Jerri Spurrier recently reached out to Stephen Garcia to try to pick up the spirits of the South Carolina quarterback, who has been in the crosshairs of Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier all spring.
She told Garcia her husband was "going to push every button you have" to try to make him a better quarterback.
Garcia's response: He already has.
As the Gamecocks prepare to begin voluntary summer workouts, Spurrier has used any public speaking engagement or media interview to remind Garcia he expects an improved commitment level from the redshirt junior. Spurrier also takes care to point out the Gamecocks have another option in freshman Connor Shaw this season should Garcia fail to get the message.
Garcia admitted being upset by Spurrier's comments before last month's spring game questioning his commitment.
But after more than 30 years in coaching, Spurrier believes different players require different motivational tactics.
"Some need a little push. Some need a pat on the back. Some need to be yelled at," Spurrier said. "You try to do whatever you think is necessary to help them become the best student-athlete they can be."
Spurrier's coaching peers agree with the idea that a motivational strategy that works for one player might send another into a shell.
The key, experts say, is that a player knows the coach cares.
Nick Cooper-Lewter, a USC professor who is an authority in sports psychology, said successful motivators "first establish a very strong rapport so that the young person in no circumstances doubts the coach cares."
Cooper-Lewter, who got his start as an "optimal performance coach" working with heavyweight boxer Jerry Quarry in 1977, said most coaches use motivational strategies that worked for themselves as athletes.
"And like any father-son kind of relationship, you can have a mismatch or a match," Cooper-Lewter said. "There are some coaches that make adjustments based on, usually, experience. They learn they have to do slightly different things with different people."
Cooper-Lewter, who teaches in USC's school of social work, has worked with several USC athletes, including Jasper Brinkley, Sidney Rice, Eric Norwood and Devan Downey.
He called the fear and humiliation tactics used by former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and others a "time-tested motivator," but he warned that approach can create passive-aggressive resistance in athletes that can hurt their performance.
Cooper-Lewter believes positive reinforcement is best for long-term results.
ARE ATHLETES DIFFERENT TODAY?
Some coaches believe today's athletes are not as mentally tough as their predecessors who played sports before the dawn of video games, the Internet and cell phones.
Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, an offensive lineman for the Terrapins in the late 1960s, questions whether many athletes are willing to put in the time and effort to be successful.
"They come out of a computer age where if it doesn't work out, they hit reset and start over. They don't work their way through it," Friedgen said. "I think that's one of the tremendous attributes of athletics, football particularly - you've got to persevere. A lot of kids today, as soon as they hit failure, they want to give up."
Cooper-Lewter believes the Information Age has made athletes less tolerant of the "my way or the highway" coaching style. His reasoning: They log on to the Internet or turn on the TV and see players such as Michael Vick or Terrell Owens getting second and third chances and figure they don't have to listen to browbeating authority figures.
Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson, a three-sport star at Columbia's Eau Claire High in the 1960s, does not think college athletes are softer today.
"I think kids are just as mentally tough as they've always been," Johnson said. "Different coaches do different things. I always try to be a positive motivator. But when somebody refuses to do what you ask them to do, you've got to remind them in a firm manner. And football firm is firm. You've got to get the message across to them. I think players know that."
As the coach of his team's quarterbacks, Spurrier has directed some of his most pointed comments at his signal-callers, from Terry Dean and Doug Johnson at Florida to Blake Mitchell and Garcia at USC.
"I've probably gotten on all of them, because you can't show favoritism," Spurrier said. "So if you get on everybody, including the quarterbacks and the left guard or if somebody else messes up, they can say, 'Well, he yells at the quarterback, too. So don't take it personally.'"
Jerri Spurrier said her husband's dealings with Garcia are similar to how he treated Johnson, who started 11 games during a five-year NFL career after leaving Florida.
"He and Doug had the same kind of pushing. He really pushed Doug a lot, and Doug would get just as angry as Stephen, and hurt," she said. "I talked to Doug (recently), and he said, 'I never would have made it in the pros if it weren't for him. I couldn't have done it. I wouldn't have been that kind of person.'"
Friedgen, a former quarterbacks coach at Georgia Tech, tries to refrain from publicly criticizing his quarterbacks.
"One of the toughest questions I get asked every game, and I don't really appreciate the question, is, How did your quarterback play? It's a loaded question," Friedgen said. "I usually try to be vague in answering it - 'I've got to see the film. I think he did some good things.'
"Why should I have to answer that question? Even if I say, 'no comment,' it's a negative response. So I don't try to do that. Now sometimes I get put in a spot. And sometimes I'm emotional, too, and I'll answer the thing. And I should keep my mouth shut. See, coaches make mistakes, too."
A BALANCING ACT
Johnson said when he comes down too hard on a player, he seeks him out after practice.
"I've said some things probably I shouldn't have said that I know they took it tough. If I realize it later, I go apologize," Johnson said. "You're trying to teach a guy, in my opinion. You don't try to make him afraid to make an error. You try to teach him to do it the right way."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who was lauded as a motivator when he took over for Tommy Bowden during the 2008 season, said getting through to players is a balancing act.
"Some guys you can get all over 'em, and they need a foot in the rear, and other guys, they don't respond to that. You can't coach 'em all the same. That just doesn't fly," Swinney said. "Everybody's different. So you've just gotta find what makes each guy tick, and that comes from getting to know your players well."
Spurrier has spent four years around Garcia, dating to the Tampa native's senior year of high school. He has tried a positive approach with Garcia but does not believe he handles praise well.
Spurrier said his public criticism of Garcia is meant to reinforce what is expected of him. Spurrier said he has been less vocal with Garcia in private situations.
"He's already heard it now. I didn't get on him much this spring. I watched him make a lot of mistakes, a lot of bad plays, and didn't say a word," Spurrier said. "So at some point, you just can't keep yelling at somebody and getting on him."
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.