It was the Georgia coach Mark Richt who suggested the offense — only the offense — celebrate a touchdown against Florida two seasons ago. But the rest of the Bulldogs took it further that day in Jacksonville with a mass rush on the field for a dog pile in the end zone.
To those who believed Richt can not instill emotion in his teams, it was a dramatic response. And apparently, as this season has sputtered in Athens, it was not enough to convince some fans that Richt has sufficient fire in his breath to inspire his players.
Fans want to see him roast a player on the sideline like … well, like who exactly?
Troll around the Southeastern Conference and it is hard to find a head coach yanking a face mask or gnawing at a kid like Woody Hayes or Frank Kush, two old-school coaches who may have actually breathed fire.
SEC players, and the experts who watch the game, said there is not a clear-cut role model for Richt if he wants a lesson in eruptions. Steve Spurrier, the South Carolina coach, might be the closest when he rips the visor off his head and spikes it, but that rarely happens any more.
Considering his short fuse with the media, Alabama’s Nick Saban looks like a candidate for rage, but he has more measured moments than outbursts of anger. When quarterback Greg McElroy ruined a drive against LSU with an interception two weeks ago, Saban patted McElroy on the back as he took a seat on the bench, trying to revive his confidence.
Is that anyway to treat a miscreant and prevent him from throwing another pick?
“He can get mad at us, but it’s nothing we can’t handle because no one is going to be more upset when things go bad than us,” said Mike Johnson, Alabama’s left guard. “We’re hard on ourselves, too. He’s a workaholic, he instills that intensity, but we also learn from him to keep our poise.”
Tennessee’s Chris Scott, a senior offensive tackle from Riverdale, said Lane Kiffin reserves his blasts for practice. The idea, Scott said, is to make practice so mentally formidable that when it comes to game time, no one is rattled.
“Very seldom have I seen him lose his poise on the sideline during a game,” Scott said. “He might be a young coach , but if someone misses an assignment, he’s not screaming.”
Les Miles, the LSU head coach, could be nicknamed Les Mild for his lack of gyrations at bad news on the field. He compares with Richt’s stoicism, which, as is often forgotten, fans lauded when the Bulldogs were winning 10 and 11 games a season.
And what about that Richt stoicism? David Pollack, the All-American defensive end who played for Richt from 2001-2004, said sideline perceptions can be deceiving.
“He gets a little bit of a knock because people don’t know that he is as competitive as anyone I know; he would take me to the woodshed every week in racquetball,” Pollack said. “What’s impressive is he can adjust depending on the personality of the team. Some teams can be babied; some can be whipped. Behind closed doors, what he says to our team is a lot different than the quiet and calm guy you see on the sideline.”
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt set up a baptism at his church for the running back Dexter McCluster in October. Auburn coach Gene Chizik invites his players to spend time with his family and mix with his children, as if they were his children.
“A coach who trusts us around his family, his kids, that says something to us,” said Walter McFadden, an Auburn defensive back. “He has grown a bond with us. He treats us as his own. There is always discipline, but when a coach trusts us like that, it means something.”
It does mean something. Dr. Ed Etzel, a sports psychologist at West Virginia University, said the trust between a player and coach might explain how a coach can get away with getting angry at a player and the player not going into a shell.
Etzel said sideline poise — not yelling — can also be a sufficient communication device.
“The biggest pipeline, where the most information is communicated, is non-verbal,” Etzel said. “That’s true for anyone, not just a coach. In terms of body language, the non-verbal cues, that kind of communication is very important. Eye contact, how close a person is, the use of hand gestures, facial expressions, all of that.
“People in sports psych will tell you that half to three-quarters of the information that is being communicated is non-verbal.”
The heavy verbal exchange, said Auburn’s McFadden, can have a negative impact, which is probably why most coaches keep their cool on the sidelines.
“You got some guys who are used to the aggressive coaching and you got some guys who can’t play with the yelling in the ears because they get frustrated even more,” McFadden said. “I could deal with both kinds of guys, but I would rather have a coach who tries to talk to me one-on-one and explain why I did it wrong and not just curse me out.”
D.J. Williams, the Arkansas tight end who was recruited by Nutt, the Razorbacks former coach, said there was a correction to make when Bobby Petrino arrived.
“There was a huge adjustment. Everybody knew Coach Nutt was the players’ coach, laid back, and Coach Petrino has more of a business approach,” Williams said. “I almost thought it was impossible for both ways to work because they are black and white coaching styles. But somehow they pulled it off.”
Mississippi State players had to go through a similar adjustment this season when Dan Mullen replaced Sylvester Croom as head coach.
“Coach Croom was more laid back, a good football coach, but laid back,” said Arnil Stallworth, a MSU senior running back. “He didn’t blow up like Coach Mullen can blow up. Coach Mullen is very passionate about the game and we like that.”
Etzel said there is a danger if Richt suddenly comes unglued on the sidelines and starts barking at players in public.
“If I were a kid, I would wonder why,” Etzel said. “If that’s his nature, why would he change, what’s the purpose? Is he somehow not communicating with people?”
In the long run, a change in personality could even be a disaster. Players who has not seen the darker side of a coach at game time might suddenly ask the question, “Does he care more about his job, or more about us?” Suddenly, trust is in the equation, not just coaching tactics.
In that case, payback on the bully coach can be as tough as what they dish out.