The Soapbox: More column Q&A

Back to answer another email . . .

Q: Now that you have your U of L football access back, how about writing something about the current coach’s job performance?

A:
Not sure what you are talking about, but I’m glad you asked the question.

My media access to the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky or any other sports entity has never been threatened. And frankly, this line of thinking shows a rather alarming lack of understanding of how the system works, so I think it’s worth discussing here for a minute.

The U of L sports information department is headed by Kenny Klein. If he’s not the most respected SID in the nation, he’s close to it. To revoke a newspaper reporter or columnist’s credential based on something he or she said would be unethical, and would not happen on his watch, nor the watch of any reputable sports information director at any major university in the United States.

I don’t know how things work with new media, or smaller outlets. I know that The Courier-Journal, in my experience, has never been threatened with losing credentials.

I have written, I know, many things that folks at U of L have not particularly liked over the past two years. It has not stopped people, for the most part, from answering my questions or returning my calls. When I was second-guessing Steve Kragthorpe on why he would use Scott Long on the punt coverage team when he was the only legitimate receiver on the roster before this season, Kragthorpe took time to talk to me one-on-one even though he knew I didn’t share his belief.

When they don’t like something I’ve done, or think I’ve gotten something wrong, they’re welcome to contact me. Sometimes they do. Rick Pitino has called me once on an issue like that in eight years, and he just wanted an explanation on the timing of a story, not to officially complain. I have been on the other end of the phone for several obscenitiy-laced Bobby Petrino tirades. It did not keep me from covering him objectively. I expect them to try to influence me, because that is their job. It is my job not to be influenced and to report the facts as I get them and offer my opinions as they are.

These things happen, and back-and-forth should happen. But for me, and for this newspaper, access to press conferences or games has never been threatened, implied or otherwise.

I can’t speak to the experience of other media in town, because I know there have been some scrapes in the radio business and maybe with online outlets, but I can tell you that positive or negative, the seat of The Courier-Journal has always been there at U of L sporting events, and has not been threatened.

A good example. Nobody over there was any too happy when Pat Forde threw cold water over their new slogan, “Best College Sports Town in America.” Pat jumped on it with both feet. Said we might have the best omelets in town at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe but we are not the best college sports town. Next football game, Forde is sitting next to me on press row, and a chef appears behind him with this covered dish and a huge omelet inside. Turn around and look up, and there’s Pitino laughing his tail off, with Kenny and others. Forde had a picture of himself with that omelet in his office. (Digression over.)

I’ve had several people write to me questioning the motives of today’s column. In reality, it was an assignment I was given, to take a wider view of the program and examine a pertinent question: In the post Bush-Brohm era, can the program expect to attain the same heights it did two years ago. As it developed, I wound up making this column a collection of opinions from people who have had the largest hands in building this program. I consider what they had to say relevant, if, admittedly, not groundbreaking.

I think, too, we have reached a Madoff point in society. In other words, people only generally accept a piece of work if it is what they want to hear. Sometimes, I have written columns that have been hailed by readers as “brilliant work” when, in actuality, it wasn’t so much brilliant as my opinion dovetailing with what they wanted to hear. At other times, when what you say doesn’t line up with what they believe, then you didn’t “do your job.”

I think of people who got statements from this Madoff guy, the famous Ponzi schemer. He essentially was taking people’s money to invest and sending them back fraudulent statements showing them that they were getting huge returns that actually didn’t exist.

Even when some tried to blow the whistle on this thing, many clients didn’t want to hear it. They’d rather believe those statements, because those statements were saying what investors wanted them to say.

I thought it was worthwhile to hear what Jurich, Smith, Schnellenberger and Corso in particular had to say. All four have played a part in building U of L football. I don’t know that I’d call any of it groundbreaking, but they are people who should be heard out.

I’d love to have the same conversation with Petrino. My goodness, talk about Christmas! So far, no luck on that front.

I would love to have found some national pundits to disagree with the stances these guys took in today’s column. It would’ve made for more debate, more controversy, more web hits (!) They aren’t there. Unless you go to the fan base. And I’m not going to give Joe in E’town (no offense, E’town) the same weight in a column as I give Howard Schnellenberger. This column, in the end, was limited to those who had built bowl-winning teams at U of L. (Several other ESPN commentators also were interviewed, and some were more strident in their opinions that Kragthorpe had inherited a bad situation, and because we’ve pretty much had that discussion here, and because my take on it is well known, I didn’t choose to hijack the story with that line of thinking.)

