Welcome to NCAA: Fact or Fanatic, a biweekly column that puts college football fans’ chatter up against the stats to determine whether fanbase chatter ultimately rings true or if it’s a big pail of slop. Today we’re getting the slop jar ready for a fun investigation.
Prepare yourselves for a battle between trash-talking athletes and the stats. Fact or Fanatic reviewed 35 cases of trash-talking since 2013, and our findings were interesting, to say the least.
At this time of year, smack talk is everywhere—from forums devoted only to trashing your school’s biggest rivals to athletes’ social media and Media Days interviews. In our Tuesday column we referenced Florida CB Jalen Tabor’s unceasing barrage of banality against Gators rival the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Since then, Tabor’s said even more, backed up by comments from other Gators players and even a sly dig from Coach Jim McElwain at SEC Media Days. In fact, there’s so much chatter coming out of Gainesville directed at Rocky Top that you kind of have to wonder why the Gators are so fixated on UT. This has been going on since April, when Tabor kicked things off with:
prompting a infamously hilarious Twitter retort from 6’4”, 245 lb Vols RB Jalen Hurd:
It’s entirely possible that meeting in the secondary might end up looking a lot like this Tabor stop against Florida Atlantic last year.
Before that game, Tabor had remarked:
“All of those guys would love to be in our shoes, so they’re going to come out and give us their best shot.”
The great thing about trash-talking is that there is no gray area. You either eat your words (and a stiff arm) or you get to say, “I told you so.” Usually, an athlete who eats his words might be more circumspect about what he says in the future, but not Tabor. In fact, trash-talking UT seems to be an epidemic with the Gators this summer. At SEC Media Days, LB Jerrod Davis stated that:
“It’s always one of the funnest games of the year. Because we win.”
Coach Jim McElwain got in his own poke at the Vols according to a July 7, 2016 report from All For Tennessee:
Jim McElwain appeared to start it when asked if the Georgia Bulldogs were Florida’s biggest rival. But he said right afterward that Tennessee might have something to say about that. On the surface, an argument could be made that he was trying to throw respect to the Vols, but it came across as incredibly dismissive.
And during the NBA Championships, Tabor compared the (eventual champion) Cleveland Cavaliers to the team from Knoxville.
We could go on, but you get the gist.
So we started to ask ourselves: Is trash talk a good thing? Or does it backfire on the team doing all the talking? We decided to take a look at some infamous episodes of trash-talking to see if we could detect a pattern through an evaluation of the stats and W-L record. This way, we can gain a clearer picture of the effects on trash-talking with the teams as well as the individual players.
Has trash-talking resulted in wins in the past?
You never have to look far to find trash-talking in sports. Athletes jaw at each other all the time during games, a trend generated and popularized by Muhammad Ali’s antics back in the day. After all, is there any better example of trash-talking than Ali’s famous “That all you got, George?” during the rope-a-dope Rumble in the Jungle Heavyweight Championship of the World in 1974 Zaire?
(It was made much funnier by the interview where Foreman admitting thinking, “Yep, that’s about all I got.”)
Some all-time greats have been superb trash-talkers too. Bleacher Report published a hilarious story about the best all-time trash-talkers in sports, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Tim Duncan. Those stories are well worth the read. But those were professional athletes at the height of their game. Who was going to stop Michael Jordan from calling himself “Black Jesus” in 1987?
College athletics is a little different from professional sports. 2014 and 2015 were full of smack-talking athletes, coaches, and fans. Even a server in a restaurant learned that team pride has a dark side. Let’s take a look at some of the more infamous recent kerfuffles.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema learned a valuable lesson about smack talk when he called out B1G’s Ohio State on September 9, 2015 and boasted about the SEC’s strength of schedule:
“Ohio State has one game on the schedule against a ranked team, we have eight left on the schedule. To get through this conference, it’s unprecedented.”
Three days later, his ranked Arkansas Razorbacks were embarrassed when they lost to an Ohio school—not the juggernaut Buckeyes but an unranked MAC team, Toledo.
