Commentary

Nobody escapes blame in coach-columnist spat

Updated: September 27, 2007, 10:15 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

If you haven't seen the China syndrome meltdown of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy then you should. Not only because it's compelling video, but because of what's happened since Gundy used his entire postgame news conference to berate a newspaper columnist, defend his benched quarterback and, in the process, become something of a statewide hero.

This wasn't your ordinary tirade. This was Dennis "Crown Their Asses" Green, Jim "Playoffs?" Mora, Bob "Forgotten More About This F------ Game Than All You People Combined Are Ever Gonna Know" Knight to the 10th power. This was the Johnnie Walker Blue of rip jobs.

Gundy lectured, insulted and vilified Daily Oklahoman sports columnist Jenni Carlson for writing that benched OSU quarterback Bobby Reid is essentially a big wuss. Carlson and the Oklahoman stood by the column, but the truth is, nobody is blameless on this one.

Of course, you wouldn't know that by the opinion polls. In Oklahoma, Gundy is more popular than oil.

An Oklahoma City television station asked viewers if Gundy reacted "appropriately." Eighty-one percent of the 11,686 respondents said yes. Another TV station in the city asked if Gundy was right to react as he did. Seventy-six percent of the respondents answered yes. And Oklahoma State officials said Wednesday that 98 percent of the 1,400 (and counting) e-mails they've received are pro-Gundy.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Rajika Reid, Bobby's mother, of Gundy's news conference. "I've never seen nothing like that before. I was in awe. Wow."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Gundy has received widespread support from his coaching peers. But what is mildly surprising is that some of the calls left at his office come from coaches he's never met, including several with Super Bowl rings.

Something is at work here. The mistake is to think Gundy's supporters are simply Oklahoma State yahoos blinded by orange and black loyalty. But the e-mails and support also come from University of Oklahoma alums and fans, which, if you know anything about the intensity of that rivalry, just doesn't happen by accident.

Gundy not only struck a nerve, but he inadvertently tapped into the public's (and coaches') frustration and exasperation with the media. Not only did these people agree with what Gundy did, but they overwhelmingly agreed with how and why he did it.

More on this story

Read the original column from The Oklahoman that caused Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy's initial reaction. Story

• Watch the columnist's reaction to the situation. Video
• On Tuesday, Carlson wrote that she stood by her facts. Story

Gundy's newspaper-waving theatrics were ridiculous. Rather than be presidential, he was dictatorial. But the essence of his message has resonated with viewers and readers: College players aren't pro players, and shouldn't be treated as such … Make sure of your facts … Turnabout is fair play.

There has been a steady erosion of trust between college football coaches and the media. The reasons are numerous, more than a little bit complicated and, on occasion, legitimate. Some of it is the media's own fault (I've committed my share of mistakes). Some of it is the fault of control freak head coaches.

In the case of Oklahoma State, Gundy and Carlson, there were other forces at work. To think Gundy's three-minute postgame lecture was the sole result of Carlson's column is naive. The column was a trip wire, but Gundy's temper was on the simmer setting long before he read Carlson's column on Reid.

This was the perfect news conference storm. Oklahoma State had opened its season with a 21-point loss at Georgia, replaced Reid with Zac Robinson in the win against Florida Atlantic, then benched Reid altogether before the Cowboys lost at Troy. Gundy and OSU's self-anointed "World's Greatest Offense" were taking some serious heat.

Then the Cowboys beat Texas Tech in last Saturday's 49-45 thriller. An empowered and emotional Gundy walked into the postgame conference and instead of raving about his players and the victory, he became, well, raving mad. In that day's column Carlson had questioned the attitude, toughness and heart of Reid. She wrote of a scene following the Troy game where Rajika Reid fed her son chicken from a team-issued box dinner.

Translation: spoiled mama's boy.

It gets a little dicey from there. First of all, Oklahoma State is quick to say that Carlson didn't cover the game at Troy. Does that mean she had to depend on someone else for a description of what took place between Reid and his mother? This isn't unprecedented.

But Rajika Reid said Wednesday that her son ate his postgame meal without any parental assistance, though she did admit she took a piece of chicken from the box for herself.

"Every time I hear that I have to laugh because I think it's so crazy," Rajika Reid said. "No, I didn't feed him any chicken."

Not so funny to her was the notion that her son lacked toughness, that he was babied or coddled. She wasn't alone.

"That's way, way far from the truth," said David Aymond, Reid's coach at North Shore High School in Houston. "That was never an issue. Bobby Reid was a tough kid who didn't care to be coddled … I can't say enough good things about Bobby Reid."

And it probably didn't help that Carlson wrote about another Troy game moment that featured Reid laughing on the bench as the Cowboys were on their way to an upset loss.

Translation: Reid has an attitude problem.

TV cameras did catch Reid yukking it up in the waning minutes of the game. But, said Oklahoma State officials and Rajika Reid, he wasn't laughing about the loss. They said he was laughing at something an OSU teammate had just said to a Troy fan or player who had been taunting the Cowboys' bench. Fair enough, but it looked bad.

And then there was Carlson's suggestion that Reid couldn't or wouldn't play hurt. This is no small thing. To be called soft as a pro athlete is one of the ultimate put-downs. But is it appropriate to hold a second-string college quarterback to the same standard as an NFL QB? It's just me, but generally speaking, I think you get the benefit of the doubt until you start receiving paychecks, not scholarships.

Carlson thought differently and said so in her column. That's her opinion, which is what the Oklahoman pays her for. And she might be surprised to hear that Rajika Reid agrees with Carlson -- up to a point.

"I think they're fair game," said Reid, who mentioned that her son played with injuries during parts of his redshirt freshman season. "If you're going to write about a collegiate player, you should write about the skill set … the skill set of an athlete. I have a problem because [Carlson] made a personal attack on someone she doesn't know. Basically, I'm disturbed that she poked at his integrity and character."

This is partly the reason why Gundy had his meltdown, why you could hear a smattering of a applause from OSU fans after his postgame appearance, and why Rajika Reid has spoken with lawyers about pursuing legal action. It's also why this is an incident that shouldn't be dismissed as another coach-gone-postal moment.

Gundy is already in move-forward mode. When Carlson politely asked him Monday to detail any inaccuracies in her column (he had said three-quarters of it was wrong), Gundy declined. Asked why, he clumsily said, "I don't have to."

OK, I get it. PR 101 says don't give the story another news cycle. But, "I don't have to," sounds like something a 6-year-old says moments before being sent to the timeout corner.

Meanwhile, when I contacted Carlson Wednesday, she said she had been instructed by her editor to give no more interviews. "As of yesterday," she said in her e-mail, "we decided that it was time for me to get on with the work at hand."

Well, I suppose it beats "I don't have to." But not by much. Then again it wasn't Carlson's call.

The work at hand, as Carlson puts it, is considerable for everyone. It doesn't include, as some have written, a suspension or firing of Gundy. An apology? Absolutely. During last Saturday's hissy fit, Gundy had as much right to ask Carlson if she had children, as Carlson has asking Gundy if, say, he wears boxers or briefs. It's none of his damn business.

The real work is to fix what's broken. There is a growing disconnect between the sports media and the coaches and players we cover, and the people who read that coverage. There have always been disagreements -- that's a given -- but there also was a common ground and a mutual respect.

Now it's something much more polarizing.

Mutual distrust.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. He co-authored Jerome Bettis' autobiography "The Bus: My Life In and Out of a Helmet," which is available now.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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