As a sportswriter, you live adrift in a sea of measured, mediocre comments from coaches and athletes. At times this ocean has no end, until suddenly...
Just saw the black bears lost to the tide ... Maybe the offer to play for an SEC championship wasn't "committ-able"— Scott Sallach (@CoachSallach) May 23, 2013
LAND! Unfiltered vitriol straight ahead, and in May, no less.
After this tweet by Mississippi State tight ends coach Scott Sallach, I contacted the sports information departments at both MSU and Ole Miss. As of Friday morning, MSU politely declined comment and Ole Miss has yet to respond. One source with the Rebels shrugged off the tweet's agressive partisanship, but laughed at the accusation itself: "That seems strange coming from them, like they're not doing the same thing."
Both schools should probably comment, because Sallach has lobbed a roundabout accusation of recruiting impropriety (not cheating, because non-committable offers aren't cheating yet) at a rival school.
But there is greatness in Sallach's comment, not really in what he said, but why and how. It's the greatness that allows college football to stand apart from its contemporaries by giving us a better view as consumers into its actual workings.
Recruiting is an awful business, but we're better for it. If college football drafted its players in the same manner as the NFL, it would assuredly become the NFL as fast as possible -- exclusive and restrictive with its access, monotone in its messaging and generally flavorless. Thank God for the awful, crooked business of recruiting, as it allows fans and media a way to reverse-engineer some character and life into coaching staffs and programs.
Rest assured, if they could simply receive a roster-by-mail that was roughly equal in talent to the competition's and then sit in the dark and watch film all day, they would. No other facet of the game forces coaches to not only act like human beings, but do so publicly. How else would we know about bizarre Photoshops and weird notes and the stuffing of mailboxes?
No active professional assistant coach would take to social media to jab and whine about the inequities of a salary cap. Compared to the recruiting processes of major FBS programs, the pay scales and cap rules of the NFL seem like exemplary models of fairness. But at the collegiate level, a coach's worth is at least half-determined by his ability to connect with and cater to the fleeting whimsies of teenage athletes, an inane metric for an industry filled with obsessive control freaks. Many thrive on this challenge and many others loathe it.
That kind of frustration builds towards the public comments above, and why every single coach I interviewed this spring wanted to talk about recruiting, be it early signing periods or revisions on unlimited contact. Often times these conversations came unsolicited, which in the coach/media dynamic is an unmistakable signpost. Many coaching staffs can't control the beast that is recruiting as well as they'd like, so they turn the public forums they normally eschew to vent their perceived victimization.
And without actually confirming this with the man himself (a fruitless endeavor if attempted publicly), I'd guess that Scott Sallach has no real ill will towards Ole Miss. But his usage of the "black bear" trope (a reference to the Rebels' recent mascot modification) combined with commentary on a sport he doesn't coach or participate in certainly has MSU fans salivating.
"He hates those damn black bears like we do, and so much so that he's cheerin' against 'em in baseball... like we are!"
I don't want to discount the natural competitiveness of coaches. Certainly Sallach and the rest of Mullen's staff want to win in recruiting and win on the field, but the fact his tweet could've been lifted straight from a MSU fan message board is by design. Since Mullen arrived in Starkville in 2009, he's spearheaded a marketing initiative of defiance to rally beleaguered MSU fans. When possible, everything can and has been turned into a jab at in-state rival Ole Miss. That approach isn't by accident: Mullen successfully tapped into the resentment built by the Rebels' decades-long aura of self-created elitism. And when you're an ag school school defined by losing in a state battling perpetual inferiority, it's awful easy to hate any neighbor who throws fairy tale antebellum cocktail parties (I should know, I'm an alumnus).
All fans want to believe that their current coaches hate the teams they hate, and with the same ferocity. They don't. Most fans would be crestfallen if they accepted that coaches are, invariably, employees with no job security and little more. As best illustrated by the recent Twitter tête-à-tête between Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand and a particularly tactless Tennessee fan, most rival coaches are not only colleagues, but friends in a very rarefied job field that promotes a hellacious amount of turnover.
The greatness of Sallach's tweet lies in its perceived inappropriateness. It's half nauseating T-shirt quality smack-talk, half hypocritical bitching about college football's crooked supply chain of talent. Those are unseemly subjects delivered in an often unseemly public forum. What's worth celebrating, though, is Sallach's need to do it anyway, the fact that he either feels forced to show genuine character or fake it. Either way, it's better than than nothing.