Oklahoma State starting receiver Jalen McCleskey decided to transfer Monday. Coach Mike Gundy figured reporters would ask players about it after practice Tuesday, and so he used his media relations director to communicate a threat before interviews began: If anyone brought up McCleskey with players, Gundy would ban player interviews for the rest of the season.
This is a textbook case of making a bad situation worse. Now everyone isn’t just talking about McCleskey’s shocking departure, but Gundy’s heavy-handed reaction to it.
But it is also a blatant violation of two basic principles of big-time coaching.
1. Trust your players, and
2. Never go out of your way to threaten the media, especially when you’re in the spot Gundy found himself before the threat.
The Cowboys tripped all over themselves Saturday in a 41-17 loss to Texas Tech. It was a bad night for the players, and a worse one for the coaches. Gundy admitted as much.
Then McCleskey decided to transfer, and now you had reporters wondering if there were problems beneath the obvious from Saturday’s disastrous game. And Gundy’s response to this was to threaten those reporters’ access to players?
It was a childish maneuver at face value, something a coach who has just arrived from some Class 2A high school pulls because he doesn’t understand the responsibilities that come with Power 5 football, not to mention a $5 million contract.
But besides that, it couldn’t have been more poorly timed. It was an insecure gesture that feeds right into the notion that yes, there are problems beneath the obvious.
Now Gundy has given reporters context for that possibility, while creating a senseless rift in the process.
The most astute coaches realize their relationship with beat reporters, the ones at every news conference and interview setting, the ones at every game and on every trip, must be symbiotic.
They realize these reporters have a job to do, and that all it takes is basic cooperation to help them proceed.
They realize that if they do just that much, if they allow these reporters access to select players and assistant coaches without constraint, the reporters’ coverage will be fair to the coach and his program.
Occasionally, things like 41-17 happen. Occasionally, a player of McCleskey’s caliber leaves. But the most astute coaches realize this, too, is part of the job. And they’ll rely on the relationship they have built with reporters to trust those reporters will go about it professionally.
Being so unprofessional as to threaten access is to depreciate the relationship. It has the potential to leave a mark, which doesn’t do the coach or the reporters any good at all.
What Gundy should have done is trust his players.
He should have addressed McCleskey with them in the locker room before practice Tuesday (Monday was the players’ off day). If he felt the need to deliver a message, it should have been along the lines of: “You’re going to get asked about him. I request you talk about the players who are still with us. Give a ‘no comment’ and move on.” There. Easy. Over and out.
I promise Gundy has plenty of mature players who could have handled that suggestion. I’ve been around many of them. Several wouldn’t have even needed the prompt. They’ve been in front of microphones before. They know how this works.
Somehow their head coach does not. Or did not.
That’s to the detriment of a program that was already in a rough spot.