Guest columnist Zachary O. Binney fact-checks a story in a national publication and finds that everyone makes mistakes.
06 Oct 2006
by Mike Tanier
Your favorite team just lost, and you're hopping mad.
They played poorly. They were out-hustled. Worst of all, they were out coached. A head coach is supposed to develop a smart game plan, motivate his troops, and instill discipline. The guy with the headset and visor was clearly derelict in his duties this week.
An hour after the final gun, and you're still fuming. You want to express yourself, to enumerate the coach's failings in precise detail. You could call the local sports talk show, but you don't want your opinions lost amongst the drunk ramblings of angry cranks. A letter to the editor? Nobody reads those. You could complain to the front office, but all you would get is (maybe) an 8-by-10 glossy of the quarterback, or a coupon good for a $2 off a team sweatband. You don't want to be trivialized or patronized. You want to mobilize other like-minded fans, to change your team for the better.
There's only one thing to do: start a Fire the Coach website.
The 0-4 Lions just lost to the Rams 41-34. They played well, but that's little consolation to the writers at the most prominent of several Fire Matt Millen websites. "I can't stand you. You have ruined my passion for Lions football," writes one poster in all caps, expressing his disdain for the Lions general manager. "The secondary can't cover an 80-year old lady with arthritic knees," writes another. There's little optimism to be found anywhere. "I really don't see one win on the schedule." "The defense stinks." "Enough is enough." Misery loves company, and a disgruntled Lions fan is never alone on a Fire Millen site.
On Saturday, the Miami Hurricanes beat the University of Houston 14-12. As you might expect, Canes fans were hardly ecstatic over a narrow win against a mid-major. At the Coker Must Go site , they skipped the silver lining and went straight into the cloud. "This 'win' will actually end up hurting the program in the long run," wrote Chris David, the site's webmaster. "If we had lost, it can almost be guaranteed that Coker would have been fired. Instead he will remain here for the rest of the season, and maybe even beyond, which will no doubt further throw our program into mediocrity." A reader echoes Chris' concerns: "I can't believe our beloved program has come to this," he writes.
The Tennessee Titans threw rookie quarterback Vince Young to the wolves on Sunday, and he got torn up in a 45-14 loss to the Cowboys. Rumors swirled after the game that owner Bud Adams, not coach Jeff Fisher, made the quarterback switch. These rumors, first reported in the Tennessean, were picked up quickly by Fire Coach Fisher. "Could someone explain exactly who is running the team, and who is making decisions?" the site's primary author asks.
The Fisher site is the latest Fire the Coach effort to be acknowledged by the mainstream media. The Tennessean and SI.com ran brief stories about the campaign, and Fisher himself commented on the site. "I was looking into that MySpace.com, and somebody did it for me," he said. "I think that was pretty cool." (Please note how funny Fisher's comments could be if taken out of context). The Fisher site has had 46,000 visitors to date; its proprietors have sold 34 Fire Fisher tee shirts.
The rhetoric at Fire Coach Fisher is surprisingly subdued. Most fans, like the site's authors, are still debating whether Fisher or GM Floyd Reese is more responsible for the Titans' woes. Others are distracted by other issues, from Young's promotions to Albert Haynesworth's thuggery. Fisher, the only coach that in Tennessee Titans history, the guy who came within a yard of a Super Bowl ring, has earned the benefit of the doubt. Either that, or the site hasn't found its true voice yet.
The subjects of other Fire the Coach (or GM) sites rarely catch any breaks from readers or authors. Millen and Coker are in the crosshairs in article after article, post after post, as are dozens of college and pro coaches and execs from other teams and other sports. Fire the Coach sites have become ubiquitous on the Internet. They're part of the background noise of sports media, the angry cousins of hyper-enthusiastic fan blogs, the evolutionary next step up from sports talk radio. They are often funny, sometimes insightful, and more than occasionally cruel. For the fed-up fan, they're the web equivalent of smoky corner saloons: you'll find like-minded people there, but the atmosphere isn't exactly healthy.
"Fire-the-Coach Websites a Big Business" reads a USA Today headline from August. The article reports that a technology worker named "Doug" acquired 30 Fire Coach Blank domain names and planned to sell them for $250 each. Apparently, $7500 in revenue is now big business. I cannot wait for my high school hoagie sale to be listed in Forbes.
A blogger on the website Free Republic described the Fire The Coach webscape as it appeared in November of last year: a fire Mike Tice site, a Fire Mike Shula site, even a Fire Joe Torre site for impatient Yankee fans. Many of the sites listed in the Free Republic are now stubs, sites quickly assembled in a pique of rage but since forgotten.
(Yes, we know, Free Republic isn't normally a place filled with interesting sports discussions.)
Indeed, while "Greg" envisioned an Internet filled with firing sites and USA Today speculated that firing sites will become battlegrounds for college rivalries, there are only a few living, thriving Fire the Coach sites. Search the web, and you're likely to find more dead ends and parodies than sites of note.
