With Media Days Ahead, It’s Open Offseason on College Football

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Aristotle is known as a philosopher, but he also dabbled in science. One of his oft-quoted theories was postulated as “horror vacui.” That translates to “nature abhors a vacuum.”

In other words, where there’s an empty space, nature strives to fill it.

Thankfully for all of us who like to postulate about college football, the vacuum of the offseason is about to be filled. Two weeks of conference media days start Monday in Frisco, Texas (Big 12) and Atlanta (SEC). These press junkets are the unofficial kickoff to another season as conferences parade coaches and select players before reporters to answer questions (oftentimes stupid) that are answered with (almost always) dull clichés.

While media days are part of the natural order of the football calendar, what has become unnatural is the manner in which the off-season’s vacuum is filled. The current media landscape of website and social outlets is a click-hungry beast that demands constant feeding with new and compelling content. No news is bad news, hence any crumb that contains a milligram of interest becomes a click-bait story.

It can be argued that was a newsmaker does is more important than what a newsmaker says. Actions, of course, speak louder than words. But in the weeks leading up to college football’s media days there is rarely action or words. What rhetoric there is comes from talk shows and podcasts – two mediums that need to burn segments and fill time with guests, the bigger the name the better.

Two examples of the silliness of the off-season, where stories turn from molehills turn to Mt. Everest, involved Bedlam rivals Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. We’ll deal with them in chronological order.

Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder was a guest on the “Pistols Firing” podcast in mid-June. The interview with Holder was 50 minutes. (Your Veteran Scribe would like to offer the following wisdom – the more you talk, the more likely you are to swallow a shoe store.)

Even though Pistols Firing is a Cowboys-centric site that is more cheerleader than critic, Holder should have said, “Guys, I can do a 15-minute segment. Tops.”

What made “news” during the nearly one-hour chat was this comment about football coach Mike Gundy’s program:

“I would approach recruiting a little differently than he does. I’d want to finish up higher in those recruiting rankings than we consistently do. I think that ultimately puts a ceiling on what you’re able to achieve.”

Those 37 words became part of the “news cycle” and produced dozens of stories. That fairly innocuous quote was interpreted as a shot from the athletic director at a coach with whom he has had a rocky relationship.

And never mind that recruiting rankings are stupid, that Holder is a former golf coach hence his recruiting knowledge/experience doesn’t equate, that Oklahoma State has won 78 games over the last eight seasons, and that if Holder’s “ceiling” for the football program is a national championship then he’s being an unrealistic fan boy.

About three weeks after Holder provided a helping of red meat to the Internet Media Monster, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley discovered that spending his off-season in a Pacific island cave is a viable strategy.

During an appearance on Sirius XM’s ESPNU radio, Riley was asked about the tired perception that the Big 12 Conference doesn’t play defense. Specifically, the question involved if measuring Big 12 defenses was difficult based on the league having so many potent offensive players and schemes. Here, in the interest of full disclosure, is Riley’s answer:

“It’s hard to quantify because what’s different here is you’re facing those offenses every single week. You just don’t have that in any other league. It’s not that you don’t have good offenses in other leagues – of course you do. You just don’t have the consistency and the challenge that you do week in and week out in this league. The Rose Bowl is a perfect example. Nobody all year could move the ball on Georgia and we had a pretty nice run in that game offensively. A lot of people had trouble moving the ball against Ohio State last year.

You’ve seen that a lot in non-conference games. In these matchups, all of a sudden, a lot of these really good defenses that everybody thinks are this or that are giving up a lot of points to these Big 12 teams. It’s a challenge. We did have some excellent defenses in this league last year – Iowa State, TCU are some of the top-ranked defenses, no doubt.

But you go through Georgia’s defense, which was a top-five ranked defense going into the Rose Bowl, you go throw them in the Big 12 every year, they’re not going to be a top five defense. It’s just probably not going to happen. The challenges that you face – it’s definitely a little bit different.”

Here are some of the headlines for stories generated by Riley’s comments:

  • Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley takes swipe at Georgia defense – USA Today. 
  • What Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley Got Wrong With His Potshot At Georgia’s Defense And The SEC – Forbes. 
  • Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley says there’s ‘no way’ Georgia would be a top-5 defense nationally if it played in Big 12 – Dallas Morning News. 
  • Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley: ‘No way’ Georgia has top-five defense in Big 12 – The Sporting News. 
  • Oklahoma HC Lincoln Riley: ‘No Way’ Georgia Is a Top-5 Defense in the Big 12 – Bleacher Report.

There can be a reasonable debate regarding whether Riley took a “swipe” or a “potshot” at Georgia’s defense. But if you read those 221 words, you will not find the two words used in three of the above headlines. That’s because “no way” came from this Tweet:

The question asked of Riley came from Danny Kannel, who frequently takes swipes and potshots at the SEC. His question was reasonable as was the answer one would expect from a Big 12 coach defending his conference’s reputation. Kannel fired up the click bait news cycle with an inciteful – not insightful – Tweet.

Crying “out of context” is often the default defense for someone caught in a media maelstrom. But just over a year on the job at a Cadillac program, Riley now understands how what you say can be twisted and what you mean can be obscured by the twisting.

When members of the media clamor for more access and wonders why media relations directors are circumspect or wonder why coaches and players (who are often counseled) respond with rote clichés, we need to also ask: “Why in the world would they want to talk to us at all?”