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The Art of Coachspeak

How past and present Vol coaches have spoken after big wins and tough losses, and the difference it can make with the fanbase.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Here's Donnie Tyndall after Tennessee's 83-72 loss at NC State Wednesday night:

I like this because it's a nice mixture of honesty and coachspeak:  our kids are going to play hard all the time, etc, the stuff you have to say and the stuff fans want to believe about their team.  And he's also just telling the truth.  You know it, and he knows you know it:  this team is young, and it is massively undersized now without Dominic Woodson and potentially Jabari McGhee for perhaps as much as six weeks after a foot injury at NC State.  There will be nights when Tennessee's best isn't enough, especially against talented teams on the road like the Wolfpack.  It's not Holtzian, it's not idiot optimism.  It's somewhere in the middle, which is where truth tends to hang out.

I like this about Donnie Tyndall.  I also like stuff like this, referring to Kansas State's furious almost-rally in the final minute:

That's funny.  And funny goes a long way in rebuilding.

Derek Dooley was one of the worst coaches in Tennessee Football history.  But for the first two-thirds of his time here, up to the loss at Kentucky when everyone rightfully lost their sense of humor, Dooley's sense of humor and his willingness to share it eased at least some portion of the pain of losing so many games during the rebuild.  Where's Rommel, shower discipline, Tyler Bray your house is on fire, and whether he was wearing a black belt or brown belt with those orange pants were all high points of his tenure here, and not retroactively once we figured out he really wasn't the man for the job, but in the moment.  Obviously you have to be more than just funny.  But funny helps.

Perhaps Dooley also didn't do enough positive coachspeak, openly criticizing players and pointing out, from his very first loss against Oregon, that his team didn't handle adversity well while failing to do much of anything to change that perception and ultimately that reality.  Early in the sort of rebuild Dooley and now Tyndall have seen, you can get away with, "We're going to look bad on some nights," because all of us know how true it is already.  But there's an important difference in the way Tyndall is doing it after nights like NC State, and using terms like Year Zero to imply from the beginning, "Hey, we're bad, and we're going to be bad next year too."  Rebuild reality is hard enough to deal with in the present.  Coaches who try to buy more time for themselves from day one ask too much while showing too little confidence.

There is more to what a coach says than their sense of humor, of course.  You learn a little about them in what they say after losses, as with Tyndall and NC State.  You also learn a little about them in what they say after big wins.  You can only use the, "I've never been more proud of a group of guys," once or twice, but Tyndall dropped it after the Butler win in what I thought was a nice touch for a new team.  From that same postgame interview, he said this about Derek Reese's banked three:

But I told him coming out of that timeout, `You're going to knock this in, man.' I've done this a long time, and I'm not claiming to know a whole bunch, but when you tell a kid he's going to make a shot... They don't want to believe you when you tell them they don't guard. But they really want to believe you when you tell them they're going to make a shot.

This is shades of Butch Jones and Michael Palardy in last year's South Carolina game.  A field goal from the one yard line may not be as difficult as a three late in the shot clock, but the Vols were ahead when Reese splashed his three.  If Palardy screwed up - which is how Dooley addressed his kicks, in a manner of speaking - the Vols would have lost.

Butch, of course, is more of a fan of coachspeak.  Tyndall's media appearances are both more entertaining and more revealing.  You don't have to be entertaining if you win - Nick Saban is only entertaining when he's pissed off about something - but it never hurts.  Just because Butch doesn't have jokes or isn't quite as transparent doesn't mean you can't learn a little about him when he speaks, however.

Here's Butch after the Florida loss:

Around the country, just keep your patience. We're going to be alright. I've told you before, it's like raising your children. We're raising a football program and I'm just as patient as anyone. I'm angered and I'm upset, but I'm not discouraged because I see the progress everyday. You guys need to hang in there. We're in it together. We;re going to get it together. We're going to have great days, but we just got to keep grinding. I want to say thank you for coming out. We're going to need you next week. I promise you we're going yo get it right. We had a tremendous amount of recruits out here today---why wouldn't you want to come to the University of Tennessee after that? We'll be back. I promise you we're going to be a good football team. We're going to be a good football program. Just keep staying the course."

That was in his closing statement, which wasn't in response to any particular question.  He just felt like he needed to say it:  patience, reassurance, and the promise of progress even if not yet in wins and losses.  I appreciate that Butch doesn't preach patience every week, especially not the way Dooley did.  So far he has saved it for the most difficult moments, a list this game sits firmly atop.

