Mariota keeping out of spotlight
Athletic departments help Heisman-worthy QBs like Marcus Mariota handle media
ESPN The Magazine: Marcus Mariota
MARCUS MARIOTA SQUIRMS a little. Then a little more. He fiddles with his watch, though he doesn't even realize he's doing it. He smiles, he answers the next question, he fiddles again. It's the first 45 minutes of what will be an hourslong mid-July media gauntlet.
A day earlier, the Oregon quarterback was home in Honolulu, chilling with his family, joking about the holes in his newly discovered golf game. One day from now, he'll be back there, enjoying one more week of home cooking before returning to Eugene for preseason practice. It is a purposely designed summer break for a 20-year-old who sidestepped the NFL draft for one more year of school, one last chance to avoid the attention that comes with that move. He's a good kid. A good student. He'll be a Heisman favorite on a team that is poised to win the Pac-12 and should be in the mix for one of the four slots in the inaugural College Football Playoff. It's a great story.
That's why there are cameras and digital recorders surrounding him now at a Pac-12 media day on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood. They've all been requesting Mariota throughout the summer, with no luck. When spring practice ended in May, he made the bold move of giving sports information director Dave Williford polite but ironclad orders that the media would have to wait -- he was going home. He's not scared; he's measured. It's one part product of his lie-low personality, one part deliberate navigation in case things take an unexpected turn, as they did for Cam, Manti, Johnny, Jadeveon and Jameis. When their sudden waves of fame rolled in, some surfed it for all it was worth, some drowned and others went into hiding. Some did all of the above. And Mariota was watching.
"I know I need to get better at the media stuff, but honestly, I never expected to be in this situation," says the redshirt junior. "The intensity level of the attention has certainly grown. I've seen that over just the last three years. But I just need to take care of my business, and everything should stay normal. If it doesn't, I think the coaches and the university trust me to handle it -- just like I trust them to handle it."
But amid all of the trust and good intentions, there is an unforgettable tension over what could go wrong. "He knows, just like we all do, that it has the potential to get crazy," Williford says. Which is why, although top-tier QBs traditionally stick around campus for the summer, an exception was made for Mariota. "It's hard to blame him for taking some time for himself -- and for us."
Yes, it will get crazy. The only question is how crazy. It's that constant unknown that has created a rightful paranoia within athletic departments and given rise to a cottage industry of collegiate crisis management and predictive science. The dare-to-sleep watch squads have expanded far beyond the SID's office to include athletic directors, university presidents and, increasingly, outside counsel. They check their phones before they go to bed and when they wake up, fingers crossed that they don't see their star's name wallpapering timelines.
There was a time when vets like Williford could do so just fine on their own. But that was before Twitter. Before Instagram. Before conference-specific television networks and rappers-turned-sports-agents. Now no one knows when the spotlight will hit, how hot it will burn or how long it will hang around. In the cases of three of the past four Heisman winners, no one could have even predicted the athletes who ended up attracting that light in the first place. Will Mariota's good looks and even better stats end up luring TMZ to camp out by his car? Or will some player we know little to nothing about now end up sitting down with Oprah in December?
DAYS BEFORE MARIOTA met the media on a Hollywood front lot, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston did the same 2,700 miles away in a country-club ballroom. Veterans of the ACC Kickoff said they had never seen one player draw as much attention as the defending Heisman winner and BCS-championship-winning redshirt sophomore did on July 20 in Greensboro, North Carolina. But in contrast to Mariota's soft-spoken approach, Winston held court. He beamed. He winked. He yukked it up. He made eye contact with every reporter who asked a question, those from the front row to the wobblers standing on chairs in the back. He said the attention didn't bother him and that Johnny Manziel had it much harder as a Heisman defender. After the last question, he stood up, still smiling, and said to no one in particular: "It's so much nicer when we all play nice."
It was a marked contrast to May 6, when the dual-sport athlete showed up at Stetson University's baseball field for his first game back after a four-day suspension for walking out of a Tallahassee grocery store with a cluster of crab legs he hadn't paid for. The only camera in attendance for the postgame was from SportsCenter. And when it poked into the dugout, Winston walked over and stared into it angrily, a 20-second moment that felt like 30 minutes. When the game ended, Winston was instructed to decline an interview, and the overmatched baseball SID ended up in a shouting match with the camera crew, drawing the attention of fans pressed against the fence shouting for a Famous Jameis autograph.
The guard was momentarily let down, and as a result, it got messy. This is the razor blade that universities have to walk: determining how much protection and guidance an athlete requires without becoming smothering. Which brings us back to Manziel.
"ARE THERE THINGS I would do differently? Absolutely," says Eric Hyman, Texas A&M's athletic director. In late August 2012, just two months after the school officially joined the SEC, a redshirt freshman quarterback known only to prep-recruiting junkies made his college start, listed on the depth chart as "John Manziel."
