The secret to Mizzou's success
Michael Sam's story wasn't just about Michael Sam. It delved into many areas, including Mizzou football. Sam's teammates, too, were part of the story. Missouri strength coach Dr. Pat Ivey says what was reflected in the example of the Tigers 2013 season is why a program loaded with two and three-star recruits has won so many games.
I don't know how much Missouri pays strength coach Pat Ivey, but I'm pretty sure whatever it is, the school is getting a bargain. Ivey might have been the most impressive guy I spoke to at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
The former NFL defensive lineman was at the combine with a Mizzou SID in the media area. (A few schools send SID staffers to Indy to produce reports and updates on their own players and Missouri was doing that.) The Tigers had a big contingent of players taking part in the combine. They also produced the guy who drew the biggest crowd at the interview session -- Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Sam's story wasn't just about himself. It touched on a lot of things, including Mizzou football. Sam's teammates, too, were part of the story. And so, the Tigers players in Indy all expected to be asked about playing with a teammate who had come out to the team before the season. All of the Tigers players I saw in the media sessions, including Sam, handled a potentially difficult issue extremely well. And no one was prouder to witness all of that than Ivey, who watched from a distance.
"Every one of our guys are expecting this and they're welcoming this," Ivey told me when asked about Tiger players getting questioned about Sam. "They're like 'Man, great. When I step on that stage, how I answer the questions about my teammate may tell you more about me than my talking about myself.' I think our guys know that.
"Our core values at Missouri are honesty, treating women with respect; and our final core value is 'respect cultural differences.' That is on the locker room door. As they exit the locker room every day, it's 'respect cultural differences.' Our guys know that's part of our culture. You don't take a bunch of two and three-star athletes and win a bunch of games against a lot of four- and five-star guys without them being great character people, and without them developing as people, mentally, socially and emotionally."
Strength coaches spend more time with the football players over the course of a year than any other coach in a college program. They are the real backbones of the college football team. Talking to Ivey for an hour, I started to get why the Tigers have won so many games over the last seven or eight years.
"I think it's just something that's really known at Mizzou now, that once you set foot in our locker-room, this is a brotherhood," Tigers DB E.J. Gaines said. "Everything they talk about on your recruiting visit about it being a family atmosphere, that is the truth. Tolerance and just accepting people as they are that really does go along with being a Missouri Tiger. [Ivey] sets that tone. He doesn't just talk about it. He does it by example. He really teaches us how to be leaders."
Ivey, who finished his Tiger playing career as the strongest guy in MU history and got his doctorate in sport psychology earlier this year, said he believed that Sam coming out to his teammates brought the team even closer together and that it "absolutely" played a role in helping a 5-7 team become a 12-2 team. "We love adversity. When you have good character people go through adversity they come out better."
Ivey told me he had suspected for about three years that Sam might be gay. I asked him how concerned he was about the team's reaction.
"I'm going to make a strong statement here," Ivey said. "I want to talk to every head coach in the NFL, every GM in the NFL, every owner in the NFL. We are responsible for setting our culture and our environment. The athletes are not responsible for setting our culture and our environment. It's up to us to set an environment that is accepting and understanding of our differences and be respectful of our differences. It is not on our freshmen or rookies or whomever to decide how the workplace environment is. It is on us. I take that very seriously. I select the songs that we play in the weight room based on the environment and the mood that I want. Not a freshman, not a senior, not a captain. I do it. It's my responsibility. If someone is being disrespectful in my presence, that's my responsibility."
Asked if there were some instances where some things might have been said by teammates that were challenging in light of Sam coming out, Ivey acknowledged that there were.
"There was that going on," the coach said. "But who's supervising the environment? Who's educating that young freshman? 'Hey, That's not the right thing to say. You may have said that for your first 18 years but for the rest of your life, or at least the rest of your time at Missouri, you won't use gay slurs. You won't use racial slurs. You won't use sexual innuendo. You won't do that here.' That's on Coach [Gary] Pinkel. That's on Mike Alden. That's on me. Every day we're talking about respect. I have to do it often. 'Hey, pull your pants up. That's disrespectful to show your underwear.' 'Hey, let the lady get a nutrition bar first.' We talk about that every day."
Ivey smiles now whenever he hears skepticism about Sam's NFL prospects.
"He was 'two-star' athlete in high school. Some people thought that he'd never amount to anything," Ivey said. "He's not just now hearing criticisms. He's heard it his whole life. Can you imagine growing up like he did and hearing the criticisms he heard in the sixth grade, in high school -- every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is nothing. Life is bigger than football."
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