There’s a scene in the movie “City Slickers” where Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) and Curly (Jack Palance) are alone in the desert and Mitch is making a bunch of jokes and Curly, finally fed up, says, “You make a lot of smart remarks at my expense, don’t you?”
“I’m joking,” Mitch says. “I do that with everybody. It’s just my way.”
And Curly squints his eyes and says, “I don’t understand that way.”
I mention this because for the first two years I covered Youngstown State’s men’s basketball team, I felt a little like Mitch — OK, I felt A LOT like Mitch — with Jerry Slocum playing the Curly role. Not so much because I made jokes at his expense (although I will own up to using his secret nickname “Jer-Bear” if only because I don’t have to see him for a few months) but because I tend to joke around in interviews and Slocum ... well, Slocum tends not to do this.
Slocum is not an easy coach to cover, particularly after losses. Press conferences can last fewer than 45 seconds and reporters are often content to stay quiet thanks to the constant threat of being “Slocumed.”
There are a few ways to get “Slocumed,” but the easiest way is to ask a question he doesn’t like.
REPORTER: “Coach, do you feel sometimes like you should just flip a coin before a game because you never know which team is going to show up?”
SLOCUM: Ten seconds of silence, followed by, “Somebody else ask a question.”
Slocum doesn’t like questions about things like momentum or his team’s mindset before or after a game. So, you probably want to avoid a question like this, “Coach, it seems like you had some momentum coming into the game. Can you talk about your team’s mindset?”
You’re better off with a question like this: “Coach, can you talk about the effectiveness of your team’s weakside defensive rotations in the post?” Or if you REALLY want to make Slocum happy, ask this: “Coach, can you talk about the balance in the Horizon League? It seems like any team can beat anyone else on any give night.” He LOVES talking about the Horizon League.
This year, though, was different. Better. If someone asked a terrible question, he did his best to answer it or just went in a different direction. If he lost a tough game, he made sure to take three or four questions rather than just one or two.
Heck, he even cracked a few jokes. I don’t remember any of them, but he did. Promise.
“You’re missing the obvious, Joe,” you say. “He actually won a few games this year. OF COURSE he’s going to be easier to interview.”
Yes, that too.
I mention all of this because, after seven seasons, Slocum finally seems comfortable here.
As I’ve written before, Slocum has the toughest job in the Horizon League. He’s the only one coaching at a football school. (Butler and Valparaiso also have football teams in the same way that McDonald’s also has salads.) Youngstown State has the league’s smallest budget, weakest recruiting area and worst tradition. (Case in point: YSU went 16-15 this year for its first winning record in more than a decade and just the fourth since the 1985-86.)
Add in the fact that there’s 11 other Division I programs in Ohio (including three with better programs within 90 minutes: Akron, Kent and Cleveland State) and it’s easy to see how this job could put you in a bad mood. But he never brings it up and never makes excuses.
And when everyone was wondering whether he would get fired after back-to-back 2-16 conference seasons, Penguins athletic director Ron Strollo quietly gave him a three-year extension and Slocum responded with YSU’s best season since joining the Horizon.
It’s taken time, but Slocum has learned how to recruit here (avoid Ohio, where Ohio State and the Mid-American Conference are king), how to overcome his team’s lack of size (shoot A LOT of 3s) and how to deal with smart-aleck reporters (embrace their charm, charisma and insightful questions).
Slocum and I may never become friends like Mitch and Curly, but I hope that, like Mitch, I might someday be able to say this: “Did you notice his eyes? He has crazy eyes. He’s a lunatic! We are going into the wilderness being led by a lunatic!”
(Sorry. Couldn’t help it. It’s just my way.)