I also was glad that Ron English gave me some time on Christmas Eve, and will write that column on Sunday for Monday. And if fans don’t like what he has to say, and I’m going to wager that some who are anti-Kragthorpe will not, then it will be dismissed in one way or another. But what the man has to say has value, and is worth hearing.

In the end, there is value to getting all these people on the record. And there is value in getting their thoughts, agree or disagree.

Now this. I withheld my opinion from today’s piece and will largely do the same with the English piece, because I don’t want to step on what these guys have to say.

But people ask what I think, and I will get into that here.

I will say, this is a difficult story on which to find footing because both sides have actual facts. Both are well-supplied with ammunition.

As I’ve said more than once — throw out all the bad luck, the defections, suspensions, injuries — and there is still plenty to question this coaching staff about in terms of plain, old football decisions. If you don’t think Kragthorpe has the juice to get the job done at Louisville, you have plenty on which to base that opinion. And I certainly can’t sit here and tell you otherwise.

At the same time, Tom Jurich knows football. The program has lost 22 players, by my count, since Steve Kragthorpe took over. He bears varying degrees of responsibility. Seven were dismissed. Another flunked out. Eight others left, several before official suspensions were handed down. Four had
their careers ended by freak injuries or medical suspensions. Two made misguided forays into the NFL Draft. This doesn’t represent 21 discipline issues, and in my effort to let Jurich have his say I still should have made this breakdown in print, and will examine it in more depth in the weeks to come.

In the four recruiting classes directly preceding the arrival of Kragthorpe — players recruited before ever he set foot on campus — there were 90 players. Of those, 42 no longer are with the program. They either never made it to campus, were dismissed, transfered, or had their careers cut short by injury.

That’s 22 lost under Kragthorpe, and 20 presumably, that could be charged to Petrino. Though you could haggle over a few of them. Of Kragthorpe’s 22, four were out of his control, and seven more showed blatant and repeated (or, in at least one case, criminal) disregard for the rules and likely would have been gone from most programs.

Whatever the case, no program can absorb losing nearly half of its recruited players in a four-year period.

So for those who defend Kragthorpe, and say he deserves more time because of these circumstances he has encountered, they too have facts at their disposal, no less true than those who are displeased with the job he’s done.

So how do I divide it? I at least have the advantage of not having an emotional involvement. I’m not paying to see the games. I have no stake in Kragthorpe’s success or failure. I can look at each side and see merits.

I suppose it breaks down into a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Which came first, bad coaching or bad circumstance? I think 2007 was a case of the former. I think the season just ended was a case of the latter.

So what should be done?

I say next year is more or less a lost year anyway. But if the thing is going to turn around under the current staff, you’ll see measurable progress next season, even if the record does not improve. So how do you measure it? Do they beat teams they’re supposed to beat? Do they improve from the first game to the last? Does depth start to develop?

I don’t like some of the things I’ve seen called from the U of L sidelines. I think in terms of intensity, attention to detail and sophistication of preparation, Bobby Petrino is in the top 5 percent of college coaches in America. Maybe higher than that. What Kragthorpe does is probably in line with most coaches in America do. But if you’ve been playing for the former, what happens when you get the latter. And, by the way, how often to you have a chance to hire and retain the former?

I have my doubts. I don’t think it looks good for Kragthorpe, either from a support standpoint or from what I see on the field. I’ve expressed these doubts in print. But at this point, on this date, there’s not much to be gained by some kind of rash and dramatic action.

In other words, if this staff is going to get it done, you ought to be able to see a pretty good sign of it in season three, regardless of the record. And if they don’t get it done, then next year will truly be “rock bottom,” a place that while no fun, is not altogether without usefulness for the next guy, as Howard Schnellenberger pointed out in the interview I did with him (provided below on this blog).

So I’m one of the reluctant ones who shakes his head and says, all right, let’s see what happens.