For example, there are two Fire Bill Parcells "sites," although they are little more than domain names in limbo. One is exactly eight words long: "The Cowboys offense can't score? Fire the coach!" it proclaims. The other calls the legendary skipper a "glorified gym teacher" while hawking t-shirts, mugs, and a barbecue apron, all of which are sure to be collector's items. The sites are either the work of 10-year-olds or prankster Redskins or Eagles fans.
You would expect angry Eagles fans to have started a Fire Andy Reid movement, but the website is a tease: the owner of the domain name, like Doug, wants to sell it to you. Actually, there are thousands of Fire Andy advocates in the Delaware Valley, but most of them aren't smart enough to use computers.
There doesn't seem to be much traction behind the Fire Bill Belichick movement, but there is a site. It appears to be a parody. There's also an internet petition with 17 names on it, most of them probably Colts offensive starters. There's a Fire Sean Payton site, but it is clearly tongue-in-cheek, filled with optimism about the young coach's 3-1 start while admitting that the site "is a ticking time bomb, only we're not sure how much time is left."
It's hard for sites like these to really establish themselves. If the coach is new, fans wait before casting judgment. If he has a great track record, serious fans will write the site off. If a coach is really bad, he could be fired two days after the domain name is registered. The Fisher site, still in its infancy, may be irrelevant by season's end. The Coker and Millen sites are exceptions, and they're the work of exceptionally motivated individuals.
Michael McCune, webmaster of the largest Fire Millen site, was in the right place with the right idea at the right time. "I started the site in November," he said in a Too Deep Zone interview. "We had kicked the idea around for some time, but the firing of Mooch (former Lions coach Steve Mariucci) while Millen was getting a contract extension did not make sense to me, so I started the site. The next game, a fan was ejected from the Lions game for having a Fire Millen sign and it was caught on TV. From there, the Fire Millen movement blew up." Major media outlets reported on McCune's site, and he was soon getting over 3,000 visitors per game.
Like McCune, Chris David started his Coker Must Go site after an enough-is-enough moment at a game. "The loss that made me decide to start a site was the Peach Bowl this past year against LSU," David told me. "I was at the game and realized how many fans did not realize how bad of a coach Larry Coker was, and I decided to do what I could to get the word out." Traffic ebbs and flows at David's site, but after the Louisville loss the site received 16,000 hits. Like McCune, David had no problem finding kindred spirits among a fan base willing to fly Fire Coker banners over the stadium. "I like it," David said of the banner incident. "I think they got a lot more than they paid for as far as getting their opinion across."
Both McCune and David believe that their sites can have an impact upon team/university decisions. "I think (the site) gets people thinking about the issues with the team and the organization," McCune said. "And the more people are disappointed with the Lions, they will show that at the games. Pretty soon, (Lions owner) William Clay Ford will have to pay attention." David agrees. "The more that these higher-ups hear the dissatisfaction of the fans; the more likely they are to take action," he said.
(An aside: David's site advocates an anti-Coker letter writing campaign aimed at various university officials, including Miami president Donna Shalala. Inspired by the site, I attempted to write a letter, but I spelled Dr. Shalala's name incorrectly. Because of me, Bowser is unemployed.)
The Coker and Millen sites are rarities: interactive, constantly-updated blogs that don't degenerate quickly into obscene rants or childish name-calling. If Fire the Coach sites are truly a "field," then McCune and David are currently the giants of the field. McCune endorses and nurtures a smaller Fire Millen site by a different set of writers, this one with a Mitch Albom parody that's definitely worth a click. He is sometimes sought after for advice by others who hope to get a coach canned. "I say go big or go home," he tells would-be webmasters. "Make sure your site looks good and is updated frequently or you are just taking a good domain from someone who could do it better. Make sure to build up solid facts about why the person should be fired. Don't just say 'they suck.'"
McCune and David are the spiritual descendants of the pioneers who established the Fire Ron Zook and Fire Joe Paterno sites, the Plymouth and Virginia colonies of Fire the Coach sites.
The Zook site really started everything. A vicious weekly round-up of Zook's biggest mistakes, plus snarky poems and angry diatribes written by an anonymous Florida alumnus and fan, the site was the first fire blog to gain attention. In a USA Today interview, Zook said that some other coaches give him grief for starting the Fire the Coach phenomenon. Two years later, he's diplomatic about the phenomenon. "It's kind of ridiculous in a way that people get their kicks out of doing something like that," Zook said. "But I think coaches understand it's kind of the nature of the business."
Much of the Zook site is still around. You can still read anti-Zook haiku and a "12 Days of Christmas parody," plus plenty of insults to Zook's intelligence and character and the occasional detailed breakdown of a game. Ultimately, the site's author got his wish, and while his humor was sometimes mean-spirited, he picked a pretty easy target in the overmatched Zook.
The Fire Paterno guys tackled bigger prey, and for a time Fire Joe Pa tee-shirts could even be seen in Happy Valley (at one point, multiple sites advocated Paterno's dismissal). "This website is dedicated the Penn State Fans that care about their football team. We all have the prime of our careers, Joe's came a long time ago," declared the site on its opening page." But you know how this story ends: Paterno had a huge year in 2005, and suddenly the idea of calling out a venerable coach for a few down seasons sounded really ridiculous.
