 20-6 win at Cincinnati. The way the Sooners win, however, continues to frighten and confuse many OU fans who became accustomed to Lincoln Riley offenses and, well, Lincoln Riley defenses;
- There are plenty of platitudes in play here: “Defense wins championships,” “Defenses travel”, etc., etc. Whichever one you prefer, it’s obvious the Sooners’ defense is definitely the best it has been since the 2020 season, probably the best it’s been since the 2015 season, and likely the best it’s been since the 2009 season;
- About that OU offense, however: What’s that phrase the kids have, nowadays? “It’s mid.” But why is it mid? The Sooners have a playcaller who can oscillate between snappy and bewildering from series to series, and he’s got a signal-caller who has never seen a deep ball he couldn’t wildly over- or under-throw;
- As for the other Oklahoma-based Big 12 team, I have a feeling antacid is being slugged by OSU fans everywhere. A week after being run out of their own building by South Alabama — the same South Alabama that lost at home to Central Michigan this Saturday — the Cowboys went to Ames, Iowa, and made the hometown Cyclones look like they have a legitimate, functioning offense — something they have not had all season;
- Much of the talk surrounding the Cowboy program this season has been coach Mike Gundy’s three-headed hydra of a quarterback situation. For the first time all season on Saturday, though, the OSU quarterback who took the first snap of the game also took his team’s last snap. Alan Bowman was the choice, and while he wasn’t exactly inspiring during the 34-27 loss, he did look competent at times against a solid Iowa State defense;
- It was the OSU defense that completely spit the bit this weekend, though. Facing an Iowa State team that had averaged just 10 points per game against FBS-level competition, the Cowboy defense allowed the ‘Clones to pile up a whopping 34 points and 348 passing yards;
- Meanwhile, the game of the day happened in South Bend, Indiana, where Ohio State scored a touchdown with one-second remaining to defeat hometown Notre Dame 17-14 in an old-fashioned slugfest between a pair of top-10 teams;
- It appeared Notre Dame had the game all but won several times in the final minutes, but Ohio State continued to raise itself from the dead — with a little help from Notre Dame defensive coaches who seemed to lack the ability to count to 11;
- After the game, Ohio State coach Ryan Day apparently heard I was writing this column about football coaches being intense weirdos, so he broke out some righteous indignation with an unhinged rant involving former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, a legendary weirdo himself. My guess is the octogenarian Holtz was in bed asleep when Day unleashed his invective, but I suppose Day at least felt better after getting it out of system;
- Virginia showed a stunning lack of discipline in its Friday night game. The winless Wahoos committed THREE 15-yard penalties in the final 39 seconds of their game against North Carolina State. The (two!) unsportsmanlike conduct and personal foul penalties directly led to a walk-off, chip-shot, 33-yard field goal by N.C. State for a 24-21 win.
- Oh, dear lord, Iowa. You really out-Iowa-d yourself this weekend. The Hawkeyes mustered just four first downs and 79 total yards of offense to go along with four turnovers in a 31-0 blanking at Penn State. I mean, the bar is always low for the Iowa offense, but somehow this bar found itself way down in the same storm cellar many eastern Oklahoma residents visited Saturday night;
- Before the season, embattled Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz found his contract changed, essentially to stipulate he will be fired if the Hawkeyes do not manage to score 325 points this season. After putting up an emphatic goose egg on Saturday, the Drive for 325 appears to be in a breakdown lane;
- Speaking of breaking down, the Prime Time Train threw a rod Saturday in Eugene, Oregon. Deion Sanders’ Colorado team was annihilated 42-6 by the Ducks. It was inevitable, really: Colorado has a mediocre defense and a bad running game, but they had raced to a 3-0 start by relying on Shedeur Sanders’ passing, Travis Hunter’s dual dominance and a lot of Prime Time-infused enthusiasm in Boulder;
- With Hunter sidelined Saturday and apparently streaming his video game activities during his team’s game against Oregon, Colorado was without its most special player this weekend. I fully expect the Buffs to lose again this coming week to Deion Sanders’ antithesis in media handling: Lincoln Riley and the USC Trojans;
- But there is bad news for the anti-Deion Sanders factions out there: The Buffs aren’t going to go away. They are a good team, with a charismatic coach and fun players — exactly what college football needs.