“No cheering in the press box.” Before kickoff of every football game, that subtle reminder is made over the loudspeaker.
As the senior writer for Saturday Down South, it’s my job to cover the 14 member institutions of the SEC as fairly as possible. I’d be doing the readership a disservice if I were to show any bias either for or against one particular school.
But as a human being, with likes and dislikes that have come to be part of my personality for 42 years, this can be difficult — as it is for everyone. As a card-carrying Florida State graduate, I’ve been engineered to root against Florida. I’ve done my best to disguise this in professional settings, especially when writing for SDS.
Having covered a few Gator games, I like to think that I’ve checked my garnet and gold at the door and been quite impartial to the orange and blue.
Fans don’t always see it that way, though. In 2015, when I consistently wrote that quarterback Jake Coker would prevent Alabama from winning a national title, Crimson Tide fans did what Crimson Tide fans do: hater!
However, last season, repeatedly I wrote that coach Nick Saban and Co. couldn’t be beaten — they could only beat themselves. Switching from Coker to Jalen Hurts at QB had brought an electric element to the offense that simply wasn’t there with the likes of Coker, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron or even Blake Sims.
As a result, a lot of readers started calling me a ‘Bama homer. I was just a bandwagon fan with a fancy byline.
The fact that I turned out to be wrong both times is immaterial. Coker did lead the Tide to a title, and then Clemson did defeat the defending national champs with Hurts under center. There’s no crystal ball on my desk.
When fans read something that’s critical of their favorite program, it’s only natural for them to get distressed. They want to direct their anger at something — or, as is usually the case, someone — because they feel the need to defend ol’ State U. What’s this guy’s problem? they tend to think to themselves. He must hate my team.
I’m not a hater. I’m not a homer, either. Not for any club in the conference. Nevertheless, in this business, that’s not always the case.
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I covered the Chicago Bears for six seasons. The setting is different on Sunday. Everyone is a pro with a job to do, including the players.
The company I worked for had a model built around the college game, not the NFL. Knowing I was a Seminole, my boss repeatedly told me that if I ever moved back to Tallahassee, he’d give me the FSU job instantly.
I always thought that it would be my dream gig to cover the ‘Noles. This was my alma mater. I knew the players, the coaches, the history, the tradition, the town — encyclopedic knowledge would surely help me ingratiate myself to the readership. One thing led to another, and the position was mine in 2011.
And I positively hated it. I only lasted one year. When my contract was up, I asked for it not to be renewed. It wasn’t for me.
Simply speaking, I couldn’t do it to the best of my ability. My feelings had been compromised. I didn’t want to sit behind the press-box glass, stoically follow the game and then grill coach Jimbo Fisher afterward.
I wanted to sit in the Section 12 sunshine, do the tomahawk chop and then head back to my tailgate. It showed in my writing, too. Since I was sentimentally invested in the outcome — EJ Manuel was so maddeningly inconsistent as a field general, as well — I was too enthusiastic after wins and too vicious after losses.
For a year, I didn’t wear my Florida State hat. I was trying to do things the right way. But being a Seminole was part of my DNA.
That’s why I do what I do now. Having grown up with FSU, I was quite familiar with the inner workings of the SEC due to proximity alone. Have I digested every specific aspect of every single program? No. That’s not a bad thing, though.
Now, when I think Arkansas is guilty of poor clock management, I write that Arkansas is guilty of poor clock management. Likewise, when I think Vanderbilt is scheming beautifully on D, I write that Vanderbilt is scheming beautifully on D. The comment comes from an impartial eye — nothing more, nothing less.
Even when writing about Florida, I can go into full Switzerland mode. The Gators who live on my street have even told me so.
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When I began covering the Bears at 30 years old, I was noticeably one of the youngest people on the beat.
However, when I started covering the Seminoles at 36, suddenly I was one of the oldest. Not only were many guys only a year or two out of college, but some of them were actively taking classes at Florida State.
I also wasn’t the only alum. Several writers — plus TV and radio people — had indeed gone to FSU, meaning they were smuggling booze into the student section before opening up laptops in the press box. Recruiting-based sites like the ones at Rivals, Scout and 247Sports attract young writers with little to no journalism education or experience.
A big part of that job is the message-board community, but the majority of posters don’t want impartiality. They want passionate fanatics, just like they are.
I was talking with a current SEC head coach last week. The various stops in my career came up in conversation. He actually commended me for walking away from the ‘Noles in order to preserve both my lifelong fandom and my journalistic integrity.
I told him that I loved covering the SEC. Nothing is more important to the readership — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year — than their team. That’s a language I speak fluently. Trying to do the job properly as a graduate of the school I was covering wasn’t an ideal fit. Or at least it wasn’t for me.
Clearly, the topic had struck a nerve with this coach. I asked about his experiences with alumni-turned-media. He said it’s a problem. They’re too emotional.
At Media Days in July, there’s a room full of print, radio and television reporters, columnists and hosts in various garb. Some are dressed up in suits and wingtips, although most are dressed down in polos and sneakers.
But one writer in particular is a grad of the SEC school he covers — employed by one of the above-mentioned sites and has been seemingly forever — and always wears a hat sporting his team’s colors and insignia. Periodically, he’s ridiculed for being a fan, not a reporter. His response is usually along the lines of, “Damn right.”
As such, he writes like a fan. While that style would never fly at a more traditional outlet, it works for him and his audience.
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I like to interact with readers, even in the comment sections of my own stories. Most writers think that’s flat-out nuts.
This past season, I was Public Enemy No. 1 in both Columbia and Starkville. I picked South Carolina and Mississippi State to finish last in the East and West, respectively. So did most everyone else at Media Days.
Each program exceeded expectations to some degree — even made a bowl game, albeit the Bulldogs as a 5-7 space-filler. Needless to say, I got a lot of I told you so from USC and MSU fans. Remember, it’s not like they competed for a trip to Atlanta. They just weren’t as bad as I predicted, which was enough to make me wrong in their eyes.
After I made my preseason picks, many readers were convinced that I was out to get them. That I must have some agenda. You know, he hates my team.
The funny thing is I’ve been rather complimentary of South Carolina and Mississippi State this offseason. The arrow is pointing up for the Gamecocks. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen seems to do more with less than anyone in the SEC.
USC fans haven’t necessarily been showering me with praise. Not that I need it or am looking for it, of course. But I wrote a column last week about the good, young Gamecocks on display at Pro Day — it received zero comments. The column picking them to finish last in the East seemingly got a hundred. That’s just the nature of the internet.
But if even one fan read the Pro Day story and thought to himself, maybe he doesn’t hate the ‘Cocks after all, that’s a victory for me.
Needless to say, college football writers became college football writers because they love college football. Journalism school graduates don’t take jobs covering sports because there were no openings in metro.
Most every person in most every press box had a favorite team growing up, whether they ultimately went to that school or not. That bond can be tough to break — for me, it proved to be impossible. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, though. I’ve worked alongside several grads-now-reporters who crank out perfectly fair content.
As for the “no cheering” thing, I never witnessed it covering an NFL game. But in the SEC, I do see the occasional fist pump under the table.