Overall Butch tends to emphasize the positive - he opened that Florida presser with, "Defensively, I thought we played well enough to win the football game," - while repeatedly saying general things like, "We are who we are," in reference to the offensive line.  It's much easier to admit some nights you're just going to get beat by better teams in basketball than in football.  But as we now move even further away from that truth as the talent increases under Butch's watch, I'll be interested to see how he responds to fans and media into next year.  We will somehow be both young and extremely experienced.  How will he speak to expectations?

Likewise, here's Butch in victory after the South Carolina game this year:

Well, it feels good anytime you win, but I feel great for Vol Nation. You talk about a loyal fan base - we are going to need them as this season continues to progress. Our student body, our student section - I hope everyone in Vol Nation can have a great weekend and a great week. And I am proud of our seniors and everyone associated with our football program. You know, we've been on the other side of things - so we're going to enjoy the night.

Even if you didn't remember any part of what he said in the postgame, that's exactly what you expected, right?

A big part of this is true for all walks of life that involve public speaking:  you have to be who you are.  I think the more comfortable you are showing who you are to people, the better - transparency is my favorite compliment - but you also have to maintain some level of privacy and professionalism.  If you tell fans if they don't like it they can go to K-Mart, you will lose your job after four straight tournament appearances.  Teams with passionate fanbases all carry this unique "relationship" where fans want to feel like they know their coach.

Sometimes it happens right away when a coach is especially open.  Or perhaps candid is a better word; this is especially true in Bruce Pearl's case.

Here's Pearl when asked about Auburn's loss to Coastal Carolina being a "bad loss":

"Because we had the lead, got beat on the boards so badly and controlled the game it’s a bad loss. It doesn’t make it a bad loss that it’s a Big South team. This team went to the NCAA tournament last year. They returned ten guys from an NCAA tournament team, I don’t return any. What makes it a difficult loss is the fact we controlled the game. That’s an outstanding group of guards, three guys who really played well."

This is a good answer, similar to Tyndall's NC State response but a little more defensive as Pearl is dealing with higher immediate expectations.  And because Pearl is Pearl and has a wealth of other moments of pseudo-transparency (and famously some moments where he wishes he was a little more honest), you hear a statement like this differently.  Almost instinctively, you give it more benefit of the doubt.  If Butch Jones said some form of these words, it would be coachspeak.

If Cuonzo Martin said some form of these words, some would hear it only as an excuse.

Remember how surprised you were when this happened?

That's because Cuonzo never really let people in, or even gave any hint of that idea.  Here's Cuonzo's opening statement after the loss at Texas A&M last season, probably the lowest point of his time in Knoxville:

"This was a hard fought game that went down to the wire. I thought our guys did a great job battling back, putting pressure on those guys, taking into overtime. It was a hard fought game, we just came up short."

But here's Cuonzo's opening statement after a 30 point win over Kentucky:

"Great work against a top 25 opponent. Guys did a good job of competing from start to finish. Just a tremendous effort from both ends of the floor. I think in the last three games this is the Tennessee team I am accustomed to seeing, people are really playing hard.

You can see, especially in print without tone of voice, how coachspeak really is present in all of these answers.  But we hear it differently from Butch than Cuonzo in the midst of so much overt coachspeak, or Tyndall than Dooley in the midst of more humor.  Perhaps this means personality is just as important as the amount of detail in a coach's answers.

And personality goes back to this:  you have to be who you are.

Cuonzo Martin is level-headed and reserved.  He followed one of the most creative extroverts in college sports who also won 24 games a year, which made Cuonzo's 21 wins a year seem like far fewer at times.  Butch Jones is relentlessly optimistic while speaking in mostly generalities.  He followed a realistic lawyer with an appreciable sense of humor.  They both went 11-13 in their first two regular seasons.  There is clearly more than a personality difference between Butch and Dooley - ranked wins, recruiting (which involves personality) - but it is interesting to consider the way what they say and how they say it impacts fan perception.  Things are clearly trending upward for Butch and Tennessee right now.  But things were trending upward for Dooley too going into year three.  Much of our reservation with that idea had to do with the last on-field impression being a loss to Kentucky.  But there is at least some truth to the idea that fans are more likely to believe in Butch because Butch is a better salesman of belief.

But for my money and my time, so far I like Donnie Tyndall's approach.  Funny covered a multitude of sins during the Kevin O'Neill administration.  Funny is winless against the NCAA, of course, but as these young Vols try to find themselves - and do so with competitiveness and a pair of quality wins already - I find Tyndall's level of verbal transparency refreshing.  Saying more than, "We didn't do a good job scoring the basketball," in defeat and more than, "Our guys accepted the challenge," in victory will only help him.  Nothing helps more than winning.  But along the way, I appreciate Tyndall making it both more interesting and more real.