Via Matt Clapp [@SharapovasThigh], a number of Colorado State football players were not too happy on Thursday morning, when news of Jim McElwain’s decision to become Florida’s next head coach became official. Colorado State lost its leader, but the loss itself wasn’t the issue — it was the way it happened, at least for the players who used to be (past tense) under McElwain’s supervision.
The all-too-familiar problem: The coach didn’t tell his players first, before the story broke:
Should a coach be expected to level with his players first? Yes. Is it an unpardonable sin that a coachwouldn’t? No.
Do coaches have to be political in a way that forces them to walk a very careful tightrope when pursuing a new job? Yes. Should that reality prevent them from exhibiting basic decency in certain ways? No.
McElwain’s handling of the situation exists in that large and generally murky gap between ideal and appalling — it could have been worse, it could have been better. The worst examples of “Coaches Behaving Badly When Considering Other Jobs” are the ones who flatly insist that they’re staying where they are or will never go where they’re reported to go. Nick Saban (with the Miami Dolphins before going to Alabama); Bobby Petrino with numerous mistresses — I mean schools — during his Louisville tenure; and Rich Rodriguez at the end of his West Virginia tenure are some of the foremost examples from the past decade.
The point, though, is that whereas Saban, Petrino (at Louisville, not the Atlanta Falcons or Arkansas), and Rich Rod encountered messy departures from a team at least seven years ago, when Twitter was just beginning to get off the ground, the social media net is wider and more ubiquitous these days. In 2014, it’s notable that a coach can leave a program such as Colorado State — not in a Power 5 conference, not a program that made a New Year’s Day bowl game, not a program that would otherwise generate national buzz — and get blasted in a public forum by his players. This is the power and resonance of Twitter. This is how the increased scope and scale of social media ripple through the virtual sports pages today.
Yes, when Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia in December of 2007, the nation learned about the outcry very quickly. However, that was a more visible situation for a number of reasons: West Virginia had just been knocked out of the BCS title game (by Pittsburgh, on Dec. 1 of that year); West Virginia is a college sports state, whereas the state of Colorado is an NFL state anchored by the Denver Broncos; and the Mountaineers did have to play Oklahoma in the upcoming Fiesta Bowl. The media spotlight was drawn to Morgantown even before Rodriguez left. The outrage or sadness felt by players would have been just one story in a basket of bigger ones.
This situation with McElwain at Colorado State didn’t involve a BCS championship or College Football Playoff angle. It didn’t occur in a state more closely associated with college sports. Colorado State isn’t going to play in a prestigious, high-visibility bowl game.
Yet, Twitter — and the outlet it provides — attracted the notice of the people who follow the program, and that local story gained a measure of national attention. Had this event occurred 10 years ago, Colorado State players still could have spoken out, but they would have done so in front of local television cameras and local radio stations. Twitter provided an immediacy in which players’ frustrations could go directly into a public forum, without a filter. The resonance of player outpourings was and is far greater now than it was in the pre-Twitter era.
Coaches — who do have to be more savvy about social media these days — need to know that if they are sloppy or inattentive (or perhaps just cowardly) in the process of exiting a program, their ex-players will let them know about it.