In the meantime, I wrote the truce column for one reason — not to back one side or the other, but because I think the best long-term interests of the school’s overall athletic program demand it. That’s my honest opinion. I think any scenario in which fans leverage Jurich out of town is one in which the university and athletic department wind up losers. The resulting fire sale on coaches would be spectacular. There’s a question to be posed: If one of the top athletic directors of the past decade by any objective measure isn’t good enough for you, who is? If you thought the post-Petrino crash was painful, I think the post-Jurich one would be worse. Life would go on. But it would be a difficult haul, especially when you’re paying about half of the BCS average for A.D.s

None of this is to say that Jurich hasn’t made mistakes.

He should’ve known better than to gig his own fan base. They had a right to be upset. They never were angry that they weren’t going to the Orange Bowl. They were angry, as I believe I have written, that they aren’t beating the Syracuse Orange. They’ve got legitimate concerns, and it would’ve been wise not to fan the flames. This season alone, they watched Kentucky dance away with the Governor’s Cup and Cincinnati — with not nearly the facilities or advantages of U of L — to the Orange Bowl after having won the Keg of Nails. I don’t know. I think I’d have put the salt away and stayed away from those wounds.

Still, I’m a little surprised at some of the vehemence of the opposition to him now. And as rankled as fans are at his comments, I’m sure he is at some of theirs, particularly given the fact that it is a fan base that he brought from second-class status in terms of facilities and academic performance and a host of other areas, to the Big East. Frankly, without his leadership, it’s hard for me to believe that U of L today would’ve been much more than Memphis is from an overall athletic perspective. (And yes, Memphis is in a bowl and just played for a national title in basketball, so I’m not saying that’s all bad!) I know, fans deserve a great deal of credit for their support and financial backing of these projects; I know the plans for Cardinal Park had been talked about for years before Jurich arrived. I also know that it didn’t get done till he got here, and likely wouldn’t have unless he had come and put together the team of donors whose names dot the facilities on Floyd Street.

Finally this. Since the soapbox is officially out! I don’t think it’s right for a coach’s kids to be ridiculed at school or his wife in accosted in stores. I think this city and fan base should be better than that. Complain, criticize, whatever, but understand there should be a line of civil, human behavior. Petrino endured these things too. Jurich, of course, has endured much worse.

So that about does it. Oh, yes. What the heck. To the emailer who said, “I understand your dad got forced out and you’re worried about keeping your job . . .” I think everyone in journalism today is worried about keeping his or her job. But my job security is not predicated on who I back or don’t back in my column so much as economic realities which, I admit, I hope do not turn too bleak! My dad volunteered for this last round, after a year of not-so-subtle hints that he was ready to retire early. He saw a crack in the door and jumped through it. Nobody had to push.

Which brings us back to the original question. My credential is safe. I’ve got good relationships with folks in U of L athletics, and many more among the faculty and administration outside of athletics. On the other side, U of L fans have been great to me from the minute I got here as beat writer, and they are a group that, like the athletic department as a whole, has gotten behind the university and allowed it to achieve on a level far beyond what its numbers would suggest.

And on occasion, both groups think I’m full of it. But that’s as it should be. I’m just glad they’re reading, and if you made it to the end of this opus, I’m particularly grateful.

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20 thoughts on “The Soapbox: More column Q&A

  1. Eric – Matt Jones over at kentuckysportsradio.com has all but said Jurich revoked their press credentials because of negative comments towards UofL.In addition, it has long been reported that Jurich contacted local advertisers and threatened them if they didn’t threaten to withhold advertising from WHAS unless they fired/suspended Lachlan McLain over the “poem” he read on the air.Are you saying these are just figments of everyone’s imagination, and that they didn’t really happen?

