Much of football coverage focuses on the coaches, particularly in the college game, and that's understandable. For one thing, football's frequently portrayed as a strategic chess match, and that angle demands focusing on the men providing the strategy. For another, the coach is often the main point of continuity in the college game thanks to players' graduations and departures for the NFL, and some long-lasting coaches can pull this off even in the NFL. Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick, Andy Reid and others have become images of their teams, even as their players change. Coaches certainly impact football, so it's not that focusing on them is always a misplaced move. However, it's remarkable how different the tone of coverage can be based on a coach's personality and how he deals with the media.
The most prominent example of this might be two coaches in the same division, SEC West rivals Les Miles and Nick Saban. On paper, they're actually quite similar. Both had plenty of stops along their way before taking their current job, but Miles and Saban have thrived in an intense atmosphere at LSU and Alabama respectively. Since taking the LSU job in 2005 (replacing Saban, oddly enough, who headed to the NFL with the Miami Dolphins), Miles has gone 78-18 overall, 41-15 in conference games, has won a national championship and played for another one and has put up a 13-win season, a 12-win one (with a national championship), and three 11-win seasons.
Since taking over at Alabama in 2007, Saban's gone 58-12 overall and 33-8 in conference, collecting two national championships (including last year's win over Miles and the Tigers) and recording a 14-win season, two 12-win campaigns, and a 10-win season. Both have done remarkable coaching jobs, and there isn't a lot to differentiate them in terms of performance. Yet, the public perception of them couldn't be more different. Saban's usually seen as the relentless dictator who will do anything to win (hello, oversigning!) and the guy who's famed for being a jerk to media. Miles is seen as the wacky-but-lovable "Mad Hatter" who eats grass, does SportsCenter commercials and plays basketball in high socks and short shorts (with shoes from Scott Van Pelt!):
That's not to say this coverage is necessarily "wrong" in and of itself. Miles' personality lends itself to this stuff, and of course media outlets are going to cover it; he makes for great stories. Similarly, Saban mostly has himself to blame for the way he's perceived; business-like and serious is one thing, but he seems to actively go out of his way to fight with the media. There's nothing wrong with writing about how Nick Saban is a jerk to the press or how Les Miles is hilarious. Where this gets concerning is if it starts impacting how their coaching performances are seen.
As mentioned above, the actual performances Miles and Saban have put up in their current jobs are pretty similar; Miles' teams have been more consistently elite, while Saban has an extra national championship. The context they're seen in can be different, though. Sure, Miles is still criticized from time to time (he faced some heat locally from rambling LSU partisan radio host Bobby Hebert, following the decisions he made in last year's championship game loss to Alabama), but there didn't seem to be as much of an edge to it as there was towards Saban after his team lost to LSU in the teams' regular-season matchup. Meanwhile, Alabama's triumphs often seem to be grudgingly recognized. The tone of coverage of Miles' coaching performances often seems to be more positive than that of Saban's, and you have to wonder if that's thanks to their differing approaches to the media.
These guys are far from the only ones where this comes into play. In the NFL, for example, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy gets largely passed over on a national scale despite his team's remarkable success, while Jets coach Rex Ryan gets everyone else's share of publicity and then some (although that isn't always positive publicity). In spite of his countless guarantees and shenanigans amidst a lack of championships, Ryan is lauded as a character. Coverage cuts both ways for New England's Bill Belichick, who's seen as both a master strategist and a Machiavellian villain, but it's generally been favourable to more likeable coaches like Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin. There weren't many people on a national scale blasting Tomlin following the Steelers' playoff loss to the Fighting Tebows of Denver last year, but it's not hard to picture that with a different coach. If that game went the other way, you can imagine the criticism that would have faced Broncos coach John Fox.
It's the college ranks where it's most notable, though. With coaches as the face of the program, that leads to more focus on them and more opportunities for their personality to impact the coverage of their team.
The Pac-12 and its injury-reporting situation provide an interesting example here. Lane Kiffin and USC have received most of the focus (in our coverage as well), and that's partly their own doing thanks to the idiotic way they threatened to ban a reporter for discussing injuries. However, Kiffin's reputation from previous run-ins with the media and the bizarre way he bolted out of Tennessee makes him and his program an easy target. Many Pac-12 schools use similar policies to USC, including Washington and Washington State, and while they're still getting coverage for it, they've been less prominent targets. Some of that's obviously thanks to Kiffin's own missteps, but is part of it because it's easier to blast Kiffin than a popular, likeable coach like Washington State's Mike Leach? After all, Kiffin hasn't posed for any pirates pictures recently. Meanwhile, look at 1-2 Arkansas where John L. Smith's particular brand of crazy is going over in its own unique way:
Is this some clarion call to the media to ignore coaches' personalities and start treating them as "Generic Coach X"? No, that would miss the point. Stories are a huge part of what make sports so interesting, and the personalities of coaches are a significant part of that. John L's skydiving, Mike Leach's pirate obsession and Les Miles' grass-eating are all perfectly valid subjects of discussion, and there's nothing wrong with blasting the likes of Saban and Kiffin for their decisions with regard to the media. Stories have power, though, and although this isn't the Discworld, narrativium can still come into play. Absolutely, write and read the stories about coaches' personalities; they liven up the sports world, and that's a good thing. Both media members and readers need to keep that context in mind, though, and ask if a coach is earning more praise or criticism than his share for on-field accomplishments (or lack thereof) thanks to his personality.