On Bo, and the Media

By at August 27, 2009 | 10:56 AM | Print

Well, he blew up again yesterday, didn’t he?

That subject line from a reader’s email greeted me when I checked the inbox this morning. I get these missives from time to time, typically after Bo Pelini has one of his more terse after-practice sessions with the media. Why is he so difficult with you guys? Why does he cut you short all the time? What’s with the one-and-two-word answers? The local media is afraid to take him on, isn’t it?

All fair questions. But things viewed through a camera lens – which is how fans often see Pelini – isn’t precisely the same as the day in, day out process of interviewing the guy. Not only did reporters not seem not to mind Pelini’s brusque interview, they were provided enough a roadmap to ask other players and coaches – like strong safety Larry Asante, who was particularly frustrated – good questions and get good answers.

This keeps with Pelini’s overall practice demeanor. He walks the rows, so to speak, quietly, hands clasped behind his back. He lets his assistant coaches and player leaders do much of the work. Of course there’s a strong bond between Pelini and his team, but it’s forged less by chatter, and more by actions.

When Pelini does say something in practice, the team listens, and not passively. Because he’s not constantly chattering, they also know that he means it.

In interviews, is it anger? Sometimes it is.

Is it a carefully-crafted ploy? Do you really think Pelini resorts to us hacks to get his team’s attention?

More often, I think, it’s a defensive coordinator who’s still playing the chess match, the motivation game, and here’s he got 30 reporters encircling him, wanting to suck any little detail they can out of him.

Remember former Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride? That’s not a guy you wanted 20 seconds after a bad practice. In later years, he and Milt Tenopir would fire up their little Cushman truck, vent with each other for ten minutes, and come out of the locker room with a little less fury.

Pelini probably doesn’t have that luxury, with the locker room across a skywalk and through the woods from the Hawks Center.

And Pelini doesn’t dish on players. He doesn’t dish about recruits on Signing Day, which, other than a funeral, is the only other time in a man’s life nothing bad ever gets said about him.

We in the media can plug him all we want, and often we do. Maybe, eventually, he changes. Doubt it. He doesn’t really have to. Pelini has two coordinators – his brother Carl on defense, and Shawn Watson on offense – who capably fill in most of those details. As, I suspect, Bo wants it.

His job is provide the larger vision, which he’s happy to do, any time you want to ask him about “the process.” Pelini can talk at length and in depth about his belief in “the process,” as he did several times during press conferences last year. Any player who impedes the larger process can hit the bricks.

It may not interest all reporters, some of whom are breathlessly intrigued by the race for fourth-string quarterback, but considering the Nebraska football program will rise or fall on the back of this “process,” it is critically important. It’ll be interesting to see how Pelini’s philosophy – which, again, he’s happy to share – changes over this season, and future seasons.

Do reporters kowtow to the guy? That’s what the national media, especially guys like ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, would like you to believe. And Cowherd, who was once local himself, only has the best interests of local reporters in mind when he rails on their timidity. But if you’re going to do the job over time, and really serve your readers, it can’t all be bloody steaks and peacocks, you know? A football team doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that.

Ditto for the media. Look: Ideally, we’re here to provide a narrative, a day-to-day sense of the culture, mood and activities with the football team. Ever read The Lord of the Rings? One of the chief pleasures are Tolkien’s elaborate, leisurely descriptions of events. He’s not trying to constantly frame Middle Earth with “take,” or his “instant emotion,” he’s trying to put you there. That’s what the media should do first. Only then can it place a proper filter of commentary and style on top of the scene. If we sat here bemoaning our inability to watch scrimmages, where does that get you? No closer to us watching the scrimmages, I assure you.

The other thing I try to do is measure the candor of the assistants and players around Pelini. Does he apply his personal choices to the rest of the team? Other than the aftermath of the Oklahoma loss – which I still think was a mistake, one Bo shouldn’t repeat – no, he does not. Coaches and players are honest, more so than they were under Bill Callahan. There is no longer a political atmosphere around North Stadium. There’s no Kevin Cosgrove parking himself right behind a big couch so TV cameramen have to kneel on cushions – with a second row of camera guys leaning on the first row. Carl Pelini stays for a half-hour after games if he has to. Watson, too. And nobody pulls any punches.

The best stories told about Vince Lombardi were never told by Vince Lombardi. Beware the man too eager to shine his own shoes. He’ll use too much polish, not enough spit.

For sheer media coverage of practice, Nebraska’s football program might have as much as any in the nation. Gary Pinkel’s probably dealing with about ten guys right now. Dan Hawkins? Four? Six? And he’s still a jerk. Pelini’s got 25-30, consistently. And for the crush of folks who appear after each practice, know this: Nebraska and Bo Pelini do a much better job than a single outburst might lead you to believe.

No camera or tape recorder was wasted on Wednesday. Whether Pelini wants to deliver a measured soliloquy or not is his business. He kept none of his players or assistants off-limits, and their reactions said plenty. Our job is to get the story. You got one. This morning, you’re talking, the team’s thinking and Pelini will have everyone’s full attention Friday, when he chats with the media again.

See? Everybody goes home in a Cadillac.

That’s how you handle the media.

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