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Fans to press: DROP DEAD
Frank Deford
December 13, 1976
Boosterism is one thing, but when an accurate newspaper story in Oklahoma can turn fans into vengeful fanatics, cause a coach to see dark plots and even make a university president twist words, something is grotesquely wrong
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December 13, 1976

Fans To Press: Drop Dead

Boosterism is one thing, but when an accurate newspaper story in Oklahoma can turn fans into vengeful fanatics, cause a coach to see dark plots and even make a university president twist words, something is grotesquely wrong

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Traditionally, the most sycophantic reporting of all has come from places where coaches have taken root, like Alabama or Columbus—where the Bear and Woody Hayes hold sway—or from Kentucky, when the Baron, Adolph Rupp, ruled. That phenomenon is now evident in Indiana, where the fledgling curmudgeon Bobby Knight reigns. "There is a fear of Knight among sportswriters in this state," says one Indiana journalist, fearful of revealing his own identity.

When the Indianapolis Star ran a front-page picture last February of Knight grabbing one of his players by the shirt, the incensed coach protested on his TV show. Though Knight could not have anticipated such a vehement reaction, Star Sports Editor Bob Collins was inundated with 800 letters and thousands of calls—including many filthy ones that came to his wife at home—condemning the paper for "downgrading Indiana University." The photographer, Jerry Clark, endured numerous physical threats, most of them suggesting that he should be smashed in the face with the camera that had dared take an accurate picture.

Knight's handling of the press has enjoyed the tacit support of the athletic department and the university itself. One of the few times Knight was overruled in his dealings with the press came after the shirt-yanking incident, which he had responded to by banning photographers from the next Indiana home game. University President John Ryan agreed to let the photographers work only after—as photographer Clark explains—"the AP, the UPI and the Star management jumped on Dr. Ryan to see who was running the university."

At present, however, the administration and its new athletic director, Paul Dietzel, himself an ex-coach, is backing Knight in his latest puerile press dispute, this one with the university paper, the Indiana Daily Student. Phil Tatman of the paper wrote several weeks ago that Knight had thrown an ashtray in disgust in the IU football press box. The basketball coach claimed otherwise and several eyewitnesses have backed him up. Knight called the paper's assistant publisher in a rage, then prohibited student basketball reporters from attending practice or traveling with the team. The Daily Student printed a correction, but Knight has not rescinded his ban. The university has not contradicted this stance, and so Tatman, with no recourse, wrote a conciliatory note to the coach. Knight deemed it insufficiently contrite, however, and is apparently holding out for a personal abjuration.

The episode in Oklahoma is more significant and more pathetic because it involves a whole institution, a whole state and not just one coach's traumatized ego. Indeed, the coach at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer, appears baffled, not bellicose. Like so many Oklahomans, he finds it impossible to believe that the Times and OU alums Boggs and Taylor would report objectively and truthfully simply as a matter of professional journalistic responsibility. Instead, Switzer offers that there must be some ulterior motive. He refers darkly to a possible conspiracy or vendetta. The most popular theory is that the high muckety-mucks at Opubco ordered Boggs to do in OU football because the university switched its broadcast rights from Opubco's radio station.

Certainly, Switzer seems to believe that some kind of spell has been cast over Boggs. "He is a friend," says the coach. "The man who has done this attacking is not the Frank Boggs I knew."

Says Boggs, "Despite the fuss, I know it only involves a small minority. Oklahomans are basically good people—better'n anybody I know—and most are genuinely concerned that something might be wrong. They don't want anything to be wrong—but, hell, neither do I."

Boggs stumbled upon the ticket-scalping story around the time of the Texas game, in October, when Longhorn Coach Darrell Royal was lodging allegations of spying against Oklahoma. While spying is not specifically in violation of NCAA rules, Oklahoma fans have just cause for worry when accusations about unethical conduct are made: three times in the last 21 years the school has gone on probation, the most recent occasion keeping the Sooners off network TV and out of postseason play for two years despite being one of the top teams in the country.

One of the contributing factors to this situation is that the university administration appears to play second fiddle to the football team. (OU students like to repeat an old campus saying first uttered by a former president of the school: "We want to build a university the football team can be proud of.") Thus, even though NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers informed Oklahoma President Paul Sharp that OU football was indeed being investigated on the same day the Boggs-Taylor article appeared. Sharp played semantic games when asked about the Times' stories. He denied that OU was being "officially" investigated, which was technically correct, as the investigation was in its "informal" stage, according to NCAA terminology. But this coy protestation, combined with secret regents' meetings, heaped coals on the fires.

The Times itself fanned these passions by blowing the Boggs-Taylor stories out of proportion. This is hard to believe ("It'll be in journalism books for the next 50 years," Boggs says), but the day after the presidential election the Times ran another OU investigation story at the top of the front page in bold type, with Jimmy Carter's election reported far less dramatically below.

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