“Let’s go to the phone lines. You’re on with Coach. Who’s there?”
“Hello, Coach. This is Mike from Milwaukee.”
“Hi, Mike! This is coach Barry Alvarez. What’s your question?”
Alvarez was happy to be getting any phone calls at all on his weekly radio show. This was 1990, his first season as Wisconsin, he would go 1-10, and interest was low. But Alvarez had time to fill on the weekly show, and here was Mike, keeping it positive.
“You can see the progress, there’s good coaching, we’re behind you 100 percent! Keep recruiting, keep bringing in good players, we know you’re going to do it!”
“Aw, that’s great, thanks so much, Mike!”
Only the caller’s name wasn’t Mike nor did he live in Milwaukee. He actually worked down the hall: It was Dan McCarney, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, doing his boss a solid. Ditto for caller “Wally from Waunakee,” who was actually Brad Childress, Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator. Both disguised their voices. And when they did their own shows, which had even less interest, their friends and family called in to fill the hour.
“We had drunk friends, my dad, some other people who would call into my show or Brad Childress’ show,” McCarney said. “We kept the interest going when there wasn’t a lot of interest early. You won’t read that in books, but it’s true. That happened.”
It was all part of the romance of a long-held college football tradition: the coach’s call-in show, where fans – or relatives – can interact directly with the coach, live on the radio. It has led to funny moments, cringe-worthy moments and confrontations, which is why fewer coaches are doing it.
But oh, the memories.
Tommy Tuberville, two decades before he became a U.S. Senator, appeared on his Ole Miss coach’s radio show amid speculation he was leaving for another job, and vowed: “They’ll have to take me out of here in a pine box.”
Two days later he left, voluntarily on a plane, for Auburn. Eventually he stopped taking fan calls and asked a fellow coach, Bob Stoops, why he was still doing it. Stoops took that advice to heart after one show during the 2012 season: Oklahoma had just lost to Kansas State, and the following Thursday came Stoops’ show, where calls were not screened. Stoops earlier had called out the home crowd, saying the team really needed the fans in it, a quote that a fan reminded Stoops about.
Fan: “I was just wondering, if we showed up, wondering what you thought about fan participation as opposed to player participation?”
Stoops: “What do you mean by that?”
Fan: “I thought we did our part. I was hoping you thought we did our part as well.”
Stoops: “I thought you fans were fabulous. (Pauses a beat.) And I’m proud of my players, whether you are or not. I thought our players played hard, I thought they played hard the entire night. They made some mistakes. So be it. And if you –”
Fan: “I’m a Sooner fan no matter what.”
Stoops: “What did you mean by player participation?”
Fan: “Mainly I was referring to I thought our fans were pretty loud most of the time.”
Stoops: “I acknowledge that and I agree with you totally. Now I didn’t understand your part you threw in about the players there. I thought our players played hard. And I’ll always back them up on that. OK, and I sure did the other night, whether you appreciate it or not. They did, and I’m sorry they made some mistakes.”
The host at this point interjected: “Thank you, Dewayne; we appreciate the phone call.”
The show never took live calls again.
Mark Stoops, the younger brother and Kentucky coach, was still taking calls during the 2016 season but may have regretted it one night.
As chronicled that night by Jon Hale in the Louisville Courier-Journal:
Bob in Florence criticized Stoops for hiring offensive coordinator Eddie Gran: “I don’t know what you all saw in him but I’m disappointed in what I’ve seen.”
William in Williamstown pointed out that Alabama was a 40-point favorite that week over Kentucky, adding: “My inclination is to take them based on what I know of American football.”
Darryl in South Williamson asked Stoops why “players aren’t getting better once they get to you.”
Benny in Carlton chimed in: “I’m sure you’re a good football coach and I think you’re going to do fine at some point, but personally I would love to see a Tommy Tuberville who’s already coached in the SEC come to Kentucky.”
Mind you, this was all after a Kentucky win, albeit only 17-10 over South Carolina.
“What am I going to do when I lose, Tom?” Stoops asked on air to host Tom Leach.
Stoops is still in his job, unlike Ed Orgeron, who was on the verge of being fired by LSU last October when a caller made a charged remarked, the producer hung up the phone and Orgeron sniped back: “Ya know, down in the bayou, we’ve got a nice little fishing hole for people like that.”
A couple of years ago, with Tennessee at 2-5 in December, a caller to Jeremy Pruitt’s radio show sneaked through the screener by saying he wanted to compliment Pruitt but instead ripped into him.
“When are you gonna admit you’re not a ball coach and go back to Alabama?”
Pruitt took it in stride: “Well, Phillip, you gotta know I am pretty hard-headed, right? So I do feel like there are things we can all improve on. I feel your frustration, man, I am with you, I am frustrated too.”
Sometimes it’s not callers who get confrontational: It’s fans who show up in person to air their grievances, as one Florida State fan did in 2017 amid the swirling reports that Jimbo Fisher was headed to Texas A&M. Fisher’s show was being held at the Sheraton in a crowded room where fan and local attorney Mike Tomkiewicz managed to get the microphone.
“Where is the loyalty to the program?” Tomkiewicz asked before the microphone was taken away from him. Fisher and co-host Gene Deckerhoff laughed as some fans jeered. The fan was physically ejected from the event, a man wearing a Florida State shirt shoving him several times toward the exit.
That man was the screener whom Tomkiewicz, as he later told FSU fan site Warchant.com, admitted that he told beforehand he wanted to ask about the bowl game. It was about 45 minutes into the show, and Tomkiewicz had gotten tired of softball questions not related to Fisher’s impending move.
“I thought it was bizarre as well,” Tomkiewicz said. “Are you going to Texas A&M, or are you not? If you’re going to Texas A&M, we really don’t need to have this call-in show. If you’re not going to Texas A&M, then let us know.”
