Kirk Herbstreit on what coaches have told him about other programs "opting out."

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit has often made waves for his remarks, including calling five-star recruits “a dime a dozen” in a 2017 Twitter fight with a recruit, blasting Pac-12 coaches complaining about late kickoffs with “You should be thanking ESPN” (also in 2017), suggesting in December 2018 that Georgia got into the 2018-19 playoff because of “politics” and that Urban Meyer “is an Ohio State guy,” and saying in March “I’d be so surprised if that happens” about the prospect of a 2020 college football season (which prompted Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to rip him with “He’s not a scientist. He’s a college football analyst“). Well, Herbstreit made some more notable remarks on ESPN’s College Football Playoff: Top 25 rankings reveal show Tuesday night, saying that “coaches around the country” “really feel teams are opting out to avoid playing games,” and suggesting that Michigan “waves the white flag” to avoid playing Ohio State on Dec. 12 (which would make the No. 4 Buckeyes ineligible for the Big Ten championship game under the conference’s current rules).

It’s interesting to see that theory espoused by an ESPN analyst, as it started as a college football Twitter joke about a conspiracy to expect from Ohio State fans on message boards, then was an actual thing on those message boards, and now is being discussed on ESPN’s rankings show by one of their most prominent faces. And he wasn’t alone; on the Michigan front, Herbstreit got some support from fellow analyst David Pollack. Host Rece Davis provided some pushback, but that then led to Herbstreit’s comments that coaches are telling him they think opponents are doing this.

But the sequence in which that all that unfolded is interesting. And the full clips of the commentary in question provide some notable context; we have clips and transcriptions below. To start with, here’s the first one chronologically, which came from Herbstreit’s discussion of Ohio State as part of his reaction to the latest rankings.

“They’re still sitting there in the top four. Now it comes down to, they’re going to play Michigan State Saturday. I still think Michigan waves the white flag and potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week, and then, David, [the Buckeyes] will potentially get a game on the 19th. They could be sitting there with six games. Michigan…is that fair, David? Michigan could basically opt out of that game and keep Ohio State out of six games to qualify for the Big Ten Championship. That doesn’t make sense to me, but that potentially could happen next week.”

Pollack, next in line to give his reactions to the rankings, offered some support for that idea.

“Well, if you can’t beat them, then try to keep them out of the playoff another way! [laughs] You’re Michigan, you’ve been getting beat like a drum. Some other approach might work.” He then goes on to talk about Florida.

After those reactions, and reactions to the rankings from Joey Galloway and Jesse Palmer (not shown), Davis provided some pushback on the suggestions from Herbstreit and Pollack that Michigan might choose not to play Ohio State.

“Look, guys, I’m not going to sit here and let this stand that you guys just implied, and perhaps you didn’t want to, I’ll give you a chance to clarify it if you want, that Michigan will opt out of the game and dodge the game just to keep Ohio State out of the [Big Ten] championship. If you’re being facetious, that’s perfectly fine, but I want to give you a chance to clarify there, because I don’t believe that for a second. They might not be able to play, because they’ve paused activities, but I don’t think they dodge it.”

Herbstreit then says he doesn’t know the specifics about Michigan, but has heard from coaches claiming teams are dodging them and citing COVID-19 as an excuse. (Transcription starts from the end of the Davis clip above, then continues from the immediately-following clips below.)

“I don’t know the, I don’t know all the, I know they shut down their operation this week, I don’t know the numbers as far as their COVID [outbreak] is concerned. I’m just saying, we live in such a strange world. I’ve talked to a lot of coaches around the country that say they really feel teams are opting out to avoid playing games because they don’t want to get humiliated. They don’t want to lose with the team that they have. They don’t necessarily have too many COVID positives, they just don’t want to have to take the field with the team they have and go get embarrassed, so they’re basically saying ‘We can’t play.’ So there’s a lot of that that’s being talked about around the country.”

“I’m not suggesting, I have no idea what Michigan’s situation is. I’m just saying they have the power to potentially say ‘Hey, we can’t play next week.’ And there’s nothing Ohio State can do if they decide to say that.”

Davis then responds “That is true. I’ll say this. Any team that does that, they’re not teaching any kind of lesson, they don’t stand for anything, they have no courage, they have no character, anybody that would do that purposefully just to sabotage another team.”

Update: Here’s a video Herbstreit posted to Twitter after the show, apologizing for his remarks about Michigan:

“Hey guys, just wanted to speak for a second about some comments that I made on our college football rankings show. I made some comments about Michigan, about the potential of them waving the white flag and not playing Ohio State by just saying ‘Hey, we have too many cases and we’re going to opt out.’ I had no business at all saying that, I had no evidence of that. That was completely unfair to the University of Michigan, to Jim Harbaugh, to his players and coaches, and I just wanted to apologize.”

“I think if anything, I think we all go through some ups and downs, many downs for a lot of people in this COVID crisis that we’re all in. And for me, in college football, I really struggle with where we are. Players opting out, teams canceling games. It just seems like it’s a downward spiral. Typically, I try to remain positive and upbeat, but I think we all have our breaking points. I think right now in Week 14 with so much negativity surrounding the sport, I think that’s sometimes a pressure point for me.”

