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Leadership issues are all relative

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- You know what? I've had it about up to here with leadership. And the whole Geno Smith/Dana Holgorsen/Rex Ryan flap is only one example.

It's a great one, to be sure. But it's still only one.

Yes, this is a rant. Sorry, but every once in a while we need to rant. I've needed to let loose with this one for a while. Years, in fact.

I was just saying to a colleague the other day during the daily interviews that take place during West Virginia's football camp that if I hear one more question asked of a player or a coach about leadership I might just melt down and throw something.

"How is the leadership on this year's team.''

"Who are the leaders on the team?''

"Are you trying to be more of a leader this year?''

I swear, I'm not making this up: I've heard first-year junior college transfers asked that.

It's an easy question that provokes, almost universally, the same answers. They're stock answers, too; so much so that they come right out of the PR 101 talks that players are coached to give before they first meet with the media. And yes, they are coached on how to answer questions before they first meet with the media.

And here's why it's an easy answer and a stock answer: It's non-specific. For the most part, no one gets hurt.

"I'm trying to be more of a leader this year.''

"I think the upperclassmen are doing a great job of being leaders.''

"Yeah, I think the leadership this year is better.''

It's a positive spin on something that can't possibly be gauged. It says nothing and reveals even less. It's a concept more than anything else, at least in terms of relating it to outsiders.

Yes, occasionally it might deal in specifics. Every team has a handful of guys you just know are leader types. Sometimes they're the loud and gregarious ones who are the same inside the locker room as they are out of it. They're easy to spot. You know the type.

And there are the quiet ones. How many times have you heard someone talk about leading by example? First to arrive, last to leave, nose to the grindstone. Setting an example.

The trouble is, we've grown so enamored of these leadership questions that after a while people start reading things into those stock answers. Maybe they're reading it right. But it's just as likely they aren't.

Is leadership important? Of course it is. But if a player talks about a lack of leadership last year, he's usually just trying to reinforce the strength of leadership this year in order to satisfy the onslaught of questions about the subject. Yes, if Dustin Garrison talks about a lack of leadership last year or Quinton Spain refers to more of a team concept as opposed to high-profile individual stars - as both have - maybe they're talking specifically about now-departed players. But it's just as likely they are merely framing their answers. You can't, after all, talk about improved leadership without on some level implying that last year's wasn't as good.

And that's an easy answer at West Virginia given last year's meltdown.

But the bottom line is that any positive answer to the mind-numbing proliferation of questions about improved leadership this year is going to naturally call into question prior leadership.

Ever heard anyone prior to a season say, "Oh, no, our leadership this year sucks. It was much better last year.''

Didn't think so.

The same, of course, applies to coaches, who get the same leadership questions the players do. The hope of public relations staffs universally is that the coaches handle the questions better - or at least as well as - the players. Sometimes that doesn't happen.

Which brings us to the Smith/Holgorsen/Ryan flap. Holgorsen recently addressed the issue of leadership by saying, "It was a big issue on last year's team, and I mean an issue in a bad way.'' The immediate assumption was that he was talking about Smith, last year's quarterback, who has been hounded by the leadership question for months.

Maybe he was talking about Smith specifically. Maybe he wasn't. But when the questions about Smith's work ethic and leadership came up before the NFL draft, Holgorsen did nothing but defend his former quarterback.

Truth be told, that Holgorsen would refer to leadership last year as "a big issue . . . in a bad way'' isn't exactly the most PR-savvy quote of the year. Then again, Holgorsen isn't exactly the most PR-savvy coach out there, either. There are times he tends to open mouth and insert foot.

In fairness, though, the "issue in a bad way" line was only a small part of a much longer answer to one of those rare leadership questions he's fielded this month that didn't seem trite. He was asked how important the issue of developing leadership was and, given that he still hasn't picked a starting quarterback, does it necessarily have to be the quarterback?

His full answer:

"We've talked a lot about that with our group and started our meeting [the day before camp began] with that very subject. What defines a leader? What's the definition of a leader? You can't find it. It's not in any book, it's not in any dictionary, it's not the same every year. What I've told our guys is, 'Yeah, we've got to develop leadership, that's for certain.' It was a big issue on last year's team, and I mean an issue in a bad way. We need to develop it and we need to find out who the guys are we can count on.

"Everybody in the whole room, everybody on the team, everybody who's practicing right now - coaches and players - have the capabilities to be a leader. It starts with being able to lead yourself and do everything right on and off the field, and then you've got to get yourself in position to make plays. And once you've got the opportunity to make plays, then leaders sort of step up and make those plays.

"Does it have to be a quarterback? Naturally it kind of takes place that way, yeah. It doesn't have to be. I told all three of those quarterbacks, 'You're not going to be in any leadership groups with me' just because they've got other things to worry about right now.''

He went on to talk specifically about the three quarterbacks fighting for the starting job in camp and that they had other things to worry about besides leadership issues. When he was done, I asked him about that singular "issue'' quote that couldn't help but stand out and if he would like to expound on it.

"I don't want to expand on it. I've said for a while that we're not going to talk about 2012,'' he said. "We have lessons that we can take from 2012 that we talked about with our team. I'm not going to go into detail on that, but there are some examples that happened throughout the course of the year on a variety of people - a variety of people - that we could take those lessons and [say], 'We don't want to see that happen this year.' '

And then that the singular quote rocketed to the New York media, where Smith is in the New York Jets camp, and to Ryan, his new coach there. That Ryan bungled the leadership question where it came to Smith - "It tells me I'm glad my kid never went there,'' he said of WVU - just once again goes to show that a lack of PR savvy isn't confined to a college coach in Morgantown.

Again, though, the bottom line is that this whole thing is driven by the media's ridiculous infatuation with talking about leadership. Ask about it once, sure, or in specific cases. These days, though, when intelligent questions escape the mind, the fallback seems to be asking about the rather abstract concept of leadership. Ask it enough and eventually the answer might cause some commotion, which obviously it now has.

If you ever hear me utter the L word, though, please shoot me.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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