Fisher later expressed regret that it happened: “The man asked a question, he deserved an answer. I’m sorry we did that.”
The moment almost served as Fisher’s going-away moment from the school he coached to a national championship. It was nine years after Fisher’s predecessor, Bobby Bowden, held a much happier call-in show to mark his retirement, which he did rather than hold a news conference.
Fisher’s show at Texas A&M is still in person, at a local barbecue joint, but with a tougher screening process: Fans put written questions into a box and then are selected.
Not all memorable interactions are confrontational. Some are funny: Back in the 1980s, Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly called his head coach Johnny Majors’ radio show, only Kelly disguised his voice. Kelly asked Majors if he could talk about Corey Booker. Majors took a second, covered his microphone and asked the host: “Who is Corey Baker?”
“Fullback,” the host whispered back.
And Majors went back on air with a nice, long soliloquy on how well Corey Baker was doing and what a bright future he had.
When the callers are actual fans, sometimes the questions are really good. Sometimes they are not, but as annoyed as the coach and host may be they have to pretend not to be. When McCarney took over Iowa State’s head coach, he would do the show in his office on Monday nights with play-by-play voice Pete Taylor. This meant that when they wanted to make fun of a call, they could exchange looks.
“Some of them were fantastic and fabulous and accurate and really good questions. And some of them were like: You’ve gotta be kidding me, honestly?” McCarney said. “But you’ve got to answer them and try to be professional. Sometimes there were some hand gestures and facial gestures over there by Pete Taylor that I’d have to try to keep a straight face, be professional, answer questions. When there’s just the two of us, you can get away with that stuff.”
The show eventually moved to a local Applebee’s, and McCarney had to keep things polite in front of a live audience.
“Not everybody can be a radio announcer, not everybody can be a banker, not everybody can be a doctor, not everybody can be a real estate salesman. But everybody can coach,” McCarney said. “And you better understand that when you get into coaching or you better get your ass out of there.”
Former Georgia coach Jim Donnan enjoyed the back-and-forth with callers but acknowledges now that at times he could be impatient. There was one game when the tight ends had caught six passes, and a caller nonetheless asked why the Bulldogs didn’t throw to the tight ends.
“Did you go to the game?” Donnan asked. The answer was no.
Another caller asked Donnan if the Bulldogs practiced blocking and tackling.
“What do you do?” Donnan replied.
The fan replied that he was an accountant.
“Well, do you use a calculator?” Donnan remembered replying. “Sure, we practice blocking and tackling!”
“I shouldn’t have said either one of them,” Donnan says now. “But it’s just how ridiculous the questions are sometimes. But at the same time, it gives them access to the coach, and they want to talk to the coach, and I understand it.”
Still, it made an impression on Donnan.
“I had several chances to go someplace (after Georgia), and I told my agent, under no circumstances do I want a radio call-in show contract,” he said.
Mark Richt, who replaced Donnan, did live calls throughout his 15 years at Georgia, and once changed part of his gameday routine because of a fan call. He was asked during the 2010 season why he didn’t ever lead his team out of the tunnel; Richt honestly had never thought about it, but agreed on the spot to do it and did it the following Saturday and afterward.
Kirby Smart then replaced Richt and ended the live call format. He’s not alone, as more coaches have moved to formats where questions are submitted via social media. Most Big Ten radio shows are done that way now, according to Skip Mosic, the longtime host of the Ohio State show.
Mosic has plenty of stories of Buckeyes fan calls through the years, especially the John Cooper years. (“He loved it. He loved interacting with the fans, both the good and the bad.”) Such as the one week when Cooper, because of a scheduling conflict, agreed to take calls after the game, and it happened to be when Ohio State lost to Michigan (again) on a last-second field goal. And Cooper took two hours of phone calls from a riled-up, frustrated fan base.
“They were just going in and giving him heck for two hours,” Mosic said.
Going away from live calls may seem like a way for coaches to duck tough questions, but there are other practical reasons. Ohio State phased out calls in large part to get a broader range of participants, rather than those able to call in at a certain hour – and some of those callers were trying to use the show to create their own characters.
“It was like, C’mon man, really?” Mosic said. “It took away from what we were trying to do. Ask a question, if you’ve got a legitimate question, that’s fine.”
The romance of live calls is you never know what’s going to happen. But you actually get a better show without it, according to Mosic, because most fans listening want information and insight, rather than the car-crash elements.
But there is at least one prominent coach who continues to embrace it: Nick Saban still takes fan calls and adds another touch: Each week a different media member is invited on to ask three questions, at the start, middle and end of the show.
“It’s a good way for me to see some of the media people that are actually hosts on the show,” Saban said. “I get to know them a little bit better. “They see a little different side of me. I see a little different side of them.”
Saban, so well-known for his intensity and need for control, seems at his most relaxed at the show, which is usually at a local restaurant. He signs autographs during commercial breaks. He’s candid with fans, says broadcaster Chris Stewart, who has co-hosted before and will this season too. The show is on Thursday nights, when practice and game-planning are essentially done for the week.
“That’s the one time that he kind of takes a deep breath,” Stewart said. “And it’s really a popular show not just because it’s him, but because he’s really good at it.”
It helps that Alabama fans usually don’t have much to complain about. But there have been moments, such as during the 2015 season, after a loss to Ole Miss.
“Sometimes you get a bad call, but sometimes we deserve a bad call,” Saban said. “Sometimes I don’t think we did very well either. … I’m not offended by people who call in. I think it’s an opportunity for them to approach me and for me to have respect for them and how they support the program.”
(Top photo of Nick Saban: Courtesy of Kent Gidley / Crimsontidephotos)