When Arizona started spring practice sessions last week, coach Rich Rodriguez gathered his Wildcats and let loose one of his first official team addresses of the 2016 season.
It was a refrain heard in practice facilities from coast to coast.
He didn't talk about losing his best defensive player or his best receiver to the NFL. He didn't talk about his entirely overhauled defensive staff. He didn't even bring up the team's disappointing 7-6 record in 2015. Instead, he tackled the topic that dominated college football's offseason and shows no signs of slowing down, even as teams take the field throughout the nation.
It's a term that has crept its way into the lexicon of collegiate athletics over the past decade but has suddenly become the single biggest buzz word -- and red flag -- in the entire industry. In the beginning its use was strictly football-related. To hear that a newly hired coach would have to change a football culture meant replacing the playbook, revamping the structure of how the team practiced, and even tinier details such as rewriting the menu at the team cafeteria, or implementing a newer-style weight training program.
Nowhere have those types of changes been more evident than at Tennessee. The arrival of Butch Jones in 2013 also marked the arrival of far-reaching systematic changes, everything from stricter weekly academic evaluations to color charts hung over the practice facility's urinals to help athletes track and maintain proper hydration.
But now the word "culture" has changed, both in what it means and what it demands. Discussions of changing a culture now cover a much larger world than X's and O's. This new playbook, whether coaches want to buy into it yet or not, includes knocking down the insular walls that college athletics have long been able to hide behind.
"These days you have to be willing to operate open-door and open-book," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe explained last season. "That's going to be a bit of a transition for some old-school guys. But I'm an old-school guy and you know what? The teams that are the most fun to coach are the ones that feel like they are a part of the campus, not up in a tower over it."
Unfortunately, it has taken the rising tide of a real-world problem -- sexual assault allegations -- to start the process of knocking down those towers. Just as unfortunately, there will inevitably be well-intended people who have long made their living behind those walls who will have to be sacrificed. Why? Because the culture as it has always existed will be the one that throws them out the door in a doomed-to-fail effort to save itself.
"We've all had to start approaching this from a different angle. Everywhere, not just on our campus," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said last summer. FSU is no stranger to off-field issues, their highest-profile case of late involving Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. That experience forced Fisher, his staff and his bosses, to look inward ... then outward.
"It's hard because we've all been doing this for a long time and we were taught the same way," Fisher said. "It's not enough anymore to say, 'C'mon, man, you know better.' Kids need to look beyond just your building and understand the impact, your place in the bigger school or the bigger world."
That's no small alteration in mindset. It's a total about-face to the college football culture of old, the circle-the-wagons, us-vs.-the-world mentality that has long preached team over everything else, no matter how it might be perceived out in the real word. That's the culture that led Tennessee down the road of two incidents, two decades apart, that have kept them in the headlines for the past month.
Whatever happened between Peyton Manning and trainer Dr. Jamie Naughtright (then Whited) in 1996 was ultimately made worse by internal efforts to sweep it under the turf. And whatever happened in 2014 between Curt Maggitt, Drae Bowles and Butch Jones was ultimately made worse by internal old school-ish efforts to "deal with it as a team."
Even though those two incidents happened in the same department, they span two different eras and two different, yes, cultures. Full disclosure, I worked in that athletic department as a student in the early 1990s, and though I was gone by '96 I knew all of the parties involved in the Manning mess. At the time, it came and went as a big story locally, and had little traction nationally. I can't imagine how that situation would have exploded had it gone down today, in the age of social media and camera phones. Those old-school tactics might have worked in '96 -- to a point, anyway. But they don't fool anyone now. An outside world powered by those new digital tools now bangs on the doors of the football offices, increasingly preventing it from keeping secrets. The stormers of the castle won't stop until the truth is revealed, even if they have to publicly sift through a pile of lies and hearsay to get there. That's a good thing. It's not merely checks and balances. It's a reality check.
The resulting ongoing embarrassment of such sieges is what has led to changes that are late in happening, but are happening nonetheless. FSU president John Thrasher decided he'd had enough last summer after allegations of domestic violence were leveled at quarterback De'Andre Johnson (now dismissed) and Heisman hopeful running back Dalvin Cook. This was followed by an Outside The Lines report that listed FSU among the worst in the nation when it comes to both arrests and athletic administrators getting a little too involved in the resulting criminal investigations by police.
