Faced with bad news about one of his best players essentially quitting the team at midseason, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy on Tuesday thought it would be a good idea to try to strong-arm the media gathered for routine post-practice interviews — and threaten them.
Attention, Mike Gundy and college football coaches everywhere: this is always a terrible idea.
Gundy made Gavin Lang, his media relations coordinator, inform the small group of reporters that if they asked OSU players any questions about receiver Jalen McCleskey’s decision to redshirt the rest of this season and transfer to another school next year, no OSU players would be made available for media interview for the rest of the season.
What an unnecessary blunder by Gundy.
He got his way, of course. Not one reporter asked one question to one player about McCleskey, though most of them realized there are ways to ask questions without directly asking questions. There was plenty of fodder about the wide receiver position and how the offense moves forward and all that.
But Gundy could have gotten his way in a much less combative and divisive way.
This is Gundy’s team. All he had to do was take five seconds to tell them in his post-practice pep talk, “if any reporter asks you about Jalen, just say no comment. I mean that. No exceptions. Tell them coach Gundy told us not to talk about it.”
By doing this, Gundy more effectively controls the message and he doesn’t further alienate himself from a press corps that really wants to like him. He’s a terrific personality, goofy and self-deprecating, fun and engaging, a man secure enough to bring his dog or drink a smoothie or wear an official’s jersey to a press conference and yet bold enough to rebut his athletic director or his billion-dollar sugar daddy.
Consider the implications of social media here, too. Gundy can head off any OSU player’s hard feelings about McCleskey by standing them all up for a few moments at the end of practice and telling them how things need to be handled. “Don’t tweet about it, don’t put it on Instagram or SnapChat, and don’t respond to anyone who asks you, either on social media or in class or in the press.”
And maybe Gundy did all that. But the guess here is that he did not because he somehow felt the need to threaten the media.
One question: so why didn’t anyone ask the players about McCleskey anyway? A real free press crusader would have stood up to Gundy’s lame edict, no?
Not necessarily, and there’s one of the hard parts of this profession.
Eight media members, including several beat reporters whose job it is to be at every interview session throughout the year, met afterwards and talked it over for an hour or so and decided as a group to low-key the whole thing.
I’d like to think if I had driven to Stillwater last night to ask players what they thought about McCleskey, I’d have thrown myself on the grenade as the one person to buck Gundy’s command. But I also realize a grenade this size might be too big, and that everyone around me would still catch shrapnel. Had someone ignored the threat and stuck their neck out, then everyone’s ability to do their job — talk to players, get their invaluable perspective, tell their stories and present it all to the sports consuming public — would suffer for it for the next three months.
And besides, any players probably would have said “no comment” last night anyway. It wouldn’t have been worth it. There are other ways to tell this story than simply being First Amendment Tough Guy.
This isn’t the forum for arguing the merits of a free press and how it strengthens the Constitution of the United States even in the realm of covering college football. This isn’t the place to debate the current President’s ongoing and wholly unnecessary war with the press corps.
But Gundy, a $5 million football coach with a career built on second-place finishes, should be more self-aware than to think he can threaten the people whose job it is to cover his program — the very people whose audience actually supports his program (many of whom suggest he should have other things on his mind right now, like coaching up his quarterbacks or improving the offensive line or not getting blown out at home as a double-digit favorite).
If he’s not self-aware enough to realize this, then someone around him needs to step in and tell him what a dreadful idea it is to threaten the media, and maybe offer alternatives.
This obviously isn’t Gundy’s first attempt to bully the press. He basically created his own brand by doing in 2007. But this isn’t going after one columnist at a press conference. This isn’t “I’m a man! I’m 40!”
This is inhibiting an entire group of reporters from doing their job simply by trying to intimidate them.
Perhaps Gundy is simply hoping McCleskey reconsiders and decides to remain at OSU. By preventing any OSU players from talking about him or from potentially saying something that encourages him to quit the team, maybe Gundy can convince McCleskey to stick around. That’s certainly fair, that Gundy doesn’t want anyone talking about McCleskey in hopes he changes his mind. McCleskey is off to a slow start this season, but he has a proven track record as a good college football player and certainly can help this team.
But McCleskey’s decision, or even what his teammates think about it, is not the debate here.
In fact, there is no debate. Gundy made a foolhardy decision and tried to bully the media.
Whether it’s politics, education, religion or just college football, that’s never a good idea.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.