Politics and Basketball . . . 5 Reasons Why College Coaches Need Campaign Consultants


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Part One: Damage Control and Recruiting

As we all well know Syracuse University basketball is in the middle of a high-profile sexual abuse scandal that has left Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim with gooey egg all over his face and his foot in his mouth. After the story of Syracuse Assistant Basketball Coach, Bernie Fine’s alleged sexual misconduct broke nationally on November 18, Boeheim made a colossal mistake that left me shaking my political operative head. He spoke out of turn. While one cannot criticize Boeheim’s loyalty to his long-time friend and assistant, there was absolutely NO reason for Boeheim to come out and publicly defend Fine before gathering all the facts. When all of this is over and the smoke clears Boeheim’s lasting legacy may not be his skills as a Hall of Fame coach but as the man who called a child molestation victim a money-hungry liar.

I started working in politics a couple of years ago, and the recent developments at Penn State and Syracuse have led me to explore the striking similarities and relationships between politics and college athletics. After a cursory analysis, I believe that there are at least 5 good reasons that Athletic Departments should keep political consultants on staff.

  1. Damage Control

No one knows how to spin a story, handle backlash and extinguish a negative media firestorm like a political consultant. And nothing rocks a political candidate or an athletic program more than a sex scandal. The minute the allegations at Syracuse resurfaced every member of the basketball coaching staff should have been summoned immediately to an undisclosed location and given instructions not to comment on the matter. If Boeheim or other staff members felt the need to submit a statement, they should have been given, “talking points,” a few, brief well-crafted sound bites that were judged appropriate for a press release. This week Boeheim appeared more like a politician than a basketball coach as he apologized profusely for his insensitive comments, rush to judgment and lack of concern for the alleged victims. One of the pitfalls of being a high-profile college coach is the media feeds on every word you utter. Just ask, Roy “I don’t give a shit about North Carolina right now” Williams who in 2003 caught heat for the thoughtless comment he uttered after KU’s heartbreaking loss to Syracuse in the National Championship game.  Apparently Roy actually did give a shit about UNC because he was coaching on our bench by the beginning of the 2003-2004 season.

But back to Syracuse and the fact that their Public Relations department dropped the proverbial ball on this one. The vast majority of college coaches have neither the cool head nor the composure to know when to keep their mouth shut. Boeheim and any other coach who speaks without a filter could benefit greatly from a political handler. Why does Bobby Knight immediately spring to mind? (Shudders) Bobby Knight: a political handler’s nightmare.

2. Recruiting Purposes and Trips

Recruiting high school athletes is essentially politics on a smaller scale and stage. Instead of political candidates trying to win votes, college coaches vie against each other to secure written commitments. It was no coincidence that when Presidential Candidate Barack Obama campaigned in the battleground state of North Carolina in 2008, he chose to attend a UNC men’s basketball practice. His campaign also astutely brought along cameras for a photo opportunity. Without question, the Tar Heels are the most popular sports team in North Carolina. Obama’s staff (including former Duke Player Reggie Love) was well-aware of this and in an attempt to recruit voters, they scheduled the campaign stop and photo op accordingly. On the other hand, if Obama had been trying to gain votes in New Jersey, Cameron Indoor would have been the appropriate venue.

Recruiting in college athletics includes a lot of the wining, dining and flattery that is central to politics. Just like consultants sell candidates, coaches sell their programs and universities to prospective players. Schools like UNC and other elite programs understand this and are the most successful at it. When a high profile recruit (regardless of sport) is in attendance at a UNC home football or basketball game, the student sections are often asked to chant, “We want (insert recruit’s name).” UNC also uses the Michael Jordan alumni angle like no one else can (if the jerseys in the rafters and banners hanging from the ceiling aren’t convincing enough).

However, for mid-major schools that lack the glamour and glitz of a UNC, recruiting is a little more challenging. These are the programs that would benefit the most from political operatives. Last year my other alma mater, the College of Charleston stole a highly regarded recruit, Adjehi Baru, right from under the nose of the big kahunas. Baru, a native of the Ivory Coast happened to be staying with a family in Charleston. CofC coach, Bobby Cremins is a seasoned coaching veteran with years of ACC experience under his belt and seized the opportunity to sell Baru on the City of Charleston, its beauty, beaches and warm weather. Trust me. It’s not a tough sell. The point is colleges need to exploit every attribute, asset and advantage that their university has to offer.

Part of recruiting is also targeting and knowing your audience. If I were an assistant coach at a mid-major school making a recruiting trip, I would want to know every trivial detail about my recruit and his home town. What’s his mama’s favorite food? Who was his third grade teacher? What’s the most popular restaurant in town? Which barber shop does he go to? I would also instruct someone on staff to anonymously spend a few days in the recruit’s hometown before the actual recruiting visit. Basically you do your homework and know more than your opponent. In the political sphere, we call it grassroots campaigning. Take the pulse of the town and the prospect’s environment then tailor your message to the recruit accordingly.

Stay Tuned for Part Two . . . Understanding the Power of Incumbency and Winning Means Everything Attitude