Three weeks ago, before Georgia's critical SEC road game at Alabama, former Auburn coach Pat Dye was interviewed on a Birmingham radio station. In looking ahead to the game, Dye-- a former Bulldog player-- casually commented that he didn't think Georgia was "man enough" to beat Alabama.
By the next day his comments were plastered on the front sports page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution-- and, presumably, on the Bulldogs' locker room bulletin board as well. Bulldog players were interviewed for their reaction. By the end of the week Dye's remarks had generated a full-blown media circus that was almost bigger than the game itself-- they became the topic of discussion on national outlets like ESPN and USA Today.
Oh yes-- the Bulldogs defeated Alabama, 27-25, and demonstrated to the world that their masculinity was indeed sufficient.
Closer to home, just a few weeks ago Vanderbilt offensive guard Jim May reportedly made some inflammatory comments about Middle Tennessee's football program to a Nashville TV station. I never actually heard those comments, but after MTSU's 21-20 win on over the Commodores Oct. 12, a number of MTSU players said May's remarks had inspired them to victory.
How much, exactly, does such pre-game smack actually affect the course of a game? No one can ever be sure, and truth told, the answer is probably not much. But one thing is certain-- the media absolutely eats up this kind of stuff. It adds spice to routine game coverage-- and let's face it, it sells papers.
Normally athletes are coached to say nothing more to the media than the mundane "We've just got to go out and get better and go beat [next opponent name here]." So when reporters hear something out of the ordinary like "[next opponent] doesn't stand a chance," their ears perk up like hunting dogs'.
Which brings us to receiver Dan Stricker's comments after last Saturday's 48-17 loss to Georgia. The quotes appeared in Monday's edition of The Tennessean in a Mike Organ story headlined "UConn game seen as restorative by Vandy."
''We're really looking forward to the Connecticut game,'' Organ quoted Stricker as saying. ''We feel like this game should be in our back pocket, and with it being our Homecoming we should come out ready to roll and get a big win.''
Having covered the Georgia game for VandyMania, I was present when Stricker made those remarks. However, at the time something about that quote struck me as atypical of Stricker. You might expect some other, more outspoken Commodore players to be talking a little smack before a game. But from Stricker, a fifth-year senior and captain who is normally very measured with his remarks to the press, such words were unexpected.
Sure enough, the next day Stricker's words had found their way into the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, the largest circulation newspaper in the state. "Vandy WR: UConn in back pocket" read the headline. "This looks like bulletin board material for UConn," went the story.
The story also quoted Vandy head coach Bobby Johnson, who seemed to be trying to control any possible damage. "We're 1-6," the story quoted Johnson as saying. "We have to claw, scratch and fight whoever we play. Dan was probably just talking. He and we don't mean any disrespect of UConn."
I checked my tape recorder, and Organ had indeed quoted Stricker verbatim, except for omitting the words, "I hope" at the end. I listened to the tape again. Here is exactly what was asked in the player interview room after the Georgia game, and what was answered:
Q: You had something like this happen against Georgia Tech, then you had Furman the next week. Is it going to be good to have a Connecticut next week?
A: We're really looking forward to the Connecticut game. We feel like this game should be in our back pocket. As it is our Homecoming, we should come out ready to roll and get a big win, I hope.
The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that Stricker was referring to the Georgia game when he said "this game should be in our back pocket." The Commodores had just endured a difficult SEC loss-- following a harrowing bus accident on the way to the game, no less-- and would need to put the experiences of the day behind them, i.e., in their "back pocket."
I think that's what he meant-- though I can't really speak for Stricker. Nonetheless, regardless of whether he was referring to Georgia or Connecticut, the words are out there now, and Connecticut's coaches will likely construe them to fit their own purposes. Vanderbilt now will no doubt have to face a fired-up bunch of Huskies (2-5) for Homecoming. (Great-- that's all the 1-6 Commodores need-- to face a team with extra motivation Saturday.)
On the other hand, Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson is no slouch when it comes to using the least little thing as bulletin board material to provide extra motivation for his teams.
Last year, when Johnson was coaching at Furman, the Division I-AA Paladins faced a difficult road game vs. Wyoming at Laramie. The cagey Johnson noticed that in the Wyoming season ticket package, tickets to the Furman game cost only $15, while tickets to other games on the Cowboys' schedule sold for as much as $35. Johnson, as the story goes, posted a copy of the Wyoming pocket schedule in the Paladins' locker room, along with a note that read, in big, bold letters, "WHY ONLY $15?" showing the disrespect the Cowboys must obviously have for li'l ol' Furman.
"We're only a 15-dollar game," Johnson told the Greenville (S.C.) Sun, with a wry grin. "I guess they're trying to beg people to come out and watch it."