Phone calls to the cops to grease the rails? That's the old way of handling problems. Now FSU is moving toward a new way, pushed into that future by Thrasher, who has become more hands-on with his athletic department. It was Thrasher who used the term "culture" one year ago and then met with the team to remind them playing football was "a privilege, not a right." Now FSU has a mandatory program in place aimed toward character-building and educating athletes on, among other issues, domestic violence. Other schools are doing the same. Just five years ago, amid the post-Jerry Sandusky wreckage at Penn State and at the dawn of Johnny Football mania, those efforts were being thrown out as reactionary measures. I wrote about it in ESPN The Magazine.
Now, slowly but surely, those resources are being shifted into proactive efforts. As an athletic director said to me Wednesday night, "The hope is that if we hire counselors and people who can preach character now, we won't need to spend that money or time on damage control specialists and PR firms after everything goes wrong again."
Even the schools that aren't implementing formal programs are hitting this spring with a renewed big picture character emphasis. They are also trotting out a pretty impactful deterrent, pointing to real-time illustration of the nightmare consequences that can be triggered.
See: the current climate in Knoxville.
That's why Rich Rodriguez used Tennessee's hurricane of headlines as an example during his address to the team. Coaches like Rich Rod hope better-educated players become ambassadors of a new culture, repairing goodwill around campus and putting down roots for generations to come.
"That's also part of being a team leader," FSU All-American defensive end DeMarcus Walker explained on signing day, when asked about his role as a senior as the next class of much-ballyhooed freshmen arrives on campus. "You let them know everything they do impacts what the team does. But it also affects how people everywhere look at Florida State University. Then, when they are the juniors and seniors like we are now, they will do the same for their freshmen coming in."
These aren't exactly new concepts, but in the wake of some unspeakable acts, those concepts are receiving a new emphasis. They have to.
"There's always going to be a kid somewhere who makes a mistake," said South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner, a former longtime head baseball coach. "But how do we handle that? Not just as an athletic department, but as a university. We've seen some cases recently where the athletic teams can be the healers. How do we do a better job at that?"
It's the least that can be done -- should be done -- to honor the efforts of the vast majority of college athletes, the ones who are good kids and are simply trying to go about the business of their classes and games and trying to do it the right way.
But more important, it needs to be done to honor the people who were victimized by the sleepwalking, corrupted cultures that were tolerated up to this point. Whew ... OK ...that was some heavy stuff, much heavier than our usual fare here at Flipping the Field. But it's also important stuff and it needs to be addressed. Now take a deep breath, close your blue exam folders, and put down your No. 2 pencils. Exam time is over. Let's get on with Flipping the Field.
What was it Gomer used to say? Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! After that heavy topic, how about something to make us feel good? Last week Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen wrapped up some winter conditioning by having players pull prizes out of a hat, including one "super prize." It was all a setup. The big reward went to walk-on safety Gabe Ovgard in the form of a full-ride scholarship. See it for yourself here.
McGee maintains Midshipman man-crush: If you were a regular reader of Flipping The Field last fall, then you already know that I was somewhat obsessed with Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy vote after setting FBS career records for rushing TDs (88), overall TDs, games with three or more TDs (17), points scored (530), and rushing yards by a QB (4,559). He also became only the sixth player in FBS history to rush and pass for 4,000 yards in a career, and the first to score 23 or more rushing TDs in three different seasons. He was also 7-1 in service academy games, including a perfect 4-0 record versus Army. Last week, Reynolds became only the fourth Navy football player to have his jersey retired, as the Tennessean's No. 19 joins Roger Staubach (No. 12), Joe Bellino (No. 27) and Napoleon McCallum (No. 30). Staubach and Bellino both won the Heisman, and McCallum finished sixth in the voting in 1983 and eighth in '85. Now Reynolds, like those three before him, will go into military service, his assignment being information warfare, exactly what he wanted after becoming enthralled by the subject in a couple of classes that dealt with battles along the cyber front. Not surprisingly, he aced those classes, too.
