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Coach Cal and the War for Fan Opinion

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When he was New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari forced an intern to make telephone calls to sports talk radio station WFAN endorsing his coaching ability. This amazing detail comes courtesy of Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski.  

“When John Calipari ruled as general manager and coach, one of the interns within the New Jersey Nets’ basketball operations had come to expect his frantic, flustered boss to deliver a most vain order. Calipari became obsessed with the callers to the midday New York radio show ripping into him, and orchestrated a counter propaganda program.

And so was born ‘Anthony from Hoboken,’ several team sources said. Anthony was a staunch, defiant and fictional advocate for the eventually exiled Emperor of East Rutherford. He made calls to WFAN out of the Nets’ offices, telling metropolitan New York that he was one fan who couldn’t understand all the criticism heaped on Calipari.”

How amazing is this detail? It’s paragraphs like these that make Wojnarowski the best writer covering a single sport in the country today.

But it’s also got me wondering, how common are moves like these by head coaches.?

In today’s media saturated environment where control freak coaches micro-manage every element of their programs, does it make sense that these same control-freaks would allow public opinion to be completely outside of their purview?

No, it doesn’t.

Coaches want to control everything.

They’re mini-dictators, Castros with a whistle, totalitarian strong men who force their narratives upon the public.

Your relationship with the media is important as it pertains to getting your message out, but, increasingly, the media who covers you every day is less and less significant when it comes to influencing public opinion.

Why?

Because fewer and fewer fans consume “traditional” media.

Raise your hand if you’re under the age of 35 and subscribe to a newspaper or watch the local news.

There aren’t many hands up.

That’s because most of y’all don’t read the paper and most of y’all don’t watch the local news.

So how is a coach going to get his message out to an audience that isn’t consuming traditional media?

It’s a fascinating question.

You can say, he shouldn’t care about public opinion he should just win games, but that flies counter to everything a micro-managing head coach stands for. You can’t win college football games in April, but you can win public perception outside your season.

If a recruit believes that you’re on the hot seat in April, you’re on the hot seat even if you haven’t played a game in four months. Why might a recruit believe that? Because he reads it on a message board or hears it on a radio show.

So how do you win the perception battle?

Through stealth attacks.

We all know that coaches and athletic departments have underlings monitoring message boards and talk radio commentary. But what we don’t have much evidence of so far is of a particular coach attempting to manipulate public opinion by posting anonymous positive commentary or directing that anonymous postive calls be made.

That’s why the revelation about John Calipari is so fascinating.

Calipari took the next step beyond monitoring public opinion and actually tried to sway that public opinion via anonymous praise.

This is exactly what dictators in totalitarian regimes do, put sycophants to work burnessing their image. Saddam meet Cal.

So how commonly do other coaches try and curry favor in talk radio or redirect fan anger on message boards?

I don’t believe John Calipari is unique in this. In fact, in the wake of Calipari I think it happens all the time.

Most of us just don’t ever realize it.

Because all of the commenters on message boards and most talk radio callers are anonymous.

After all, perception is reality in coaching today and games occur on limited amounts of days. But the battle for the fan mind occurs every minute on message boards and talk radio.

And some coaches are fighing those battles.

I’ll give you an example.

I think Derek Dooley monitors Vol message boards and has stooges trying to manipulate opinion there.

Why do I think this?

I’ll explain.

But first, background.

Three or four times a week I visit Volquest.com, a premium Rivals site that covers University of Tennessee athletics. I like to see the message threads and keep tabs on what’s going on in the crazy mass of Vol opinion there. I also enjoy reading the Volquest writers, who do a good job covering the Vols. The Volquest site has around 10,000 members. Only about 10% of those members ever post on the message boards. And of the 1000 or so that might be willing to post, a tiny percentage are “active” posters.

I’d define an active poster as someone posting ten or more times a day. 

How many people post ten or more times a day?

Maybe 100 total. And that might be high.

But lots of people read these message board posts. So the impact of those 100 regular posters is way out of proportion to their actual fan representation. With that few people posting, it wouldn’t take many people to sway the message board opinion. So add a few pro-Dooley ringers and you’ve got a fan base.

And there’s something else more interesting about Rivals, posters can rank the quality of a post by assigning it a star value. Five stars are the “best” posts and one stars are the “worst” posts.  

Shortly after Dooley was hired, I started to notice something interesting on Volquest, every time a positive post about Dooley was made, it received five stars. Every time a directly negative post about Dooley was made, it received one star. 

That’s even if the thread itself featured roughly even opinions and that’s irrespective of the overall quality of the writing in the post. 

This has been going on for two years now, as Dooley has continued to sink in public opinion, the stars have continued to rank him highly. 

Does this sound like something that the technocratic Dooley administration might be behind?

It sure does to me. 

I’ve had my suspicions for months, but in the wake of the Calipari details, I’m even more convinced it’s happening. 

With coaches making millions of dollars, how much would it cost to hire a team of “fans” who secretly support you everywhere you go on the Internet and on talk radio?

A few thousand dollars a month?

The only thing that could never happen is that people become aware of your duplicity, the fake fans whose fandom you’ve purchased. If these fake fans were ever outed the outrage would be massive.

But anonymity is a tough cloak to uncover.

Which is why lots are doing it.

In fact, I think every coach under the age of 50 has his own “Anthony from Hoboken.” 

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.