  2. Matt Jones is a blog, and a partisan one, at that. I like Matt, read his site, and think he’s very provocative and does a great job.But in general, I think most programs limit press credentials for web-site only media to publications that cover their program on an exclusive basis.In other words, The Cats Pause doesn’t get season credentials to U of L games, and InsideTheVille doesn’t get them to UK games.If U of L determined that it was dealing with a partisan site and not one that covered the programs equally, I’d say it was within its rights to pull the credential, though I’d rather not see it happen.However, my comment here was about the new media, as I said I’m less sure about how things work with those groups.As for Lachlan, I didn’t like what happened in that situation, but here’s the bottom line. As I said here, U of L and Jurich are well within their rights to try to influence coverage. It’s a free country, and if they want to lobby advertisers because they don’t like what’s coming out of a certain outlet, that’s their right. And actually, it’s their job. They’re going to fight for the best coverage possible and try to influence you any way they can.It’s the job of the media outlet, particularly local radio stations, who seem to be feeling this kind of heat, to not give in to that kind of pressure. I had a bigger problem with WHAS taking Lachlan off the air than I did with anything Jurich did. And, by the way, during all of that mess, I don’t believe Lachlan’s credential was ever pulled. Though I’m not sure and I’d let him speak to that.He certainly would have a different story to tell in terms of pressure, but he also works in a medium that, for whatever reason, seems to be more skittish when threatened.Newspaper editors tend to not be receptive to this kind of pressure. I remember at my last job before coming here, having someone threaten to try to pressure our advertisers to pull ads. The managing editor’s response was an invitation to the person to do something that I don’t believe is anatomically possible.I know schools have leaned on and even yanked credentials from web sites. That’s why I talked in terms of newspapers here. There still is a difference — even if that difference is shrinking!

  3. nice piece, Eric. It’s disgusting to hear about how Kragthorpe’s wife and kids are treated by some of the fan base. Even for Kragthorpe himself, and Jurich. I’m sure it’s a minuscule fraction of a percent of the fan base, and probably comes with the territory for any major college or pro coach, but it’s just wrong and sad. Thinking someone sucks at their job is no justification for personally attacking them or their family, regardless of occupation.

  4. Wonderful insight Mr. Crawford.Through your blog(and perhaps increasingly in your articles) you’re really giving newspapers something they’ve needed for a while now to compete with the ‘net: personality.Thanks for caring enough about these pastimes to make them even more enjoyable for fans in good times and bad.Happy Holidays.

  5. Eric, this is great work! As usual, you provide an objective and thorough view of a very complicated issue. I may not always agree with what you have to say – but this is exactly why I read your blog and your articles everyday!

  6. Eric,Nice column. Mark me down as one who thinks Krathorpe will not get it done at Louisville. However in no way do I have negative views of him as a person or negative views of Jurich.Jurich has been the best AD in the country in my opinion. He made a hire in Kragthorpe that he though would work out. So far it hasn’t and I don’t think it will. He may be a good coach but the timing of him being here may not be good. He may not be a good match for Louisville..just as Bill Belichek was not a good match in Cleveland. The fans who are ripping Jurich are crazy and I hope he realizes that the negative fans towards him or a minority.As far as Krags..I’m sure he’s a great guy. Everything I’ve heard about him is positive. I judge by football results on the field and so far they haven’t been there. I know we’ve lost talent but we’ve still had enough talent the past two years to be competitive in the Big East…in fact we HAVE been competitive. Krags is 11-13 and I can only think of 3 blowouts?? Every other game has been winnable as the Cards have been in each game. That comes down to coaching in my opinion.I will be there next year every game. I’m not one to protest by not showing up, or cancelling tickets..that does nothing. I hope Krags wins next year but I don’t see it and I don’t think UL can handle another off-season like the past two.Thanks again for your article Eric.Tim-Middletown (no relation to Joe-ETown)

  7. Eric,I wrote Rick Bozich from my home in Cincy a couple years back about UofL’s need to soldify Jurich’s future in anyway possible. I still believe that. He did in my opinion make a huge mistake on Kragthorpe. But we all have made mistakes, ours generally don’t play out in the public forum. The coaches demeanor is puzzling. I just don’t believe any CEO would watch his company crash and burn with less passion that Kragthorpe. I remember another “good” man that had a similar personality, Bill Curry. Great man, great football knowledge, just unable to push the buttons needed to get young people to perform at this level. A “players coach” tag words for allowing under performance. I am back home in KY now and will support the Cards as I did at KFEC.

  8. Eric—I don’t think anyone in the business is working harder through the holidays and you’re producing great stuff. This U of L Grad and Cards fan is grateful. Thanks.—Bob Edwards

  9. Eric, I really enjoyed reading this. And I can promise you that it’s not because this piece dovetails with my opinion. To the contrary, it’s because it’s extremely well-written and well-thought-out.Keep up the great work. I will continue to always look forward to reading your columns–even if I do not always agree with them. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2009!