To quote Harry Gant from "Stroker Ace," "Oh hell, here we go again ..." I have always found the NFL rookie combine to be a bit too weird. The "Underwear Olympics," I like to call it. But my favorite part of the combine experience each year is when great college players whom I've somehow found myself defending against know-it-all NFL types end up proving me right, and the pro talent scouts wrong. I like to refer to it as the "Russell Wilson Is Too Short" principle, in honor of what NFL people all screamed at me back in 2012. This year's leader in that category was TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson. Anyone who watched the Horned Frogs since they reworked their offense has seen what he's capable of, even when the team was rummaging through backup quarterbacks. I loved him as an NFL prospect. But scouts told me they thought he was too slow and lacked the ups to be a No. 1 receiver. Then he ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash and posted a 41-inch vertical and 131-inch broad jump. No sooner than he walked off the field I received a text from a scout: "UR RIGHT. Dude is pretty damn good." Meanwhile, Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and Auburn DB Jonathan Jones also backed up my bragging. Thanks, fellas.
Tommy West coach's news conference of the week -- Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: Honestly, he didn't say anything super awesome during the Wolverines' controversial spring break trip to practice in Florida. Per the usual, he chose to do his talking via tweet. But I did enjoy his daily WTH stares at my bud Marty Smith, there to cover the practices for SportsCenter.
When navy and orange turns to maize and blue ...: There were so many Michigan fans in attendance last Wednesday to watch Harbaugh coach first for the Detroit Tigers against the Pittsburgh Pirates, that this reaction was recorded by my bud Angelique Chengelis:
Heard one of the Tigers saying as we walked into clubhouse "are we playing the University of Michigan today? WTF?"
— angelique (@chengelis) March 2, 2016
Speaking of Harbaugh ...: FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher went against the company, er, conference line last week when he refused to join, among others, ACC commissioner John Swofford and SEC commish Greg Sankey in decrying Michigan's invasion of Florida.
"Jim beat the rules," Fisher told the Palm Beach Post, taking issue only with disjointed rules that allow Harbaugh to make his trip but wouldn't allow Fisher to accept a speaking invitation to a clinic at the same IMG Academy where the Wolverines practiced. "That's fine. I applaud Jim for trying to do something different."
Those comments were very much in line with what Fisher said to me on national signing day, when I asked him about FSU keeping its recruiting approach rather old-school amid Notre Dame sending equipment trucks to cul-de-sacs and Harbaugh doing everything from climbing trees to sleeping on couches to hosting a celebrity-filled signing day wrap party.
"Whatever a coach feels like he needs to do to get his brand out there, or in Michigan's case, back out there, as long as it is within the rules, more power to them. It's so competitive out there and there's so much noise that you need to be creative sometimes to get an edge, or even just to keep up. But you know me. I don't even have Twitter. We're pretty much nuts-and-bolts around here. And that's working for us."
I'll say. On the very day Fisher said all of that, his very old school recruiting tactics landed the nation's top-ranked class.
Danny Ford scientific rocket quote of the week -- Lamont Wade, DB, Clarion (PA): Wade is a highly coveted potential signee for 2016 and has been keeping a journal of his recruiting experience for RecruitDiaries.com. Last week he wrote about his chats with Ohio State and said, "The funniest coach is low key Urban Meyer. ... A lot of people will never see this side of him but he is super funny and always cracks jokes when I'm with him." I gotta be honest, I didn't see that coming. Honorable Mention: POTUS. When Nick Saban and his national championship team visited the White House last week, the president told the Crimson Tide that it was cool if they wanted to call him "O-Bama"... get it?
The guys you should know about, but probably don't -- transfer QBs: In the post-Russell Wilson/Vernon Adams era, the number of high-profile quarterback transfers continues to grow. There are three names in particular to keep an eye on as spring practice starts:
John O'Korn, Michigan, transferred from Houston. As happens with pretty much every Cougars QB, he put up nice numbers at Houston as a freshman (3,117 yards, 28 TDs) but lost his spot the following year to Greg Ward Jr.
