WINNIPEG—An interesting element of interviewing is watching how a subject's reaction to a question can change over the course of answering it. Sometimes, you ask a question that's initially considered strange or funny, but it leads to a notable answer in the end after they think about it a little more. That happened Wednesday at Montreal Alouettes' rookie head coach Dan Hawkins' press conference. Hawkins, of course, coached in the NCAA for years, most notably at Boise State and Colorado, but worked for ESPN as a college football TV analyst from 2010 until he took the Alouettes' job, replacing the NFL-bound Marc Trestman. That led me to ask him if he'd learned anything about football from working in television, and that led him to laugh at me. After that, though, he had some interesting things to say.
"Here's probably the biggest thing," Hawkins said. "There are a lot of things that go on in football, you talk about coaching and the Xs and Os. It's extremely detail-oriented. You spend a lot of time as a coach pouring over those details and trying to get them right, the footwork, the nuances. Sometimes those are things that people in media can't see, don't see, never will see. But there are also times when you're sitting up there in the booth, eating a hot dog and drinking your diet soda, that you're just going 'Why don't they give the ball to that guy more?!' Right?"
Hawkins went on to say that sometimes, that kind of overall insight can be missed by detail-obsessed coaches.
"So what you have is you have two similar paradigms, from a coaching standpoint and what's, you know, the casual [standpoint]. What's interesting [about TV work] is you see what the casual fan, the casual media person sees, because even though I know a lot of football, and I talked to the coaches before the games [he was working], you don't know every exact play, but you certainly know that on third down, they cannot protect the quarterback because the guy's back of his jersey is dirty, and you're wondering 'Why can't we do something in protection to protect the quarterback?' Now, again, in the coach's defence, it might be injuries, it might be situational, it might be experience, it might be a lot of other things, but I think that's the common ground where both coaches and media—I say need to come together, because they do! Sometimes the media and the fans see some things that are very obvious."
Hawkins proceeded to offer an example of how during his NCAA coaching career, his then five-year-old daughter saw the game in a way he didn't.
"My daughter was five years old when I was in coaching one year, and we had a tailback who was a tremendous player," he said. "We played this team that ran a particular type of defence, and I was scheming it up, I had every wrinkle in the book. I was doing this, I was doing that, I was over here, I was over there. We lost the game, and at the end of the game, my five-year-old daughter looks up and says 'Daddy, why didn't #34 get the ball more?' And I'm going, 'Well, you would be right.' But I had all this tricky stuff going, that we were going to do this and influence this guy and block this and get guys out over here and mess with them there, and probably what I should have done is made sure #34 got the ball a bit more. We probably would have been better off."
Hawkins said that's the overarching lesson he took away from his time in television, but it works the other way as well.
"Those are the things I think you see in TV, there are the obvious things that sometimes you miss," he said. "Like I said, there are other things from the coaching standpoint too that I think the media miss, because it can be a little more complicated sometimes."
Hawkins was then asked to repeat one of his earlier answers, as RDS' camera wasn't working initially, and he took that as a cue to argue that coaches should be given the occasional break too. He said that's another lesson he picked up from his time in TV.
"Okay, so you had a technical error today—do I get a mulligan tomorrow?" Hawkins asked jokingly. "That's the thing. We had an issue one game we were doing, we were getting lined up, ready to do the pre-game thing, and we met with the officials, the start time, the kick time. So I've got the guy [presumably the producer] in my IFB [earpiece] going 'Okay, here's what we're doing, here's what we're talking about.' And I'm watching them line up, and I go, 'Uh, they're going to kick.' 'Ah, no, no, no.' 'Yep, they're going to kick.' I go, 'You better...they're kicking!'"
Hawkins said the aftermath of that was particularly instructive about the similarities between television analysis and coaching.
"I met with our producer [afterwards], I say, 'How many times did you meet with those officials?' He said 'I called them, I sent this out, I did this and this.' 'How many times did you meet with the truck? So, after all that meeting, all that planning, all that organization, it still got messed up, right?' He goes, 'Yep.' I go, 'The same thing happens in coaching. So that's why I tease you about that."
Not every media member probably enjoys being compared to a five-year-old or a a screwup-prone producer, of course, but Hawkins does have a point. Mistakes happen in every field, so coaches shouldn't be the only ones taking criticism. Beyond that, though, his other point may be even more valuable: an outside perspective can sometimes help pinpoint things that are missed. Those lessons clearly paid off for Hawkins Thursday in any event, as his Alouettes beat the Bombers 38-33. Sometimes, even once-laughable questions can turn into the basis for something interesting...