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Coach’s flare-up shows challenges of student journalism

Graphic illustration titled "Trash Talk" for the sports desk depicting different sports equipment
(Graphic illustration by Rachel Macias | The Collegian)

Editor’s Note: All opinion content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

On Jan. 23, Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski, commonly referred to as Coach K, lashed out at a student journalist in a post-game press conference. This minor outburst caused some controversy on Twitter and quickly spread like wildfire over social media. While Coach K’s actions that night were unexpected, the whole scenario brought to light how nerve-wracking it can be as an amateur reporter when you are talking to individuals that often appear larger than life. 

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Learning how to refill deflated confidence and getting out another question is imperative to learning and sometimes there is no better way to do so than getting thrown into the deep end.”

Jake Piazza, a Duke student reporter for The Chronicle, asked the question, “I’m just curious as to what the next step forward here is for the team as you guys move into another week of basketball?” after Duke lost 70-65 to the University of Louisville. Coach K was “not into what our next step forward is right now” and wanted to “just evaluate this game.”

Coach K then began to question Piazza on the major he is studying and retaliated with — dare I say it — somewhat of a childish response, asking how Piazza would feel if he had a tough test and people asked his next steps for that class. However, Coach K’s tone does ease up a bit near the end of the interview, pleading for empathy and “time to evaluate this game.” 

Again, Piazza’s question was extremely reasonable and likely just one variation of a question Coach K has heard a million times. You can answer a question right 1,000 times, but sometimes that 1,001st time you slip up a bit, and that’s exactly what happened here.

The reason this incident resonated with me is that it illustrates one of my biggest fears of sports reporting, especially when I was new to it.

The first time I covered a football game at Colorado State University, I was extremely nervous to speak up and ask a question to former head coach Mike Bobo after a loss. I spent the entire fourth quarter preparing questions and rehearsing them in my head for every possible outcome as the post-game press conference edged nearer.

“Is this a stupid question? Is he going to understand what I’m trying to say? Are the other reporters going to laugh at me or think I’m dumb? Is my voice going to crack or am I going to fumble the words?” All of these questions ran wild through my head.

There are a million examples on social media of a reporter asking a ridiculous question and getting lectured by a player or coach. You never want to be on the receiving end of a player’s or coach’s outburst, but unfortunately, it is not a case of if but when this happens.

When this happens, of course, it is not necessarily a negative experience. Yes, it can be embarrassing when you are surrounded by media professionals, but not every interview is going to go well, and that is an important aspect of journalism to learn early on. Experiencing an angry source at a developmental stage of reporting can prepare reporters for the real world or other intense interviews. Mistakes are going to occur in interviews, and that is okay. Learning how to refill deflated confidence and getting out another question is imperative to learning and sometimes there is no better way to do so than getting thrown into the deep end.

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In this instance, the reporter did not ask a ridiculous question and still got lectured. Piazza actually asked a pretty positive question instead of hurling negativity at Coach K when he was already down — a current problem in the sports reporting world. Yes, I am talking to you beat writers berating 19-year-olds after a tough loss.

I cannot speak for Piazza and I will not try to decipher his thought process — he does a great job of that in a recent column he wrote. But I’m sure some of the same nervousness was rolling around his head when trying to speak to the legendary Coach K.

We often see athletes and coaches as mythical beings and hold them on a pedestal of perfection. I understand the influence they have, and they need to portray themselves and their organizations positively to avoid trouble. However, athletes and coaches are still human with the same emotions as everyone else. How many times have we had a difficult day and accidentally said something snappy to one of our friends, parents or significant others?

The less popular headline from the situation was Coach K calling Piazza to apologize shortly after, something Coach K did not need to do. He’s been in the business long enough to know that people will publicize his lash out far more than his apology.

“Our call was short, but the sincerity in his apology was genuine,” Piazza wrote in his column. “And in the end, I appreciated the call.”

The incident is a perfect example of someone doing everything right but it still not working out. Student reporters are still learning and practicing their craft in these postgame interviews. New reporters building up the courage and fighting through the intimidation and nervousness to get out those first questions is difficult — more for some than others.

Tyler Meguire can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @TMeguire.

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