Tate | Coaches skirt line of truth with the media

Tate | Coaches skirt line of truth with the media

Buzzzzz. Blink. Blink!

That was the lie detector going off during Urban Meyer's response to the media at the Big Ten football kickoff in Chicago on July 24.

Within seconds, in denying knowledge of a 2015 abuse allegation involving assistant coach Zach Smith, Meyer found his coaching status at Ohio State in jeopardy.

Really? For fudging on the truth (later recanted)? To the media? Shucks, when it comes to us, head football coaches routinely obfuscate. Fabricating or a kinder definition — verbal deception — is part of the game's culture.

Context is important

First, you must understand: Head football coaches handle 100-plus physically assertive individuals each year and are swamped by on- and off-field information they can't or won't divulge.

A shock of denial detonates among the brain waves when anyone dares bring up a squad member who (1) may have incurred an unresolved injury, (2) may be facing suspension over pot use, (3) may have mistreated his girlfriend, (4) may have fallen behind in class, (5) may have had an on-field confrontation with an assistant coach, (6), (7), (8) and on to infinity.

And what about the 16 Illini players who left the program? Don't ask.

So when a touchy issue pops up, loads of stored information may mandate the coach's best obfuscation maneuvers. Evasive generalizations come pouring out as he also considers how the AD, the players and the fans will digest his words.

After dozens of years and hundreds of these cases, layers of automatic resistance build up. So it becomes a game. As a reporter, your job is to find out. And the coach's job often becomes a Gene Kelly tap dance.

Media as an 'adversary'

Small wonder, then, that great coaches like Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, so safe with their environments, become downright condescending, even contemptuous. They are, after all, superior to their questioners in the first place. How dare you?

So maybe, just maybe, that played a part in Meyer's July 24 evasion. What right did these "adversaries" — this was Chicago, not Columbus — have in raising this delicate question? Wasn't he on safe internal ground? Hadn't he followed proper protocols? What right do they have in sorting through our dirty linen?

When you understand the mindset, Meyer's initial (and unprepared) reaction is understandable. His problem was that, at the peak of the nation's #MeToo movement on sexual harassment, he struck an exposed nerve.

Whether misleading the media is sufficient for Meyer to lose his job is another question. Remember, Zach Smith was never criminally charged, and Meyer had consulted with OSU athletic director Gene Smith about the 2015 incident.

Furthermore, Meyer fired Zach Smith July 23 after his ex-wife sought a restraining order against him.

And weighing into the decision is $38 million owed Meyer on his contract. That's another story for another day.

Where's the love

At Illinois, Lovie Smith is no different from most coaches in his media relations.

He is more lenient than some. His August practices are mostly open while many others around the country are closed.

At Penn State or Michigan, reporters only know what they're told.

Lovie accepts the obligation of his post-practice sessions, and they run smoothly (though injuries and suspensions can be sore topics).

As current examples, it isn't clear whether there is a September carryover from the unexplained spring suspension of Louis Dorsey and Isaiah Gay, or why offensive tackle Larry Boyd is no longer starting.

Most difficult for the Illini media is the head coach's refusal to let assistants talk after games, Lovie preferring to have information come out as "one voice" ... his. Since he is known as a "defensive coach," the offensive strategy might be more clearly presented by the coordinator who called the plays.

But then, there's me grumbling when our cast of wretches should be thankful for whatever morsels — half-truths or full — tumble our way.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com