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Coaches do this all the time, of course. Before he retired this month, Georgia football coach Vince Dooley used his weekly press conferences to practice a form of hypespeak known as "poor-mouthin'." Dooley rhapsodized so poetically about the obscure strengths of upcoming opponents that after a while you began to feel sorry for any of the Bulldogs brave enough to take on such juggernauts. Dooley once warned the press, "We've never seen a team kick off quite like Vanderbilt. It has the greatest variety of kickoffs I've ever seen." In Dooley's final years at Georgia, he was often referred to in the press as Poor Mouth of the South. Herewith, some of his choicest licks.
September 1980, opponent Texas A & M: "This is a real good football team. Mike Mosley is the best quarterback we've faced since Archie Manning was at Ole Miss." Game result: Mosley passed for 62 yards as Georgia won 42-0.
October 1982, opponent Memphis State: "Their offense can break a big play at any time. They have tremendous speed. If we don't play well, we'll get beat." Game result: Georgia handed the Tigers their 15th straight defeat, 34-3.
October 1983, opponent Temple: "Temple has quality personnel. We've noticed on film that they have one of the finest snappers in the country." Game result: Georgia beat Temple and its fine snapper, 31-14.
GREAT MOMENTS IN HYPE #3: It was June 24, 1980, and the idea was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of a Cleveland skyscraper called Terminal Tower. The stunt was a reenactment of one performed by the Cleveland Indians years earlier, in which they dropped baseballs off the top of the building. Ted Stepien, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers at the time, participated (presumably as part of his ongoing effort to promote his NBA franchise, not to mention his newly established slo-pitch Softball league). Now, Stepien's stewardship of the Cavaliers, the team that care forgot, was marked by repeated public relations gaffes, but none matched his willingness to drop softballs off Terminal Tower and have six members of his softball team, the Competitors, on the ground trying to catch them. With an expectant crowd gathered below, gazing at the rooftop, Stepien stood proudly at the precipice of disaster and threw the first pitch out a 52nd-floor window. That ball smashed into a car 708 feet below. The second pitch hit a bystander, badly bruising his shoulder. Stepien fired another ball earthward, this time breaking the wrist of a pedestrian. The next pitch hit the street below the tower and bounced 40 feet in the air (calculations showed that the ball was traveling at 144 mph). At that point, bystanders began to flee for their lives, leaving a scene of twisted metal and mangled limbs.
No other event generates the intensity of hype that the Super Bowl does every year, despite the fact that with a few notable exceptions, the games themselves have been either badly played or dull. Last year more than 2,200 media credentials were issued for Super Bowl XXII, which meant that for each of the men on the field for the kickoff, there were 100 media people there to record his every thought and hiccup. The two weeks of interrogation that precede the Super Bowl can create a fairly apocalyptic atmosphere, which is how it came to pass in 1971 that Dallas Cowboy running back Duane Thomas made his classic pronouncement about the Super Bowl. Thomas did not speak often, but it was sometimes worth the wait. When asked if this was the ultimate game, he replied "Well, they're playing it next year, aren't they?"
Thomas was on the right track there, but he may have missed the larger point. "Here is the truth of it," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Bernie Lincicome a few years later. "The Super Bowl is the ultimate game because the press says it is. And the Super Bowl belongs to the press like no other sporting event."
None of this happened by accident. When the Super Bowl came into existence in 1967, former public relations man and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was the unchallenged czar of pro football. Rozelle's two top assistants, Jim Kensil and Don Weiss, were also p.r. men. Though the first Super Bowl was not a sellout and got relatively minimal press coverage, by 1973, when the unbeaten Dolphins met the Redskins in Los Angeles, The Washington Post sent 13 staffers to cover the game. This was a watershed event in the history of hype, the point at which editorial overkill became the rule, not the exception. Because of the resulting press bloat, the following year—and every year since—the players have been required to sit behind little tables with their names on them for interview sessions several times in the week before the game. "The press conference used to be kind of an informal thing," says Dolphin coach Don Shula, recalling a kinder, gentler America. "You'd sit around in the hotel lobby and that would be the press conference."
Three years ago, the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe set a new standard for wretched excess when they were granted a combined total of 52 working press credentials for the Patriots-Bears Super Bowl in New Orleans. The Tribune, a paper that at no time had more than three reporters in Vietnam, sent a crew of 28 to that game. The Super Bowl obviously isn't as important to the commonweal as war and peace, but it is the only event in American life besides the world wars upon which Roman numerals have been bestowed. Fred Dryer, then a defensive end with the Los Angeles Rams, got it about right when someone asked him in 1980 if the Super Bowl was as big as death. "Bigger," Dryer said. "At least it comes in a bigger box."
"I find it hard to believe anything is more overblown than the Super Bowl," says San Francisco 49er center Randy Cross, who expects to play in his third one this year. "It's a lot like a feeding frenzy with sharks."