The Fire Paterno site is a ghost town now, but some of the archives survive. "I ask you, how do we cause the administration ... to step up and send Joe to the retirement home?" wrote one poster in November, 2004. There are other fossilized remains of reasonable dialogue and impassioned debate. Unfortunately, most of the archives that survive are from 2005, when most fans started hating the Joe Pa haters. Topics include "You people disgust me" and "You people make me embarrassed to be a human being." An Internet paleontologist can also find fragments of flame-wars against Ohio State fans and Florida fans (who accuse the Penn State guys of stealing the Fire Zook idea). It's all horribly childish, juvenilia masquerading as football talk. Hunt for the site's archives on an Internet wayback machine, and you'll often see a ghostly, ironic message from the site hovering atop an error page: "Sometimes, we stay longer than we should."
To truly appreciate what the collapsed remains of a Fire site looks like, visit the Fire Bill Cowher site. Yes, there was a Fire Cowher site; it probably stayed in business until the last eight minutes of Super Bowl XL. Many of the contributors to the site prefaced their comments with statements like "Listen, I'm not a Cowher hater, but..." Of course, that's like saying "I'm not racist" before going off on an Archie Bunker rant. On the site, Cowher was routinely referred to as "Cowterd." He's often belittled by obscene insults of all types ("THE BRAINLESS BLUNDER WILL NEVER WIN THE BIG GAME" one would-be prophet intones). Midway through the 2005 season, contributors were calling Ken Whisenhunt a "loser" and lamenting the fact that the Steelers could have hired John Fox as Cowher's replacement.
Keep in mind that all of this invective came on the heels of a 15-1 season. There was no pro-Cowher rhetoric in the site's main content, no grudging respect even for the team's exceptional postseason run last year. A gruff, all-caps final post states "Congrats to Bill Cowher for winning his first Super Bowl. The aggressive change in philosophy against the Colts and Broncos on offense took ... guts on Bill's behalf." One would think that true Steelers fans would celebrate a championship with more than just a few paragraphs.
He may not agree with opinions like those of the Fire Cowher authors, but McCune defends their right to express them. "It is a free country and if you want to say something, go for it." Both McCune and David say they will happily retire their sites when Coker and Millen are gone.
But neither sees much hope in backing the current regime. When asked how he would respond to a fan who said that the Fire Millen site might damage the team's efforts, McCune replied "I would ask that fan 'what hurts the Lions more: my website or Matt Millen?'" David won't even entertain the possibility that his site will be looked upon in a few years like the Paterno or Cowher sites. "Coker has already proven that he can't coach and he's proven to be an embarrassment for the University of Miami football program," David said when I asked him to entertain the possibility of a Paterno-like rebound at Miami. "There is no further evidence needed. He has had his opportunities to succeed here, and each year he has provided a worse product."
Fans have the right to criticize, and to develop websites and blogs critical of teams and coaches. Teams use the media to perform spin control and deflect blame when things go wrong. It's only fair that some fans unite behind firebrands like David and McCune to provide some backspin.
But after hours of browsing through old and new fire sites, I feel numb. There's a sameness to them, plus a negativity that goes beyond fan frustration. On site after site, you can read the same indictments over and over: he's not a creative play-caller, not a disciplinarian, not a motivator, not a good recruiter/drafter. It's talk radio boilerplate, and all you have to do is change the name of the coach from Zook to Coker to Paterno to Cowher to Shanahan. There's a dearth of specific football discussion on most of the sites: occasionally, a poor decision or bad recruit/draft pick is singled out, but most articles and posts have a thudding, drumbeat quality. We're angry. We won't stand for any more. We made tee shirts. Fire the Coach authors may perceive themselves as prophets in the football wilderness, but few of them really say anything.
And then there's the unwarranted meanness that crops up on so many sites. "Yes, these men ... are well-paid, and they're public figures who, as if it was in their job description, tolerate heckling in every imaginable form," wrote the blogger at Free Republic. "But I've been fired from a job more than once -- it's very painful." The blogger speculated that Fire the Coach webmasters are "colossal jerks ... the same people who cut into supermarket checkout lines." That's as harsh and unfair to people like McCune and David as many fire sites are to their coach subjects. But if people only know you from your angry Internet screeds, they may get the wrong impression about you.
Of course, McCune, David, and other Fire the Coach webmasters don't do anything I don't do. I criticize coaches, I often question their judgment, and I sometimes advocate their firing. Collect everything I've ever written about a certain 49ers offensive coordinator, and you could create a pretty scathing site. But I'm wary of stepping over the line of "tolerable heckling." David and McCune know the limit, too; the guys at the defunct Cowher site didn't. And any webmaster who courts the favor of his team's angriest fans is likely to get more than he bargained for: a letter-writing campaign may generate some positive publicity, but a rancorous message board can attract the wrong kind of attention.
That may be why so many Fire the Coach webmasters choose anonymity. The sites are all fun and games until someone makes one about you.
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