Auburn DB Rudy Moore had a lot to say about LSU’s Leonard Fournette heading into the teams’ 2015 game, offering the opinion that slowing down the Heisman-candidate running back “shouldn’t be that difficult.” Unfortunately for Moore and Auburn, Fournette rushed 19 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns, while LSU team-wide racked up 411 yards rushing.
Baylor DE Shaun Oakman set the trashcans to rattling before the Cotton Bowl matchup against Michigan State when he remarked:
“We don’t watch big Ten football. Why would we? It’s not interesting.”
It was a comment that definitely interested MSU in their come-from-behind 42-41 victory over the Bears.
“Who’s laughing now?” senior center Jack Allen said. “That guy can score as many touchdowns as he wants, he doesn’t have one of these.” He pointed to a new “Cotton Bowl Champions” hat that he was wearing.
Michigan State didn’t learn from that experience and dove into the trash bin themselves before their 2016 playoff game against Alabama. Despite their comments about hitting Heisman winner Derrick Henry “harder than he’s ever been hit” before, and that “Alabama’s defense is vulnerable to the deep pass,” they staggered home after a 38-0 shellacking.
Clemson followed that up by stating that the Alabama “brand” was the only reason the Crimson Tide was a seven-point favorite over them in the national championship game, only to lose 45-40 in one of the best title games in recent NCAA history.
Is Trash Talk Always a Negative?
Even though Clemson’s “brand” comments didn’t faze the Tide, allegedly Clemson DE Shaq Lawson hopped on the Oklahoma team bus before their playoff game and talked trash to the whole team. Lawson denies the report, but whatever he said (allegedly) got the Oklahoma players riled up enough to go after him at a subsequent event.
Oklahoma still lost.
Sometimes trash talk is just plain funny, as when a vine of Arkansas basketball player Dusty Hannahs’ gabbing at UK’s Ben Simmons before a (missed) free throw attempt went viral last year. Since Simmons was considered the best player in the country and UK lost 85-65, obviously that didn’t come back to smack Hannahs in the face.
Post-game trash talk can be inexplicable, though. Last year Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said six months after a 55-44 loss to Alabama in the 2014 Iron bowl:
“We should have put 60 on them…but we’ve got them at home this year.”
They lost 29-13 at home, by the way.
And Clemson players coming off their loss to Alabama in the title game felt they had “dominated” the Tide, as expressed by WR Charone Peake:
“We felt like we dominated the game…those couple two or three plays took over and kinda overshadowed our play. The scoreboard didn’t show it but I felt like we dominated the game.”
So What Does All This Mean?
A little trash-talking back and forth is entertaining for both athletes and fans. A little fun at your opponents’ expense makes the interminable days between games zip along a little faster. Plus, you have the fun of going after new victims each week, which keeps things interesting. And let’s be honest: Sometimes a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff is totally worth it after an awesome bit of revelry post-touchdown.
But sports aren’t just a matter of physical conditioning. Most closely contested games are decided by a mental edge, and bulletin board material affects that edge. Trash talk is a bit of psychological warfare, designed to make an opponent so focused on one player or aspect of the game that they make mistakes—and exploiting another team’s mistakes is a frequent path to winning.
But there’s a line that most coaches and players know better than to cross. A couple of comments here and there is one thing. A trash-talking long-term rant can be quite another. And for some reason, that line seems to be fairly easily drawn—and seen. For example, Alabama’s response to both the Michigan State and Clemson commentary drew similar responses from the team.
Regarding Michigan State:
Alabama players didn’t engage in a war of words but they quietly took note of everything the Spartans were saying.
“They talked a lot,” left tackle Cam Robinson said. “They talked a lot.”
Robinson and others used it as motivation in a 38-0 blowout win against Michigan State in the national semifinal game. Alabama had something to prove against the talkative Spartans, and wanted to send a message.
“We saw it,” defensive lineman D.J. Pettway said. “We don’t try to talk or nothing. We just play on the field and speak with our helmets.”
“We think it’s funny actually that teams even have the audacity to say some of the things they say,” Jones said. “It just provides extra motivation for us. The worst thing you can do is someone who is already self-motivated and already competitive like we are, is give them something extra to feed off of.