Dakota Prukop, Oregon, transferred from Montana State. Following in Adams' cleatsteps, he's another dual-threat QB from an FCS school. He's already way ahead of his predecessor in one respect. Prukop is already in Eugene, instead of having to parachute into the middle of August two-a-days from final exams like Adams. He also won't have to worry about an angry former teammate trying to break his neck in Week 1.
Trevor Knight, Texas A&M, transferred from Oklahoma. OK, you probably did know about this guy. The good news? He's a veteran player. The bad news? He never has been a consistent veteran player. The worse news? He might be embattled head coach Kevin Sumlin's last hope.
The guy you used to know about but forgot about but you should know about again: Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Miami. There are so many top-shelf coaching changes throughout spring practice that we'd need a whole other story to get through them all. It would take a couple of hundred words to get through the ACC alone, from Virginia Tech to Virginia to Miami. But past the head coaches, there was even more big-time movement among coordinators. And no single move is more intriguing than Mark Richt bringing Diaz to Miami.
It was only three years ago when the once-wunderkind was ejected from Mack Brown's staff at Texas, a move that was met with not an insignificant amount of disgust throughout the sport. After stints at Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State, Diaz is back home in South Florida. Yes, he's a Florida State alum, but he's also the son of the other Manny Diaz, a two-term Miami mayor and the attorney who represented the family of Cuban immigrant Elian Gonzalez. Rebuilding The U to the status it enjoyed during his childhood would be a very big deal for Diaz, no matter his Seminole diploma. And Diaz being given a second chance at a banner program is a big deal to those who supported him after the Texas mess.
The teams you should know about, but probably don't: Idaho and New Mexico State. Last week there was a meeting of the schools of the Sun Belt Conference. A pair of those schools, the Vandals and Aggies, made their pitches to that conference as to why they are important members. But when it was over, two of those schools were no longer members, effective following the 2017 season. In 2013, the Vandals and their friends down the road at New Mexico State were welcomed into the Sun Belt after the implosion of the WAC, the conference both schools had bolted the Sun Belt to join eight years earlier. Geographically neither team ever made much sense for the Sun Belt, and if you are a reader of the Bottom 10, you know it was low-hanging fruit for smart-aleck comments by me. But that doesn't mean I'm not sensitive to the challenges facing two programs now searching for a home, even teams as bad as these. For Idaho, it makes all the sense in the world to move into the Big Sky, becoming the first FBS program to go back down to FCS since those divisions were created. During the 1980s and '90s they were an FCS (then I-AA) powerhouse. There's no shame in going back to that. But NMSU, a longtime FBS school, hasn't been to a bowl game since 1960. Where will the Aggies end up? I honestly have no idea. No one does.
Extra Point: June 12 will bring the annual CoSIDA convention, the meeting of the men and women who make their living in the Sports Information business. Those jobs used to be about compiling stats, writing up media guides, and setting up interviews for media members like me. But in the social media age, those jobs have also become additional parts Hollywood publicist, damage control specialist and sports psychologist. It can be a thankless job, so it's a good thing CoSIDA annually gives out a ton of recognition awards for all that work. (You can see the whole list here.) This year two of the finest men I've had the honor of working with will be among those recipients.
David Sherwood, longtime SID Wingate University will receive the Academic All-American Committee Lester Jordan Award. Since 2000, Sherwood has helped Bulldogs athletes earn 77 Academic All-American honors, tops among all Division II schools. My first job out of school was as a color commentator for the Wingate Bulldogs Network and I used to ride with "Chirp" and his staff in a van all over the Carolinas at all times of night. There's not a finer man in collegiate athletics.
Meanwhile, J.D. Hamilton will be given the Bob Kenworthy Community Service award. He's the NCAA's assistant director of media coordination and statistics, and for years has overseen media ops at the College World Series. In 2008, in the midst of writing my worst-selling book, "The Road to Omaha," I proceeded to launch into an exhaustion-fueled rage over a small change in postgame procedures. Hamilton would have been justified to slap me with a dirt rake. Instead he simply looked at me, smiled, and said, "We'll see what we can do for you." Going back to where we started this month's column, anyone wishing to change the culture of college sports for the better could start by trying to emulate these two.