Media shouldn't fan the flames

Originally Published: November 10, 2004
By Jay Bilas | ESPN Insider

Every season at this time, different media outlets (including ESPN.com) run features about "Coaches on the Hot Seat" or stories about how a certain program has to win now or risk eternal damnation, and then list a bunch of coaches and programs they believe could or should be in trouble.

The justification for running these stories is that people are interested in them, and the topic is "edgy." Both of those things may be true, but I still think it is wide of the mark and should be done sparingly, like when it is news.

Don't misunderstand me here because I am not naive. I know that coaches get fired every season, and that programs have expectations and benchmarks to meet. As long as there is significant interest in the game, coaches will get fired for not living up to expectations, no matter how unreasonable those expectations may be. I don't have a problem with that. It is simply the way it is. No profession is held more accountable than the coaching profession. None.

However, I do have a problem with the annual dance of guessing and fanning the flames of a fire that has not yet started by speculating on coaches and teams that "may possibly" be in trouble. The media has a responsibility to report any information it may uncover from an administrator or person in authority that a coach is about to be fired, or if a coach has been given an ultimatum to win a certain number of games or reach the NCAA Tournament or be fired. That is news, and it is proper and necessary to report that news.

In the absence of reliable information, any discussion in the realm of "coaches on the hot seat" is simply speculation. If a writer has a knowledgeable or expert source that states that a coach is deficient and should be fired, that is news. If that writer or analyst decides on his or her own, without any expert knowledge about the game or the situation, that a coach or program "should or could be in trouble," that is not news, it is a guess. And it is not always an educated guess. In fact, the guess creates a future news story, and tends to drive that story and raise the temperature around that coach and program.

Once a coach is named in a "Coach on the Hot Seat" piece, he is fair game to be asked about it over and over again, and it essentially creates a story. The piece makes the coach's potential firing seem plausible, even if it isn't. Then the coach is operating under a cloud of doubt and suspicion.

From that one story, another media member feels empowered to ask about the coach's job status, and newspapers feel they are justified in referencing it in article after article. Then, the media feels they can ask the players whether the talk about their coach's job status is a "distraction." The questions about distractions are distractions themselves, and cause the players to lose belief in what they are doing. Then the media ask the athletic director about the coach's job status, and he or she has to deny that the coach is in trouble. Then the denial is reported upon as news (which it is...but it was driven by the initial speculation!)

So what happens is the speculation becomes the story – and the longer the story lingers, the more uncertainty and instability is created, and the decision-makers around the coach believe they may have to make a change to stop the drumbeat and put an end to the speculation, uncertainty and instability.

But that is just the media angle. Once such a piece builds into that kind of story and puts that cloud over a coach or program, it is used in recruiting. Other schools use the uncertainty to negatively recruit against the coach, telling high schoolers that shouldn't really consider that school because the coach may not last through his full four years. If the coach misses out on a recruit or two over that kind of thing, then he may indeed find himself in trouble.

Does that sound farfetched? Well, it happens all the time, and it isn't right. The media has the right to do it, but there is a vast difference between having a right and being right.

I have enormous respect for coaches and the job that they do. Unlike most jobs, coaching is the ultimate in personal and professional accountability. A coach has to win, put butts in the seats, recruit to a certain standard, and do it in a manner that pleases alums, big money donors and administrators.

Members of the media don't have to live up to that same standard of accountability. If we did, my guess is that you wouldn't see as many of these stories. It would be pretty interesting, though, to see "Writers on the Hot Seat" or "Analysts on the Hot Seat," and see how we would react when we were constantly under that cloud. It wouldn't be fun, and it wouldn't be right.

That said, reasonable minds can differ, so enjoy the needles sticking into the coaches' voodoo dolls. It could be worse. It could be you.

Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst for ESPN.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst

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