“We definitely used it to our advantage. They said some things we didn’t like, and it just motivated us to play harder.”
It’s not just football either, as West Virginia discovered to its cost in the 2015 Sweet Sixteen matchup against Kentucky. (By the way, read this article—it’s hilarious.)
I’m guessing WVU coach Bob Huggins would rather freshman guard Daxter Miles not have said what he said Wednesday.
“Salute to them getting up to 36-0,” Miles told reporters. All right. So far, so good. “But tomorrow they’re going to be 36-1. They’re going to be 36-1.”
As Gen. George Custer said before the battle of Little Big Horn: “Well, I guess the element of surprise is gone.”
We interrupt this column for a message that is signed by the other 14 programs in the NCAA Sweet 16 this season: “Hey. WVU. Please, shut the —- up. Okthx.”
There’s a definite theme playing through these responses—again, evidenced by UK players after their absolution annihilation of the Mountaineers 78-39 in the game.
“I don’t know why,” Andrew Harrison said. “Teams like to say stuff. We don’t like to get into all that. We just come out and play.”
“Not what we do,” sophomore Marcus Lee said. “You’re not going to hear a lot of guys in here talking.”
Admirable restraint. But don’t expect it to carry over to the basketball court. Willie Cauley-Stein said such talk “adds fuel to the fire.”
“Now I’m kind of juiced,” he said, upon hearing Miles’ comments. “This game is going to be fun. They made it kind of personal now.”
The teams that win don’t engage in the trash talk. Oh, they listen. They process what’s being said. They might even hang it up on their bulletin board. But they don’t hop right onto Twitter and let loose with a rant in response. And that right there is the fatal flaw of trash-talking between opponents. There’s a point where that crap stops being funny and Joe Frazier takes a swing at Muhammad Ali during a press conference.
And with a team sport, where the athletes are encouraged to strengthen their bonds and focus on their game plan, that additional mean Tweet dangling from the locker room bulletin board can translate onto the field into intensive play and enhanced concentration. In a close-matched game, “making it kind of personal” can create losses for the guy who’s just a little too fast to boast through his smart phone.
So what’s the verdict?
Well, to those of you who think trash-talking is a positive when your athletes engage in it, sorry. We’re calling this one fanatic, because only a crazy person is going to give a team that already hates your guts more motivation to win. Out of the 35 cases of trash-talking we examined since 2013, over 90% of the trash-talkers ended up losing to their opponents. Of course, there were some wins, but as a statistical evaluation the numbers seem pretty clear.
In the end, we don’t think the recipient is as affected by the smack talk as the talkers, who end up getting the backlash. When a team’s players and coaches are so focused on one opponent that they trash them throughout social and mainstream media for months in advance of their meeting, while their opponents refuse to respond and focus on other things, the mental edge goes to the team that refuses to play that game. And while a player running his jaw at top speed is great for quotes and sound bytes, all that jaw-running assigns energy to things other than improving his game.
And considering the constant stream of smack talk oozing out of Gainesville for the past few months, Gators fans might have reason to be concerned. While Tabor is making comments like this earlier this week:
Tennessee, they’ve got a good program, got a good coach, got a few good players. But at the end of the day, if you want to win the East, you’ve got to come through the Gators. Tennessee is one of those teams like no matter how much they get up on us, we just feel like we’re going to win that game at the end of the day. Through (the last) two years we’ve won by two points combined, so that just tells you the drive that we have to win the game. No matter what, no matter how many points they score, no matter how many yards they get, as long as we’re up by one point. I think we’ll do the same thing this year.
the attitude in Knoxville is different:
“We’re not gonna feed into that,” (Alvin) Kamara said. “We’re not too thirsty for attention.”
(Jalen) Reeves-Maybin said he prefers to let his play do the talking.
“Just play the game,” Reeves-Maybin said. “Play the game. Let it speak (for itself). You don’t see great players out there saying stuff like that. Just play.”
Notice any parallels here? We’ll just let that percolate a few days for any fanatics out there who aren’t convinced.