“Again, I did not mean to insinuate. I have no evidence at all. I mean, Michigan, right now, they’re doing the best job they can of trying to cover and contain a virus from spreading on that roster. I wish them all the best. I hope they can play Saturday against Maryland, I hope they can play against Ohio State. Again, I misspoke, I’m apologizing. I think I was more just trying to say ‘This is happening around the country, we’re seeing that.’ But it was completely uncalled for to say that Michigan would be doing that. I have absolutely no evidence of that.”

“So to Michigan, to their fans, especially to Jim Harbaugh and his players, I hope everybody’s okay regarding the COVID, and um, again, I hope they’re able they’re able to play, and I wish them all the best. I’ve got a 25-year track record of not being a guy that pokes at Michigan, even though I’m an Ohio State guy. I take a lot of pride in being fair. I was not fair tonight, and I apologize.”

That is a notable apology from Herbstreit, and it is certainly good to see him walking back the specific claims about Michigan (which he did already admit on the broadcast he didn’t have evidence for). However, there are still wider issues here from him saying this in the first place, and from him referencing these opt-outs as a thing he’s been told by “a lot of coaches from around the country.” Our original analysis follows below.

There are a few different things at play here. One is Herbstreit’s wider comment that coaches are telling him “teams are opting out to avoid playing games because they don’t want to get humiliated.” If coaches were actually saying that on the record, that would be extremely newsworthy. A more moderate version of this came from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s accusations that Florida State was ducking them and citing fake concerns about a COVID-positive Clemson player who flew with the team to Tallahassee, and that itself continues to make headlines. If coaches are actually accusing other teams of choosing not to play because of on-field worries rather than health concerns, that’s a big deal.

But with that said, having that relayed by Herbstreit as just what he’s heard from “a lot of coaches around the country,” and having that relayed as part of a rankings show, is far from ideal for ESPN. The best way to have this come out would be from coaches saying it on the record rather than behind the cloak of anonymity. Barring that, there could maybe be merit to revealing these claims anonymously as part of a journalistic effort, whether that’s a web article, a SportsCenter segment, or an Outside The Lines piece. Something like that both would allow for some follow-up investigation to be mentioned next (“We looked at the schools coaches claimed were ‘ducking,’ and here’s a broad-picture sense of what was happening across those programs”), and would give these accusations the heft that one of ESPN’s journalists thought they were worth relaying anonymously.

Relaying anonymous quotes puts the reporter’s credibility in in place of the source’s credibility and illustrates that the reporter (and their editors and organization) felt the quote was of significant news value to pass along, so it’s usually better to have that done by people who are regularly reporting. It’s also better to have that done as part of a specific news effort that tries to evaluate the claims rather than just passes them along. Having those remarks passed along as not even a quote, but a paraphrase, from an undetermined “lot of coaches” (what’s a lot? 5? 10? 15?), by an ESPN game and studio analyst, on a rankings show, without any examination of if those claims are true, seems rather less than ideal.

And it seems particularly less than ideal that Herbstreit’s comments about Michigan (which started all this, and which he later backed off a bit from specifically with “I have no idea what Michigan’s situation is”) are reinforcing the theories out there on the message boards. And they’re doing so without really any evidence beyond “an unspecified number of coaches think this is happening at other programs.” And that’s not really the best look for ESPN and its coverage of college football. However, Davis’ call for Herbstreit to clarify exactly what he was saying about Michigan is appreciated, and it is notable that Herbstreit did back off the specific accusations he initially floated against Michigan (but created a broader story in the process). It’s also notable that Pollack somewhat endorsed Herbstreit’s Michigan take, again without any apparent evidence to support that.

Overall, though, while the way this unfolded on ESPN deserves some criticism, it also isn’t necessarily the end of the world. The reaction here needs to be in proportion with how the comments were presented and with the credibility of the person presenting them. If ESPN had presented this as a journalistic investigation and only provided “coaches around the country say” as evidence, that would be a much bigger problem. But ESPN’s opinion personalities in particular often say things that don’t really hold up to scrutiny. And while Herbstreit isn’t yet at Stephen A. Smith levels of factual error, some of his takes aren’t far from the takes SAS drops (and is richly rewarded for). And it’s notable that whenever Smith tries to actually report things, that doesn’t go well for anyone.

In the end here, this wasn’t a great look for ESPN or Herbstreit. ESPN aired what essentially amounts to message board conspiracy theories on their flagship rankings reveal show, and did so with only the slight filter of Herbstreit saying “many coaches tell me this.” And that was actually Herbstreit’s fallback position after an initial suggestion that he thinks Michigan “waves the white flag,” which he later confirmed had no evidence to support it. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that Herbstreit is on the opinion side rather than the news side at ESPN, and that’s certainly shown in the way he relayed this information.

So this isn’t “ESPN reports that Michigan will ‘wave the white flag.'” It’s “Kirk Herbstreit suggests Michigan will ‘wave the white flag,’ clarifies he has no specific information on that, but has heard from ‘a lot of coaches’ that they think their opponents are doing that.” (Yes, that’s much too long for an actual headline.) And sure, the way this played out is worth some criticism, but it’s much more an indictment of ESPN’s college football studio coverage than it is of their news side. But hey, at least Joey Galloway isn’t the studio analyst making headlines this week.


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.