Morris: It’s not easy being a coach or a columnist

rmorris@ thestate.comSeptember 26, 2012 

I AM NOT one to write much about myself. If you will forgive me for a day, I thought it appropriate today to write about my job as a sports columnist for The State newspaper.

Yes, this comes on the heels of much criticism for an unfortunate comment I made on XM radio Tuesday morning. It also comes after a column I wrote last week questioning the return of a dinged-up Connor Shaw as starting quarterback.

What is clear to me from all this is that relationships, in all walks of life, are difficult. Heck, our divorce rate continues to soar. Workplace gatherings can be strained. Relationships between sports columnists and football coaches are sometimes acrimonious.

Football coaches are hired to win football games. Sports columnists are expected to praise and critique those coaches, their teams and their programs.

It is natural for coaches — in any college town — to ask about columnists: “Who the heck are you to judge me?”

The answer is today, as it always has been: “I’m just a sports columnist doing my job.”

While doing their jobs might put them in conflict at times, the coach and the columnist have this much in common: Each is second-guessed by the public.

Which is as it should be.

Steve Spurrier was displeased a year ago when I expressed my opinion that USC managed the clock badly at end of the game against Auburn, costing USC a win and ultimately the SEC East championship.

This season, Spurrier and I disagreed when I suggested that the risk was greater than the reward in starting Shaw against UAB. Spurrier got the last laugh when Shaw performed superbly in an impressive victory against Missouri.

I have had the great fortune of following Spurrier’s coaching career since its near infancy as an assistant at Duke in the early 1980s. We had never seen a coach quite like Spurrier when I was working at the Durham (N.C.) Morning Herald. Reporters could walk on to the Duke practice field and engage in conversations with Spurrier. He welcomed reporters into dark meeting rooms to view film of “ball plays” he had drawn up for that week’s game.

Along the way, I began to build a library of just about everything written about Spurrier. In later years, I stuffed a huge three-ring binder with the game summaries and statistics from every game he has coached, at any level.

Then Spurrier was off to Florida, and me to a newspaper in Tallahassee, where I continued to track his career. When he went to the Washington Redskins, I moved to Columbia, where we were reunited eight years ago.

As much as we have connected over the years, Spurrier and I are not personal friends, simply because that is not a professional approach to his business or my business. As I said before, relationships can be difficult. I very much enjoyed the company of former USC athletics director Eric Hyman, and we talked about how maybe some day our families could be friends. Professionally, we knew that was not possible as long as he was the AD and I was the sports columnist.

The same is true with Spurrier, as it must be between a sports columnist and a coach. When that professional line is crossed, the journalist stops becoming a neutral party in assessing the actions of a coach and his program.

Even so, we have common ground on occasion.

After Spurrier arrived in Columbia, he graciously invited me to work out with him on his 60th birthday. The workout provided a unique column for me and an opportunity for the coach to show the Gamecock faithful they had hired a coach with vigor that gave life to the start of his seventh decade.

I have been critical of Spurrier at times, but seldom during his first five years here. He deserved a free ride of that length to build a solid foundation for lasting success. He has succeeded famously, and I rightfully have toasted his every accomplishment and that of his program.

Unfortunately, the columns that are frequently remembered are the ones that stick in his craw and are deemed as “negative” by USC followers. The same week that I wrote about Shaw starting against UAB, I also wrote in celebration of Spurrier’s 200th win, the novelty and success of USC’s “Rabbits” defense and how coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s defense excelled against Missouri. (Credit to Spurrier for placing Ward in charge of the defense).

Guess which column is remembered most? The Shaw column seems to be at the center of Spurrier’s decision against fielding questions from the media after Saturday’s game and then again on Sunday during his weekly teleconference. I’m OK with that. I have shown courtesy for more than a year by not asking questions during — and thus, perhaps, disrupting — his news conferences.

The bigger issue for me was whether USC officials would recognize that Spurrier spurning the media was a public-relations problem. They did, and Spurrier resumed taking questions from the media Tuesday at his weekly news conference. I did not attend.

My comment on radio that connected USC’s public-relations issue with the Penn State scandal was only to suggest that college administrators have to be on high alert when it comes to coaches exerting too much influence over athletics department and university policy. That clearly was the case at Penn State.

In hindsight, any link to what happened at Penn State was inappropriate, and I apologize.

My critiques of Spurrier or any other sports figure, cannot be personal. It is all about doing my job as a columnist, and that is to provide an opinion, and provoke thought, about sports.

Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)

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