Dan Mullen at ESPN in 2022. Dec 28, 2022; Memphis, TN, USA; ESPN analyst Dan Mullen looks on prior to the 2022 Liberty Bowl between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Arkansas Razorbacks at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With anything where the outcome isn’t known and many of the details haven’t yet been reported, plenty of rumors tend to fly. But rumors on Twitter or other social media sites are one thing. Rumors discussed on television with their subject are something different entirely. And that’s what happened when ESPN anchor and play-by-play voice Matt Barrie brought up the Syracuse Orange football head coaching job (suddenly open after the firing of Dino Babers) with analyst Dan Mullen, who had been rumored as a candidate there, as they called the Miami-Boston College game in Chestnut Hill, MA Friday. That got noticed by reporters, including Tommy Sladek, the sports director for Syracuse’s CNY Central (NBC3/CBS5/CW6):

Sladek built on those on-broadcast comments to deliver an online report later Friday afternoon that “Dan Mullen met with Syracuse’s director of athletics John Wildhack on Wednesday according to a source,” also citing Mullen’s Northeast knowledge, his year as a graduate assistant at Syracuse in 1998, and his discussion as a candidate in a report from FootballScoop’s John Brice (amongst four other candidates, none of whom were the man eventually hired, Georgia assistant Fran Brown). But, on Tuesday night, Wildhack (a former ESPN executive himself, who left that company to take the Syracuse job in 2016) told Syracuse.com’s Chris Carlson that Mullen was “never a candidate” and he “never talked to him about this job”:

“I don’t know where this originated and it kind of had a life of its own, but I never met with Dan Mullen,” Wildhack said as part of a short conversation he initiated to dispel the conversation. “I never talked to him about this job, let alone him being on campus and meeting with him. None of that.”

Wildhack said his last interaction with Mullen was a conversation with him and Barrie before a Thursday night game between Syracuse and Virginia Tech earlier this year. In addition to not speaking to Mullen as a job candidate, Wildhack said he didn’t meet with him to discuss candidates that he should consider.

“I saw Dan and Matt Barrie, who did play-by-play for our Thursday night game at Virginia Tech,” Wildhack said of their last interaction. “As I normally do, I stopped by the announce booth to say hello. The three of us had a casual five-minute conversation. Nothing more than exchanging pleasantries. Never talked to Dan. Never interviewed Dan. Never talked by phone. Never communicated by text. Email. Never.”

Of course, this came after Mullen removed himself as a candidate for the Syracuse job. Mullen had previously said “never say never” when it came to a potential return to his old Mississippi State job, but has since shot down discussion of him heading to Syracuse and Indiana and has said he’ll stick with his ESPN role for at least another year:

There are several different notable things here. One is that the reports on Mullen being in consideration went well beyond just anonymous Twitter users with no relevant history, reaching coaching transaction beat specialists like Brice, hitting a standard where Barrie brought it up to Mullen on a broadcast (albeit in a quite awkward and around-the-bush manner), and then going to a level where a local reporter like Sladek cited a specific source on a very definitive “met with.”

That report has far less hedging than many on coaching searches, offering no possibility for exchanges through intermediaries or even really remote phone or video calls. (There’s theoretically an argument “met with” could extend there, but that’s not how it’s usually read, and remote meetings are usually denoted as such). Sladek trusted his source enough to relay a very definitive claim here.

But the next notable thing is the degree Wildhack went to to deny this. With many coaching searches, athletic directors are pretty closemouthed on who they did or did not consider or meet with. And yes, these searches sometimes see candidates floated just to boost their own profiles. But it’s unusual to see an AD go as far as “Never talked to him about this job.”

But Wildhack wanted to make it especially clear he never even texted or emailed Mullen about anything, not just this job. And Carlson’s report comes as “part of a short conversation [Wildhack] initiated to dispel the conversation.” So there’s no potential gray area; either Sladek’s source was wrong or lying or Wildhack is lying.

The third and final notable element here is how this conversation progressed as a result of Barrie bringing it up on the broadcast. That was a key piece of Sladek’s report. And perhaps this wouldn’t have escalated to actual reports of meetings if Barrie hadn’t discussed it in the middle of calling two other teams with Mullen.

And that speaks to some of the difficulties broadcasts face when debating whether to talk or not to talk about coaching carousel rumors. Doing so sometimes gets criticized, but not doing so would draw its own criticisms. There was an argument to not bring this up at all on-air here, especially with the Mullen rumors still at a very early stage at that point (and maybe there was an off-air conversation between Mullen and Barrie on this first, but if not, there probably should have been). But “don’t mention the war” is generally not a great overall strategy.

There are still some interesting questions from this, though. How in the world did we wind up with such a specific report from Sladek, and such a specific refutation (that went well above and beyond what Sladek and others reported) from Wildhack? That’s highly unusual, even in the wild world of coaching search coverage. And having this come after an on-broadcast discussion is more unusual still.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.