John Clay

Brooks knows how to play blame game

A Monday morning quarterback shot yours truly an e-mail this week complaining that Rich Brooks puts too much blame on the players when his team loses, while not pointing a finger back at himself.

"How come it's everybody else's fault but his when he loses?" came the electronic missive. "Who's the coach, and how long has he been working with these guys before the season?"

Coach as critic is a ticklish situation, a we-can-knock-our-own-family-but-don't-you-dare-try deal.

The Kentucky coach flipped out, and rightly so, when the home fans booed quarterback Mike Hartline's appearance in the second half of the Norfolk State game. (The boo-birds wanted more Randall Cobb.) Yet I've heard more than a few wonder why it is wrong for the ticket-buying public to voice its opinion, but a-OK for Brooks to deliver his own blunt-speak.

Truth is, some can pull off the blame-the-players approach, some can't. Adolph Rupp could do it. To hear The Baron tell it, he never lost a game. It was always the "boys" who let down the Commonwealth. Other coaches, less successful ones, don't have the same cachet. The number of their defeats affects their ability to shirk the blame.

To me, Brooks can pull it off. His frank assessments don't sound mean-spirited or blame-game. They own a more inclusive quality. When he's lamenting, as he did Monday, that the UK safeties have to play better than they did at Alabama on Saturday, there's a "we" quality, though unspoken, in there somewhere.

The feeling is Brooks is grousing as much about his own lack of success as he is the lack of success by the particular person or unit on the other end of his ire. He just wants them to do better, play the way he knows they are capable of playing.

(This might not be the best week to judge, however. Brooks has been grumpy on back-to-back days, at both his Monday press luncheon and his Tuesday after-practice appointment with reporters. You know what that mood ring means. Big game ahead.)

And maybe my aging memory bank is going the way of Lehman Brothers, but I don't recall an overabundance of the head man saying, "We've coached them on what to do, they're just not doing it."

Nor does Brooks subscribe (Hallelujah!) to the art of talking but never really saying anything, as employed by many of today's coaches. It's the Bill Belichick strategy. Give 'em name, rank and serial number. Nothing more.

Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis is a nice guy with a disarming smile, but his press conferences are as productive as his team's win total. Listen to Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville. He addresses questions, but rarely answers them. At the end of the interview, the reporter's notebook is filled with hollow scribbles. You learn little.

True, Brooks' counterpart this Saturday takes a different approach. Steve Spurrier is a study in visor-tossing frustration on the field, chewing the ears off his revolving door of quarterbacks. Watching the sideline reactions of the Ol' Ball Coach, it's easy to tell where he thinks fault lies.

In public, however, Spurrier takes a different tack. "We've just got to coach them up better," he'll say with a shrug. Or, "I've got to come up with some better plays," as a way of taking the criticism off his players and placing it directly onto his broad back, even if no one believes it.

It's a matter of style — different strokes for different folks. Sincerity is what ultimately matters. To me, Brooks' authenticity is the saving grace behind his sometimes caustic comments. He's not scapegoating anyone. He's giving an honest answer, as he sees it. Like it or lump it, as they used to say.

These days, there's a lot to be said for that.