Playing 'devil' advocate: Don't take things said to boosters so seriously


Spring practice is over. Early recruiting has begun.

And, Lord help us, the booster club rubber chicken circuit is in full swing.

In college basketball, March is when the madness begins. In college football, May is when way too many people involved in this sport lose their freakin' minds.

Here is what I mean. College football is enjoying an explosion of growth and popularity. It is easily the No. 2 sport in the United States behind the NFL. In 2014 it will launch a four-team playoff that is going to be huge. The SEC is launching its own network, following the lead of the Big Ten, because fans just can't get enough information about college football.

I'm telling you folks. I started covering college football in the 1970s and followed it before then. There can be no argument about what time best represents the golden age of college football. We are living smack dab in the middle of it.

So inquiring minds want to know: With all of this neat stuff going on in a game we all love, why last week were we obsessed with what one coach said about another coach in a booster club meeting?

In case you missed it -- and you couldn't even if you wanted to -- Florida offensive line coach Tim Davis was trying to have some fun at his old boss's expense when he met with a bunch of Gators in Melbourne, Fla. Davis contrasted Nick Saban's style with his current boss, Will Muschamp, another former assistant to the Alabama coach. He called Saban "the devil himself."

My first reaction was that it was a backhanded compliment recognizing, quite begrudgingly, that Saban is the very best at what he does. I thought it was acknowledgment -- a bit sloppy perhaps -- of where Saban has set the bar and that everybody in college football is chasing him.

That view apparently was not shared by the public at large, as people started calling Davis everything but a Child of God. The only guy who had a worse week than Tim Davis was the head of the IRS -- whoever he is.

ESPN's Mark May -- a guy I like and respect a lot -- was incensed, calling Davis a "classless, backstabbing coward" because Saban kept Davis employed for three seasons and seemed less than grateful.

I would venture to say that before his comments, 90 percent of college football fans didn't know the identity of the offensive line coach at Florida. Now they do. Sometimes fame is not necessarily a good thing.

Saban said Davis's words were "terribly disappointing." And somehow I just don't think it's smart to have Nick Saban terribly disappointed in you -- even if you don't work for him. The best line of the week was's Holly Anderson who said when Nick Saban uses the word "disappointing" it is like Darth Vader saying "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

But to all of this I have a question and a couple of recommendations. First the question:

Did I miss the memo that said we're going to start taking seriously all the things that are said by coaches at booster clubs?

Come on! Back in the day when Steve Spurrier stood up before a Florida booster group and said that FSU stood for "Free Shoes University" everybody laughed, including Bobby Bowden.

Because the reality is this: Coaches speaking to booster clubs are like politicians giving their weekly stump speech to their base. They have to give their constituency some red meat. It's expected. And taking shots at a rival is standard fare.

Now I have no problem with Nick Saban being "disappointed" in Tim Davis. He's the only person who really should take any of this stuff personally because it was, well, personal. The fact is that Saban is the best college football coach of his generation. He can be tough to work for because, like he said to reporters last week: "We're in a tough business. It's very competitive. Sometimes you've got to demand that people do things that maybe they don't want to do, but it's not personal."

I'll tell you this about Saban. I know a lot of guys who have worked for him and to a man they describe him as tough, but fair. And they all said they were much better coaches for having worked for him.

But I'm more concerned about what this controversy -- and the mere fact that it is a controversy -- says about us and the state of the sport.

Has college football gotten so big -- is there so much money and prestige involved -- that the game has totally lost its sense of humor?

Is it going to get to the point where assistant coaches are afraid -- or banned by their head coaches -- from speaking in public because it might cause a you-know-what storm like this?

Or worse, does something like this cause some coaches to become more robotic than they already are? Too many coaches are so guarded, so rehearsed and just simply boring. And when you see something like this it's hard to blame them.

Or still worse: If Alabama and Florida play in the SEC title game on Dec. 7 is this what we're going to talk about? A spot in the last BCS title game will likely be at stake and we're going to talk about something an assistant coach said in a booster club meeting in May?

Now we media and boys and girls are not innocent bystanders in this. If it blows up Twitter it's gotta be important, right? I enjoy social media as much as the next person, but the excesses of social media have already closed football practices to the public forever. Is it going to turn booster club meetings into closed-door operations? This sport, as great as is it, is becoming more closed door, more insular, and less transparent by the day. And we only have ourselves to blame.

Hey Barnhart! You just devoted a whole column to this subject. Doesn't that make you part of the problem?

Yep. You got me there. I plead guilty because this is a conversation we need to have.

So how about we all agree on two new rules:

Rule No. 1: From this point forward, nothing that is said at a booster club gathering counts. Say whatever you want at the podium. Rip into your biggest rival. It will never see light of day. Everybody, media included, agrees to put the smart phones away for one damned night. Red Holtzman, the former New York Knicks coach, had a deal with the media that covered him. If he had a drink in his hand, everything was off the record. It seemed to work at the time.

Rule No. 2: If stuff does leak out, we in the media promise not to lose our minds and coaches promise not to be offended. And recruits promise not to pay attention.

Yeah, fat chance of that. That ship has sailed and it ain't never coming back. We enjoy the dirty laundry and the gossip surrounding college football too much. The games are no longer enough to sustain us. It's not enough just to beat people on the field. We've got to embarrass them on Twitter while we're at it. But look on the bright side. There are only 11 more days left in May.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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