  10. Eric,I just want to pass along my appreciation for the articles, and even more so for the blog entries. Often, I read an article and wish I could get more details or more insight into what the author was thinking. This is an excellent forum for that and for actually responding to questions that the article raises in readers’ minds.I agree with you that I think Mr. Jurich has mishandled the entire situation from a PR standpoint, and that the animosity and vitriol seen from a portion of the fanbase was greatly inflamed due to some of the comments that were made.On the flip side, the actions and comments made by a number of these “fans” are quite honestly an embarrassment to themselves and the University the supposedly support.I am extremely grateful for all that Mr. Jurich and the folks in the Athletic Dept. have done and the progress that has been made over the last several years in all areas. While I also do not have any faith that the current head football coach is going to get the job done here, based on what I have seen since his arrival, I am comfortable allowing Mr. Jurich to make those decisions as he sees fit. In my opinion, he has certainly earned the right and has my full support.

  11. Eric, thank you for an enlightening and helpful post. You went to town on it, lol!More than anyone else, you seem top approach an analysis of the football program which at least touches on – if it does not penetrate – some of the mysteries the fan base is saddled with. The coach is not very forthcoming at any point, on practically any issue. It builds a certain resentment when fans are treated with zero “need to know” and it represents either a personal fault on his end or a lack of concern at an administrative level which merely riles things up more. There is so much mystery there – and all for a sub .500 team.Great post!

  12. Eric, I’d love to see you ask TJ about the lackadaisical practices and how he thinks that’s contributed to results on the field the next time you get to chat with him. Thanks, great work!!

  13. Eric,Your comments about Matt Jones and Lachlan McLain were, if I am not mistaken, the first time those power play moments by TJ were mentioned in the CJ in any way, shape, or form. I may be mistaken, but I am pretty sure.The fact that these events are not covered, or that Jurich/UL are not criticized about them, is one of many reasons some people doubt the ability of the CJ reporters/columnists to criticize when needed. Jones may run a website, but he was also a radio host on 93.9. I was under the impression that it was the radio station that had their credentials revoked. Did that include Jody Demling? Or does he use the CJ as his credentials?Regardless, thanks for finally bringing them up in public, even if it was just in a blog post comment.

  14. Kevin,You’re right. We need someone doing better work in the area of media criticism.Jody Demling is a Courier-Journal reporter.There is a story to be done in this regard. U of L not only is in the athletics business, because of its contract and oversight of WKRD radio, it’s in the radio business.So some of the moves and friction with 93.9 were not just because of opposing viewpoints, but because the station literally was in competition with U of L’s station, and it was a business issue.It’s a fascinating dynamic and one that deserves some coverage.However, I don’t know that the sports columnists, given our situations, are the best to provide that. I’m a weekly guest on Lachlan’s show and have been for a couple of years. I clearly have a conflict of interest in that area, and my opinion is colored as such.Rick Bozich was a host on 93.9 FM, and clearly should not be involved in writing columns about the controversy involving them.The ideal situation was for these things to have been covered by a general media critic. They were not. In my estimation, they should have been.As for Jody, he is a Courier-Journal reporter and has season credentials to U of L sports events by virtue of that, and by virtue of his role as recruiting reporter for football and basketball.As for the “power play” aspect, I don’t necessarily see it in that light. Again, if U of L wants to try to influence these stations, there’s nothing wrong with that. It should be up to the stations to do what they want to do regardless.

  15. great stuff as always Eric.the reason a media criticism column would be tough to do is that the media is normally highly reluctant to talk about themselves. your insight has been refreshing, but it’s an exception. most of the time the media follows a “no comment” rule when asked about the inner workings of their business.think about whenever a local TV station fires someone. they pull out the standard “we don’t discuss personnel issues” line. even though they expect the institutions they cover to answer questions honestly, they won’t do it themselves. that makes geniune coverage of local media a tough nut to crack.personally I would love to go on the record about my situation, but my employer told me not to and I’ll respect that.I will say that what most people think happened with me is not accurate and has been consistently misreported. but I understand that until I tell the full story, the rumors take on a life of their own. I’ll just have to live with that.but back to the blog column — excellent work!

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