COMMENTARY

George O'Leary's snub of Sentinel hurts everyone

Silent Knight's snub is hurting everyone

A few years ago, I shredded Bobby Bowden.

Absolutely destroyed him in a column after he wrote a letter to a judge on behalf of Michael Gibson, a deranged serial rapist who once played briefly for Florida State.

Bowden was said to be livid about the column, as were Florida State's fans and administration.

And you know what happened the next time I saw Bobby Bowden? He came up to me, patted me on the butt and said, "Hey, buddy, how you doin'?"

George O'Leary, if he is an astute football coach (and he is), will tear a prudent page from Bowden's media-relations playbook. He will come to realize that boycotting the Orlando Sentinel, the only media outlet that covers his UCF team at every home and away game, is just not a smart move.

Nobody has been more criticized in recent years than Bowden. Not only has he seen his program plummet from the nation's elite, he has endured a player's death, an academic scandal and a gambling scandal, and even saw his son Jeff portrayed as the village idiot by fans and media. Even though some of the coverage was hurtful, Bowden has continued to be accessible and affable.

"I've always believed in the media -- I've always believed that you can't succeed unless you have good things written about you or at least something written about you and your team," Bowden told Sentinel reporter Andrew Carter earlier this week. "That's why I've always tried to be real cooperative to the press."

When told O'Leary is not talking to the Sentinel, Bowden was typically frank. "If you win all the games, it doesn't make a difference. But you better win. You better win."

The thing is, this is a lose-lose situation for everybody. For the Sentinel. For O'Leary. And for UCF's players, fans and sponsors. It's certainly understandable that O'Leary is upset about the Sentinel's aggressive investigative coverage in the wake of the tragic death of UCF freshman football player Ereck Plancher. Nobody in sports likes to be scrutinized and second-guessed.

NASCAR boss Mike Helton didn't like the Sentinel's coverage of Dale Earnhardt's death. Steve Spurrier didn't like the critiques written about him by former Sentinel columnist Larry Guest. Former Florida coach Charley Pell didn't like the coverage given to him by every newspaper in the state when he was running roughshod over the NCAA rulebook 25 years ago. And did anybody get criticized more than Ron Zook?

But you know what? None of these men boycotted an entire newspaper.

UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble is scheduled to meet with O'Leary about the Sentinel situation when he gets back from vacation in a few days. Tribble and UCF President John Hitt need to impress upon O'Leary that public relations and dealing with the media is part of a job that pays him more than $1 million a year.

"We're committed to working with Coach O'Leary on his concerns and coming up with an amicable solution," says Joe Hornstein, UCF's assistant athletic director for communications.

Hopefully, this will happen soon because UCF's national image is taking a beating. It would be one thing if O'Leary's decision only affected the coach personally, but this reflects upon the entire university.

CBSSports.com national college writer Dennis Dodd penned a critical column about O'Leary's Sentinel boycott and refers to UCF as "oafish" and "amateurish." Matt Hayes, the college football columnist for The Sporting News, says, "In the long run, O'Leary is only hurting his team, and his team should be his No. 1 priority."

Memphis Commercial-Appeal sports writer Ron Higgins, president of the Football Writers Association, can't believe O'Leary is willing to risk his program's reputation over a personal dispute.

Don't kid yourself, this controversy could have a definite impact on recruiting. Big-time college football recruits want exposure and they want to be noticed. O'Leary's refusal to talk to the Sentinel and his refusal to allow his players to talk is eliminating a major part of that exposure. It won't be long before South Florida Coach Jim Leavitt starts telling recruits, "Why would you go to UCF? The local paper doesn't even cover them."

Says Higgins incredulously: "You're in a state that has the Heisman Trophy winner, the winningest coach of all time, a Miami program that is still a national name and an up-and-coming South Florida program -- and you're not talking to the only newspaper that covers you? George O'Leary's program needs all the exposure it can get. At this rate, UCF is going to be on Page D8 next to ads for the all-nude dance club."

O'Leary is way too smart to let this happen.

He's been around too long.

He's worked too hard.

Everybody knows a college coach's No. 1 priority is to win.

Hopefully, George O'Leary will soon realize he has created a situation where nobody can.


Mike Bianchi can be reached at mbianchi@orlandosentinel.com.

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