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Canzano: When football coaches and radio callers fight
“Tyler from Spartanburg” called into a radio show hosted by Dabo Swinney this week and blistered the football coach in the wake of the latest Clemson loss. The caller might as well have been from anywhere.
I’ve hosted a three-hour radio show for nearly two decades. It airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on a number of affiliates in Oregon and Southwest Washington. It can also be heard via stream or podcast. Early in my radio career, a veteran host pulled me aside and warned me not to take phone calls.
“Callers are idiots,” he said.
I ignored him. He wasn’t aware that I’d called into a KNBR sports-talk radio show a couple of times as a kid growing up in the Bay Area. Maybe I relate with listeners and callers because I was once one of them.
“SportsPhone 68” was hosted by a man named Ken Dito. I often listened at night with a transistor radio tucked beneath my pillow. Dito’s show aired on 680-AM. It leaned heavily on callers. Some of them were, indeed, idiots. But even the worst calls provided value.
These days, our social-media feeds are controlled by algorithms. They shovel “group think” to keep us happily scrolling. But those old radio callers were disruptors. They gave the audience a glimpse into the psyche of unhinged and deranged fans. They often reminded me that — holy hell — there were people out there who didn’t at all think like I did.
I loved hearing callers make their case, even if it disintegrated with every syllable.
I still do.
Lots of football coaches host weekly radio shows. Not because they love it but because they’re contractually obligated to do it. Swinney’s weekly radio hit is back-slapping fun when he’s winning, but it must feel like a grind lately.
“Tyler” spoke for more than two and a half minutes. That’s an eternity for a caller in radio. It was a shotgun-blast of frustration. His kill-shot was questioning why Clemson would bother to pay Swinney $10.8 million a year “to go 4-4.”
The call did what good calls do.
It provided a pivot point in the show.
“I don’t know how old you are,” Swinney said in his response. “Don’t really care. But let me tell you something: We won 11 games last year. And you’re part of the problem, to be honest with you, because that is part of the problem. It’s people like you that all you do is — the expectation is greater than the appreciation. And that’s the problem.”
Are high fan expectations really a problem? Are losses harder to swallow after a program has won big? Is ‘expectation’ vs. ‘appreciation’ something we should think about? Who’s right? Swinney? The caller? Both?
The whole debate reminds me a little former Oregon State coach Mike Riley. He inherited a football program in Corvallis that hadn’t been to a bowl game in 28 years. During Riley’s first tour at OSU, he helped build the foundation for Dennis Erickson’s eventual breakthrough success.
A few year later, Riley returned for a second tenure at OSU, where he won 28 games in a three-season span. Winning 10, 9 and 9 games shifted the expectations so dramatically that Beavers fans weren’t just happy going to any old bowl game anymore.
They wanted a Rose Bowl.
Amid the lack of appreciation, Riley threw in the keys, took the job at Nebraska, and left OSU with Gary Andersen.
Swinney said he was aware Clemson was having a “bad year” with four losses. He didn’t profess to be perfect. And the coach pointed out that the Tigers won two national titles in a seven-year period, a feat matched only by SEC powers Alabama and Georgia.
“I started as the lowest-paid coach in this frickin’ business, and I’m where I am because I’ve worked my ass off every single day,” Swinney said. “And I ain’t gonna let some smartass kid get on this phone and create this stuff. So if you’ve got a problem with it, I don’t care.”
I think Swinney does care.
Deeply, in fact.
Lots of football coaches will tell you they don’t hear the noise. Trust me, they’re fibbing. They read and listen. They know how fans feels. As a head football coach once confessed to me: “The best thing I have figured out after a loss is to not open up your phone to Twitter or read the press if you can’t handle it.”
I loved the call from “Tyler in Spartanburg.” Not because I agreed with him. But because it opened the door to an authentic and unfiltered moment from a football coach who is obviously frustrated himself.
“I’m 53 years old and there ain’t one thing in my life — I have been a part of failure many times, but there ain’t one thing in my life that I’ve ever failed at, Tyler. Never. Ever,” Swinney said. “I wanted to get an education. I got two degrees. I wanted to be the first college graduate in my family. I did it. I wanted to go play football at Alabama. I earned a scholarship letter three years. Worked my ass off, won a national championship.
“I wanted to get into coaching. I worked my way to being a head coach. And when I got this job, and I’m sure you didn't want me to get this job, and 15 years later, I’m still here. And I’d say the results are what they are and I’ll stand on them. So you don’t ever have to call back. I wanted to get married. I’ve been married for going on 30 years. I wanted to be a father. I’ve raised three great sons. If you don't like how I run the program, don’t be a fan.
“I don’t care.”
Again, Swinney does care.
Very much so.
I have lots of regular callers on my radio show. “Mark in Portland” is a die-hard Oregon fan. He almost never agrees with “Mike in Portland” who loves Colorado and hates the Ducks. And “Roy” is a big Georgia Bulldogs fan, who thinks Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith is a terrific head coach, fake-field goal attempts aside.
Last week on my show, I had guests Kirk Herbstreit, Dan Lanning, Jonathan Smith, Kyle Whittingham and Nick Aliotti, among others. The guests were great. But my favorite parts of the show were the callers because they’re unpredictable, passionate, expressive, occasionally unhinged, and a constant reminder that we don’t always think alike.
Swinney sounded desperate. The caller sounded mad. Both of them were a little petty. But aren’t we all petty at our worst? There’s nothing like sports-talk radio in the wake of a emotional win or loss. Particularly if the host is a good conductor, who moderates the callers like the instruments of an orchestra.
Who got it right?
Dabo? Or Tyler in Spartanburg? I’ll leave that to you in the comment section. But I’m well aware that Oregon and Oregon State both won 10 games last football season. I spent all spring fielding calls from Ducks fans who said 10 victories wasn’t enough and Beavers fans who claimed it was all they’d ever asked for.
It was like listening to a transistor radio through my pillow.
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