IOWA CITY — You’ve just seen your 100-plus hours worth of work during the week go up in flames because something didn’t go as planned.
The 100-plus hour symphony you conducted during the week just got horrible reviews from the scoreboard. You’ve lost the game.
OK, now go shake hands.
As much as they might enjoy the Gatorade bath, the postgame handshake is on the football coach’s job description. It’s unwritten, but it is ritual. Win or lose, the football coach — photographers backpedaling all around him, law enforcement at both flanks — can’t leave his counterpart hanging.
Even if it’s just a drive-by handshake, made without breaking stride or making eye contact, it’s part of the deal.
“Guys have their differences or whatever, but this is still one of the great team sports that we have in this country,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “Sportsmanship is important and it’s a big part of it. Yeah, we all want to rip each other’s heads off on game day and everything else, but to not have the respect for your opponent in the competition, I think is wrong.”
This is a topic because you’ve seen a few nearly full sprint, blind hand-pump thingies in the Big Ten this season.
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz gave Ohio State’s Urban Meyer the nano-second hand whisper after the Hawkeyes fell, 34-24, at Columbus, Ohio. Last week, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien put out an Academy Award-caliber performance when he recomposed himself just enough to get through a grip-and-run with Meyer in the wake of the Nittany Lions’ historic 63-14 defeat at OSU.
“It just seems like everybody tries to read a lot into it,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to hug people or shake hands. I really don’t know what the protocol is. I can just tell you this, me personally, I think it’s uncomfortable before a game to talk to an opponent, because we’re both thinking about the same thing. Our team wants to beat their team; their team wants to beat ours.
“After the game, what do you say? If you win, what do you say? If you lose, what do you say?”
Sometimes, the message within the handshake is fairly obvious. The handshake has been, throughout history, considered a show of mutual respect. And sometimes they are provocation, an act of disrespect. Late in Penn State’s loss at OSU, Meyer challenged the spot of the ball late in the third quarter. The Buckeyes held a 56-7 lead at the time.
“I think it’s important to . . . go across the field and say ‘Good game’ to the opposing coach,” O’Brien said. Asked if he finds it difficult to find the composure to take that walk and shake that hand, O’Brien said, “No, I don’t find it very tough at all, no. With all due respect to your question, I think we’re talking about a lot of nothing right here.”
OK, we didn’t say O’Brien won the Academy Award.
Earlier this school year, the Kentucky High School Athletics Association issued a directive that told teams not to participate in organized postgame handshake lines/ceremonies. It cited more than two dozen incidents in the past three years where fights and physical conflicts have occurred after games.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz almost came to blows after an emotional 49ers’ victory in 2011. Harbaugh got lost in the moment and gave Schwartz kind of a slap-shake and then a backslap.
The slap fights are few and far between, but gain a huge amount of attention when they happen.
“Ultimately, there’s a lot of emotion and at the end it can be a little uncomfortable at times,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “I think it’s a big part of sportsmanship for the kids and coaches should have the same sportsmanship.
“But what do you say? Really? Someone won and someone lost. It’s a simple handshake in my mind and move along and good luck the rest of the way. That’s what it comes to.”
What do you say?
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years here and three at Maine and I still have not found a good thing to talk about before or after a game,” Ferentz said. “If I were commissioner of sports, I’d say let’s share our fellowship at meetings. . . .
“Everybody wants to read in who likes who. Sally’s dating Joey and all that stuff. It’s all silly stuff. I’m not thinking about that, I just want to get the hell in the locker room. Win, lose or draw, I want to get in the locker room and be with our team, period. Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s how I feel.”
Some Big Ten coaches see a bigger picture. They know they’re sending a message, and they want to make sure it’s a message that resonates.
“It’s the greatest team game in the world and it’s been here long before I started in it 30 years ago,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’ll be played and part of American society long after I’m gone.
“I believe in respecting the game and part of that is respecting your opponent. We’ve gotten our fannies whipped in four games in a row. We teach our guys to put your helmet on, walk across the field and shake the team’s hand that you just competed against. That’s respecting the game.”
Every coach puts in the 100-hour week. When the best-laid plans go up in jet-sweep smoke, the winning coach knows that the loser punched the clock as much as he did.
“It’s a mutual show of respect for what we do professionally,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s very difficult to win a football game at any level. It’s extremely hard and you represent a lot of people. Everybody has a tough job and there’s a respect for doing the job.”
Coaches plan the details down to what time the team gets off the bus, what time it has its Friday night snack. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has a script and sticks to that.
“At the end of the day, whatever happens good or bad, it’s not the other coaches fault,” Pelini said. “I always take the notion wish them well for the rest of the year. Whatever happens that day, you wish them well for the rest of the year and that’s about it.”
It doesn’t have to be a vise grip. Eye contact really doesn’t matter, either. It’s understandably uncomfortable. It’s a public handshake. History is filled with awkward public handshakes. Plus, maybe one of the coaches is passing a virus to the other. They probably don’t carry Purell.
Some middle school dances have less clumsy choreography. Still, for all of that, the handshake remains part of the ritual and it always will.
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