Every Saturday night, Ari Wasserman and David Ubben react to the weekend’s slate of games on “Until Saturday.” On Mondays, they revisit the biggest takeaway from Saturday night’s instant reaction. This week: College football is better when coaches are emotional and honest. It’s a guarantee.
Ryan Day had heard something that caused an emotional reaction inside of him.
His Ohio State Buckeyes, visiting Notre Dame on Saturday night, proved wrong what he had heard. Then — repeatedly — Day bellowed his true thoughts in front of an NBC camera and microphone for all to hear.
He went after an 86-year-old coach-turned-media personality who hasn’t been a coach in almost 20 years and hasn’t been on ESPN’s payroll since 2015.
“I’d like to know where Lou Holtz is right now,” Day told the NBC audience just after the 17-14 win, one of the biggest of his career. “What he said about our team, I cannot believe. This is a tough team right here. We’re proud to be from Ohio. It’s always been Ohio against the world, and it’ll continue to be Ohio against the world.”
Holtz, who coached at Notre Dame from 1986-96, had questioned Ohio State’s toughness. He wasn’t alone in making that assessment, but he made it on ESPN on “The Pat McAfee Show” on Friday. And Day saw it.
A hit dog hollers? Perhaps, but Day’s team won by playing tough, and Day stepped up on his soapbox. To the victor goes the spoils. It was a natural reaction, a human moment. And in college football, it was an exception to the rule.
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Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue. Honesty is hardly ever heard. And mostly what I need from you.
Billy Joel probably wasn’t writing about 21st century college football when he wrote those words back in 1978, but he might as well have been.
Can this sport make Ryan Day a little less lonely?
Ryan Day didn’t take too kindly to the disrespect toward his Buckeyes in the media.
“I’d like to know where Lou Holtz is right now. What he said about our team, I cannot believe.”
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 24, 2023
For many reasons not worth digging into for this column, college football has slowly devolved into a sport of sanitization built upon cliched rhetoric and empty words devoid of emotion in a game that’s deeply emotional for everyone involved.
This season, we’ve seen example after example of coaches no longer embracing that ethos. Is it a fluke? Or are we witnessing a sea change?
I’m rooting for the latter.
We ought to encourage a little more honesty in college football, rather than shame the coaches who dare to speak their true feelings into a microphone. (Many applauded Day’s impassioned reaction. Many derided it.) Until this season, it had become a lost art.
After upsetting TCU in the season opener, Colorado coach Deion Sanders went after the people who thought he was more a sideshow and less a person serious about coaching college football.
“I deflect a lot of things, but I’m human, so I feel some things,” Sanders said then. “What we accomplished out there today, ain’t none of y’all believed that. Maybe a couple of y’all that knew me and knew how I got down. They know I’m a winner. I’m going to end up winning. Ain’t none of y’all thought you were going to be sitting up here. You thought you were supposed to be on the other side, interviewing them. Or coming and asking me, ‘What happened? You said this and you said that.’ Yeah, now what? Now what? Everybody quiet now.”
There are a lot of reasons why Sanders’ team has gotten an outsized amount of attention to this point, and some of it is because he’s honest about how he’s feeling. He does it over and over again and with eloquence and flair. He has a way with words. He’s the only college football coach in history to nearly sign with Death Row Records.
But even when he’s at his most bombastic, his words are almost always based (mostly) in truth and self-confidence, infuriating some while delighting others.
“People around the country will say, ‘This is what they needed to humble themselves,’” Sanders said after his team took a thorough beating from Oregon on Saturday. “We wasn’t arrogant or whatever. We’re confident people. Our confidence offends your insecurity. That’s a problem with you, it’s not us. We expect to do well. We expect to play well. We expect to win every game.”
His pragmatically provocative program is reaping the dividends. Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” might be served with a restraining order by season’s end after announcing plans to set up shop at a fourth Colorado game in five weeks. He amplified a personal attack from Colorado State coach Jay Norvell and turned a 10 p.m. ET kickoff against a rival that hasn’t reached a bowl game since 2017 into the most-watched game of the season to date.
It’s a playbook straight from boxing’s heyday or professional wrestling. Storylines drive attention. Yes, college football is a sport. But it’s supposed to be entertainment. And those who build storylines attract eyeballs from those not personally invested in your success or failure. Suddenly, they care.
Are coaches feeling a bit more emboldened seeing Sanders’ approach pay off with unprecedented attention? It behooves them to lean in.
Washington State coach Jake Dickert — who earlier this season emphatically declared his Cougars worthy of a Power 5 conference after beating Wisconsin — went after Lee Corso and ESPN after Corso denigrated the value of the Cougs’ Pac-2 matchup with Oregon State early in the day on “College GameDay.”
“I would love to have a conversation with coach Corso about the value he sees in breaking up the premier West Coast conference,” Dickert said Saturday night. “And I’d also love to have a conversation about how he thinks student-athletes and mental health and flying them all over the country is a positive thing.”
Dickert sounds off on Corso’s WSU-OSU dig
Lean in, coaches! Lean in! It’s a net win. And let players talk, too!
Don’t do what Oregon coach Dan Lanning did Saturday. His pregame speech, in which he argued his team was about “substance” and not “flash,” was the talk of the sport after ESPN aired it during the Ducks’ evisceration of Colorado.
“The Cinderella story is over, men. They’re fighting for clicks, we’re fighting for wins. There’s a difference. This game ain’t going to be played in Hollywood. It’s going to be played on the grass,” Lanning said.
But after the game, Lanning got bashful: “We do a pregame speech every week. I guess there was a camera in there this time.”
I’ll pause now for readers to groan after Lanning insulted our collective intelligence.
This wasn’t an unidentified person leaking a pregame speech weeks after the fact, which happened to Georgia’s Kirby Smart last season. This was ESPN’s camera focused directly on Oregon’s coach before it took the field against college football’s media darling, presumably closer to him than many of his players. And as my podcast co-host Ari Wasserman noted on our show, those cameras were not small.
It’s OK to admit you think Colorado’s camera-heavy approach makes a mockery of the sport. Clearly, Lanning feels that way. Like people calling Ohio State soft, it’s a mainstream opinion and very common among coaches. I’ve lost count of how many coaches I’ve talked to about Colorado and Sanders who have expressed annoyance. A lot of the critiques are fair and grounded; others are rooted in jealousy.
But jealousy happened in part because Colorado tried a little honesty. Norvell clearly wasn’t Deion Sanders’ biggest fan. He spoke his mind and got a ton of exposure for his team and program. I’m almost certain 9 million people have never watched a Colorado State football game. And his team almost pulled off an upset that would have been one of the most talked-about games of the season.
There’s (almost) no such thing as bad exposure in college football. Sanders understands that.
Day’s rant, though directed at Holtz, was really about the conversation around the team as a whole. Holtz was an avatar for an opinion fans and pundits alike held. You don’t think Day earned a boatload of capital and loyalty in his locker room for defending his players from that narrative? Do you think they would have preferred Day pretend it didn’t bother him and shrug off a comment that clearly had been rattling around in his brain leading up to the game?
If coaches would try a little more honesty in front of a microphone, they’d reap some benefits, too.
And the entire sport would be better off for it.
(Photo of Ryan Day on the field after Ohio State defeated Notre Dame in South Bend: Joseph Weiser / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)