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Pac-12 coaches try to avoid criticizing players publicly

Jim Mora says he’s “probably the world’s leading authority in sports on saying something stupid that comes back to bite you.” (Associated Press)
Jim Mora says he’s “probably the world’s leading authority in sports on saying something stupid that comes back to bite you.” (Associated Press)

With so much consternation surrounding Washington State coach Mike Leach’s public criticism of his players’ effort – and, to be fair, his own, as well – we turn to an expert on such matters to evaluate whether such a public airing-out is a tactic used elsewhere.

A self-proclaimed expert.

“I’m probably the world’s leading authority in sports on saying something stupid that comes back to bite you,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches’ call.

Mora, the Bruins’ first-year head coach, said his goal is to never criticize players too publicly. He also admits that’s a strategy from which he has strayed at times in the past.

While coaching the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, Mora made headlines by ripping kicker Olindo Mare after he missed two field goals in a close loss. And the coach’s most famous exchange may have been when he challenged the nastiness of his offensive linemen, explaining that “dirtbags” are needed, to some extent, to succeed in the trench.

Such soundbites, Mora said, “really hurt me.”

Of course, there’s a difference between what Mora is talking about and the tactics Leach has employed throughout his career. The Cougars’ coach hasn’t singled players out this season. He hasn’t complained about their talent. But his use of terms such as “empty corpses” and descriptions of his team’s effort as “bordering on cowardice” have rubbed some fans the wrong way.

Asked Tuesday whether public criticism of players is a tactic they employ, a selection of Pac-12 coaches said they prefer to keep things in-house.

“I know it’s a business in some aspects, but at the end of the day, they’re kids,” Colorado coach Jon Embree said.

“I’ve not done it myself,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We try to do as much as we can in-house,” though he conceded that “every coach knows his own team” and how best to “push their buttons.”

Leach hasn’t – and likely won’t – back off his harsh assessments of WSU’s effort in a 49-6 loss to Utah last Saturday. But even then, he was criticizing effort, not talent or intelligence, though some interpreted his decision to send the Cougars’ offensive and defensive lines in front of the media as a humiliation tactic.

Leach defended the move, saying there’s nothing wrong with having linemen, instead of skill players, speak for the team.

“Anybody that doesn’t like offensive linemen and defensive linemen really aren’t my type of people,” Leach said. “I coached offensive line for 10 years. So if you don’t like offensive linemen I’ll be nice to you, I’ll be polite, but you’re really not my kind of guy.”

Hitting the booth

In light of Tuesday’s presidential election, a few coaches were asked whether they speak to their players at all about voting.

Embree said he thinks it’s important that players understand the importance of having their opinions heard, something his grandmother instilled him at an early age.

“She didn’t get to vote for a while so that was something that was a sore subject for her,” said Embree, who is African-American. “So she was always about that, when we got of age, of making sure we voted. I think it’s important in this country that you’re able to participate in something like this.”

Stanford coach David Shaw also said he’ll address the need to vote briefly with his players. So did Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

“I think they need to understand the difference between rights and privileges, and this is a right people have fought for, died for,” Shaw said, adding he wants players to “take some time and have your voice be heard. That’s a very important lesson in their growth.”

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