A football coach gets hired at the local university. When he sits down at his desk the first time, he finds three envelopes in the top drawer, with a note from the previous coach saying, “If things get tough, open them one at a time.”
So, the first year, the coach goes 3-8. He opens the envelope and it says, “Blame me! Tell everyone I let the program deteriorate and it’s going to take some time to rebuild.”
The new coach does. The next year, he goes 2-9. So he opens the second envelope and it says, “Blame the media! They’re too negative! How can you be expected to turn the program around when recruits keep reading about how bad things are going?”
So he does. The next year, the coach goes 3-8. So he opens the third envelope and it says, “Prepare three envelopes.”
It’s an old joke, but it’s a timely one this week. After taking the first approach in his first 21/2 years, Wolford switched to the second envelope at Tuesday’s press conference, criticizing reporters for presenting a “doom and gloom atmosphere” that has led to lower attendance at Stambaugh Stadium.
Criticizing the media is usually a good strategy — in sports or in politics — but this one was a head-scratcher. Wolford has enjoyed overwhelmingly positive coverage through most of his tenure, despite a 14-17 record that includes a 7-15 mark in conference games.
This season, the Penguins went from being ranked No. 3 in the country in late September to squeaking out a three-point victory over South Dakota (1-8) at home in early November. As one reporter said after Tuesday’s press conference, “What does he expect?”
Listen. While there are plenty of people who want Wolford fired yesterday, I’m not one of them. Barring a catastrophe next season, he deserves the chance to fulfill his five-year contract. But criticizing the media for “doom and gloom” is ridiculous.
Before the season, he said anything short of the playoffs would be a failure. That was his standard, which he repeated two weeks ago. So here’s the bottom line: If you set the high jump bar at 7 feet, don’t complain when the media isn’t impressed with a 5-foot jump. And if you want to use the media to criticize the previous coach’s program — which Wolford has — don’t be shocked when that same media criticizes yours.
Two weeks ago, I got an email from an area coach I respect. He lamented that Wolford “has never taken any responsibility whatsoever for the team’s demise.” He pointed to a quote from Penn State’s first-year coach, Bill O’Brien, who said this after a loss to Ohio State: “I could have adjusted better. I could have had a better game plan.”
Since Wolford is giving me advice about how to better do my job, here’s some for him: Show more humility. Take more blame. Even if you don’t believe what you’re saying, say it anyway. People like reading it.
Like any job, there’s a learning curve to being a head coach. This is the third year of a five-year process. He’ll figure it out.
And if he doesn’t? Well, his biggest problem won’t be what’s in the papers.
It’ll be what’s in that third envelope.