Says Hyman: "[Three months later] we're at the Heisman Trophy ceremony and I remember thinking, 'Wow, now he has to come back to campus and try to be a normal college student? How's this going to work?'"
Alan Cannon, who has overseen A&M's sports information office since 1989, was thinking the same thing. He called Florida to ask about its experience with Tim Tebow, who'd also returned to school a Heisman winner and became college football's first true social media lightning rod. "They warned us that this wasn't going to be about ESPN and CBS anymore," Cannon says. "It would also be about the National Enquirer and TMZ."
Back in College Station, Hyman assembled a meeting with Manziel, his mother, head coach Kevin Sumlin and representatives from both athletics and academics. His father was on speakerphone. The academic department agreed to schedule his classes almost exclusively online. They also assigned two staff members to full-time Manziel duty, one to manage the flood of autograph requests, the other to manage the overall schedule and stay with the quarterback at every official function. Hyman's speech to everyone was simple: "Johnny is not a freshman. He's not a sophomore, junior or senior. He's a Heisman. We can't act like this is normal because it's not."
As we all know now, and as Hyman readily admits, it became much more abnormal much faster than anyone could have predicted. There was the semifun stuff, like the TMZ-published photo of his post-Cotton Bowl exploding stogie, which became an Internet meme machine. Then it got more serious, with the ESPN pay-for-autographs report that was investigated by the NCAA and threatened his playing status for the 2013 season. "At the end of the day, he's a kid who's trying to become a grown-up," Hyman says. "They all are. You can't baby-sit them night and day. You have to educate them on what they are now, a celebrity, and the world they are now living in, even as that world seems to be constantly changing."
But no matter how much control universities try to implement, there will always be influences they can't bridle. Family is family, friends are friends, and hangers-on are hangers-on. Those groups typically swell in direct correlation with the balloon of fame. In College Station, they might refer to it as the Uncle Nate rule, a reference to Manziel's bud-turned-personal-assistant (aka the Other Dude in All of Johnny's Twitpics), who also oversaw the autograph side business that landed the quarterback in hot water.
"The game is so big now that you have some success and the spotlight is unavoidable," says Mark Helfrich, Mariota's head coach at Oregon. "The question is, How do you react when that happens? You recruit a kid certainly based in some part on his personality. But when they become so big overnight, you just hope they react like you thought they would."
ATHLETIC PROGRAMS NOT willing to bank on hope alone are instead enlisting help.
"The single biggest problem I find when I get onto a campus is the fingers-crossed, I-hope-this-doesn't-happen-to-us syndrome," says social media specialist Chris Syme, principal of CKSyme Media Group, who has worked with an all-star list of schools. She has a particular knack for developing pre-crisis plans, which she describes as FEMA-like pyramid charts of response, specifying who is supposed to call whom before reacting to what. But she also points out that those plans are only as strong as the bricks laid in the center of the pyramid. "You would be shocked at how many of the biggest, most successful athletic departments out there still have a 20-year-old intern running their entire social media operation," Syme says. "That's your first line of defense?"
In addition to Syme, universities are reaching out to the likes of Kathleen Hessert, founder and president of Sports Media Challenge, a reputation management firm that helps clients hone everything from marketing strategies to media interaction. "This isn't just about sports information directors not returning phone calls," says Hessert. "It's about athletic directors, and more increasingly college presidents, taking the time to really understand the noise that's out there and where it's coming from." But what Hessert is best known for is damage control. She was on the front line at Penn State in 2011, walking onto campus in the worst hours of the Jerry Sandusky fallout and constructing a 180-degree wall covered in clippings and charts that one former PSU employee calls "some sort of thing you'd see Russell Crowe drawing up in A Beautiful Mind."
The blender of information and misinformation that swirls in the wake of overnight media scrutiny has even prompted a handful of West Coast schools to consult with Hollywood-based PR firms -- though no one wants to provide details. Athletic departments, after all, don't want to let on just how intense a media situation could get for a student-athlete. Says one administrator at a big California school: "I don't want a recruit's parents to know that I'm seeking advice from the same people who help pop stars get through a sex tape scandal."
WHEN MARIOTA QUIETLY returns to Eugene for preseason camp in early August, chances are he will do it without tweeting any wild going-away-party pics from Waikiki. In fact, he doesn't tweet at all. Mariota figures he can say what he needs to say when he's asked, and for now he can control when and where that asking happens. If the Heisman hopeful has the season many think he will, then that certainly has the potential to change. "Marcus is a good kid -- he does things the right way," says Williford. "He isn't one to go looking for the attention. But it might go looking for him."
If it does, Mariota won't have the option of hiding. Not even in the middle of the Pacific.
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