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The big problem with Will Muschamp’s Maryland comments (and a little problem, too)

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The South Carolina coach rushed to defend his colleague, overlooking a tragedy and being hypocritical as well.

Outback Bowl - Michigan v South Carolina Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Will Muschamp and South Carolina were comfortably invisible in the offseason until Saturday morning, when he stumped for an embattled former assistant and castigated the media.

The story that spurned Muschamp’s anger about journalism practicum started because a college football player died.

Maryland lineman Jordan McNair passed away after a monitored offseason workout in June, a workout designed and administered by Maryland’s staff.

Muschamp got mad about Maryland two months later, but not because of the increasingly visible dangers of his sport. No, he was mad about the use of anonymous sourcing in an ESPN report that detailed systemic cultural problems at Maryland, where suspended head coach DJ Durkin is a former Muschamp assistant.

When a media member asked about Maryland and knowing how to push players but not harm them, Muschamp skidded into a rant in defense of his old assistant coach’s character. Muschamp never mentioned McNair. He didn’t elaborate on the subject of player safety.

Muschamp: Well I think the big thing is … you need to criticize the performance, not the performer. And I think that that’s something we talk about as a staff a lot. And there’s a certain way you can talk to a young man about how he’s playing and what he needs to do to improve.

You know what? I know DJ Durkin. He worked for me for four years at the University of Florida. He is an outstanding football coach. He’s also an outstanding husband and father, and he treats people with respect. And I will use your word, “alleged,” article.

There’s no credibility in anonymous sources. You know, if that former staffer had any guts, why didn’t he put his name on that? I think that’s gutless. And in any business and in any company and in any football team, especially right here in August, you can probably find a disgruntled player who’s probably not playing. So, I think it’s a lack of journalistic integrity to print things with anonymous sources.

But I know DJ Durkin personally and I know what kind of man he is. And I know what kind of man he is, I know what kind of person he is, I talked to him this morning, and I don’t think it’s right. Next question.

1. This shares a note with coaches in several other recent stories: Muschamp’s primary, passionate concern is not for the victim but rather loyalty to another coach.

And much like the Ohio State story, there’s now a secondary narrative built to refute allegations against a sitting head coach, not by arguing facts, but by ad hominem attacks against those who raised the allegations.

What began as “How did an Urban Meyer assistant persist despite years of claims against him?” and “Did Maryland football’s culture and practices cause the death of an athlete?” has evolved to “Who was Brett McMurphy’s original source in the Ohio State story?” and “Why did ESPN use off-the-record sources in the Maryland story?”

(The answers are 1., It doesn’t matter any more, as McMurphy didn’t publish the original tip, but rather the interviews and documents the tip led him to, and 2., because when you can’t speak truth to power without fear of punishment, the media can and should shield you in that effort.)

To the credit of South Carolina’s athletic department, they recognized their coach’s gaffe. On Monday, the university issued a statement, attributed to Muschamp, prioritizing the passing of McNair over Muschamp’s former assistant.

South Carolina wants its name to disappear from this story, except now you can’t help but wonder what the conditioning culture in Columbia is like. And that’s not a sensationalist leap — Muschamp created this association with the direction of his comments.

2. As for the semantic: Muschamp is hypocritical for chastising the use of anonymous sources because (of course) he is one himself.

Muschamp has routinely communicated with media off the record, as have many members of his staffs at Florida and South Carolina. Surprise!

Ask media in Gainesville or Auburn or Austin if Muschamp has ever floated something off the record. Better yet, ask Muschamp right now, on the record, if he hasn’t made negative comments to reporters about other staffs in his league since becoming the head coach at South Carolina.

This shouldn’t be much of a revelation. Anonymous sourcing is how the information flow works in college football. Coaching hires and fires, recruiting leans, non-conference game scheduling, even corporate sponsorships: all of it’s leaked and tipped and ferried to desired outlets via “anonymous sources.”

And we in the media chase this like fish food. It’s dirty, biased, and often up to us to parse the factual news from the crusty agendas. But we play the game. Most of us do this to appear connected and credible in the short term, with the larger goal of opening conduits with these powerful sources for the long term, so that when real news happens we might get confirmation from those involved.

But it’s never that clean of a relationship. Absent a true whistleblower, no one leaks to the media without attempting some quid pro quo.

Muschamp knows all of this, by the way.

Despite his angry meathead persona, he’s navigated dense politics at places like Texas and Florida. He’s not the moron you think.

My guess is he wanted to vent about his friend Durkin likely heading to unemployment, and the punching bag closest to him was the media. If he didn’t stop to think about how the real story here is the death of a player, he surely wouldn’t then consider the irony of blaming a group of people he so readily uses.

That actually makes a ton of sense. Because what I’m constantly told by anonymous sources about Muschamp is that he gets angry a lot, but he’s a great guy to work for, because he cares about his assistants.